It has been 34 years since nine members of the radical group MOVE were convicted for the 1978 murder of Philadelphia police officer James J. Ramp during a police seizure in Powelton Village, and four years since eight members of the original MOVE 9 — Debbie Sims Africa, Janet Hollaway Africa, Janine Philips Africa, Williams Philips Africa, Delbert Orr Africa, Michael Davis Africa, Charles Sims Africa and Edward Goodman Africa — became eligible for parole.
The ninth member, Merle Austin Africa, died in prison in March 1998.
And depending on who is telling the story, the MOVE 9 are either guilty as charged, or a symbol of an oppressive judicial system hell-bent on silencing its critics and stamping out left-wing revolutionaries.
“Charles Africa’s parole hearing is coming up, and Debbie saw the parole board in June and was denied,” said MOVE spokesperson Ramona Africa. “The issue MOVE has is the demand for MOVE people to ‘take responsibility for the crime.’ MOVE people did not kill Ramp; we were in our own home when we were surrounded by thousands of cops. We didn’t go to [former Mayor Frank] Rizzo’s house, and we didn’t go to [former Police Commissioner Joseph F. O’Neill’s] house; they came to our house and attacked us in warlike fashion.”
Ramp was killed by a shot to the back of the head, and all members of the MOVE 9 were convicted of third degree murder.
The August 8, 1978, shooting of Ramp was the culmination of several confrontations MOVE had with the police department, and a chilling precursor to the infamous May 1985 Osage Avenue clash that resulted in a bomb being dropped on MOVE’s Osage Avenue compound, which led to the death of 11 people, including MOVE founder John Africa, and the decimation of several city blocks containing 65 homes.
Ramona Africa contends that “MOVE people didn’t kill anybody,” and believes there are holes in the theory that points to her organization as the culprits.
“If officials really believed MOVE killed Ramp, they wouldn’t have demolished the scene of the crime — but they demolished it within hours,” Africa said. “There should never have even been a trial once [the city] demolished the scene — that’s destroying evidence, leaving MOVE with no way to adequately defend itself.”
Africa contends MOVE 9 opted for a bench trial in front of late trial Judge Edward Malmed because the group didn’t want to appear before a slanted jury. But that decision came at a price.
“The burden was put squarely on the shoulders of Malmed, who is supposed to be learned in the law, objective and sworn to simply follow the legality that dictates procedure,” Africa said. “The judge did not do that, because if he had, he would have dismissed the case because of destruction of evidence.
“After the trial, Malmed convicted nine of my family members of third degree murder and conspiracy,” Africa continued. “And that is a contradiction. If he’s saying they conspired to kill a cop, wouldn’t that be first degree and not third? There are numerous inconsistencies here that clarify that my family was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 100 years, not because they committed any crime or any officials believe they did, but because they are MOVE people and committed revolutionaries.” Africa also contends that MOVE member and current life sentence prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal once asked Malmed to name the person responsible for Ramp’s murder, and Malmed allegedly responded that he hadn’t the faintest idea.
Officials with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole wouldn’t comment further than confirming the hearing dates, and the minimum and maximum time each member must serve. While all remaining MOVE 9 members have been denied parole at their most recent hearing, two were denied parole for curious reasons. Edward Goodman Africa was denied due to a negative recommendation by the Department of Corrections, while Michael Davis Africa was denied due to his “denial of offenses committed,” according to parole board spokesperson Leo Dunn.
“Most people know, if nothing else, that in order to convict someone, whether judge or jury, you have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Africa, who has been denied visitation rights with her incarcerated family members, despite being out of jail herself for 20 years and has had a clean criminal record since her 1992 release. “Judge Malmed, obviously, was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The fallout from the 1985 bombing of MOVE’s compound resulted in former Mayor W. Wilson Goode authorizing a commission to investigate the decision-making of officials involved, and make recommendations on ways to avoid such confrontations in the future.
Africa contends that both the mayor and district attorney’s offices aren’t adhering to the commission’s suggestion of keeping open the lines of communication.
“For a little over a month now, we’ve been trying to get a meeting with [District Attorney] Seth Williams and Mayor Michael Nutter to discuss the issues pertaining to my family,” Africa said. “Nutter is the mayor of this city and needs to know what’s going on. We are not going to allow him to feign ignorance; we want to meet them.
“We want to meet with Williams because as district attorney he has authority over any criminal case, and because he gave a negative recommendation as district attorney to the parole board,” Africa continued. “Seth Williams doesn’t even know my family, as he was just a kid in 1978.
“The thing is that commission Wilson Goode put together said the city made a terrible mistake by not meeting with us and keeping lines of communication open — that it never happens again and to keep lines of communication open. The mayor is not doing that, and the district attorney is not doing that.”
District Attorney Spokesperson Tasha Jamerson draws a stark contradiction to Africa’s claims. While not commenting on the merits of the MOVE 9’s conviction and subsequent parole denials, Jamerson did take issue with Africa’s claim of communication misfires.
“The district attorney gets swamped by piles of mail and requests, and anyone who requests to meet, I go over it with [Williams],” Jamerson said, noting the process calls for anyone wishing to meet with Williams to submit a formal written request — something Jamerson said Africa failed to do. “If Ramona Africa sent any kind of request, I would have asked about it. If she asked for a meeting, I think [Williams] would meet with her, but no letter has come, and no phone call has come.”
Jamerson noted that Williams isn’t ducking any confrontation; rather, he and Africa have been in the same building at the same time on numerous occasions, one being at a recent screening and discussion about Tigre Hill’s controversial film, “The Barrel of A Gun,” and said there was a time when Williams tried to approach Africa — only to be shunned.
“There has been some communication back and forth,” Jamerson said. “But I’d point out that before the election in November, Williams was at an event in Old City and wanted to shake her hand and talk to her a little bit.
“She brushed him aside.”
Mayor Michael Nutter’s spokesperson Mark McDonald confirmed that Nutter will not meet with Africa, as Nutter has no leverage or dealings in the matter.
“Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison handled the matter, and he says, what he learned from Africa is that her fight is with the parole board, and the mayor has no jurisdiction in this matter,” McDonald said. “Having a meeting for meeting’s sake doesn’t make sense. Ramona Africa has been informed of this some time ago. The mayor is polite and respectful of her, but won’t be meeting.”
In terms of release, Africa doubts her compatriots will ever be released before maxing out, meaning all MOVE 9 members are facing the prospect of dying in prison. And Africa doubts any of the incarcerated MOVE 9 members will ever cop a plea to somehow earn an early release.
“Our aim is not simply to get out of prison. Our aim is to expose and eliminate the rotten system that is the root of such injustices, so they will never say they are guilty. We continue to fight because we know our work is the same, whether we’re on the prison block or street block,” Africa said. “Guilt or innocence is not an issue with parole. What is supposed to determine parole is whether or not you’ve completed any designated programs, and my family has — they’ve even taught lessons. They also need an acceptable home and work plan, …
“None of my family members have bad conduct records,” Africa continued, allowing that one or two of her brothers may have had minor skirmishes while locked up. “Most importantly, their parole sheets don’t include any write-ups for misconduct. MOVE people aren’t going to lie, and more importantly, should not have to lie and say we are guilty if we are not.”
Mayor urges bill to indefinitely extend successful safeguard
On Thursday the Nutter administration rolled out a plan to permanently and significantly tighten Philadelphia’s curfew laws with earlier hours for minors ages 13 years old and younger.
The mayor’s plan was introduced in City Council on Thursday and follows earlier initiatives started over the summer to eliminate the problem of violent flash mobs. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, who was present when City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown brought the bill before Council, said that if local lawmakers pass the measure, children 13 years old and younger would have to be at home by 8 p.m.
“We heard from the public that the efforts we made over the summer had worked. It raised the level of attention from the parents and they wanted to know what the specific rules were and be able to have us suggest what the rules should be,” Gillison said. “We did some studies and we think this graduated approach was the way to go. Children ages 13 and younger have to be home by 8 p.m. Minors ages 14 to 15 have to be in by 9 p.m. and minors ages 16 to 17 have to be home by 10 p.m. — that’s during the school year and throughout the week, seven days a week. During the summer it would be extended by one hour for the same ages. This is for parents to understand what we expect from them — because we’re going to hold them accountable.”
Gillison said the new curfew laws would be citywide and that the changes would simplify the restrictions that are currently in place.
According to Gillison, the response from police officers has also been positive. He said that officers report they’ve been interacting with the community and communicating to parents that what the administration wants is for them to stay with their kids and not let them run around unsupervised.
“What we need them to do is take responsibility, and parents in this city have done that — they’ve stepped up. What we’re trying to do with this bill is to open up and finish the dialog. This is but one part of an entire holistic approach. But we wanted to make sure with a new City Council that this is what the curfew needed to be, these are the standards and we know the parents of this city are going to comply.”
Gillison said that the city is maintaining the extended hours for recreation centers and is working with the Youth Commission to increase the number of activities for the winter. He said that the last time he checked the statistics there were between 200 and 300 youths picked up off the streets who had violated curfew.
The good news is that law enforcement isn’t getting the same kids.
“We haven’t seen recidivists,” he said. “This is not to penalize the parents, we want them to pay attention to their children. As a result, when we bring them the first time it’s a warning — ‘Come get your kid.’ That inconvenience alone has been enough for the parents to step up. This isn’t a revenue bill; we don’t want to fine people. What we want is for parents to take responsibility for their children. We haven’t had to take the second step and fine anyone.”
Nearly half of public cameras not working
Most major American cities now have surveillance camera systems to assist law enforcement officers in identifying and arresting criminals — and Philadelphia is no different.
Criminals are frequently caught in the act by surveillance cameras and law enforcement officials are quick to extol their value in identifying suspects. For example, a group of juveniles involved in the January beating of 64-year-old Edward Schaefer, a Vietnam veteran, were recorded walking down the street moments before the incident. Within hours after police released the images of the suspects, the two boys allegedly responsible were in custody.
During a recent press conference on public safety held by Mayor Michael Nutter at Strawberry Mansion High School, the mayor stated that the city would be expanding its network of surveillance cameras. When questioned as to the operational efficacy of the existing cameras, the mayor responded by confirming that not all of the city-owned surveillance cameras were in working order.
“No, right now, all of them aren’t working and obviously we have some work to do in that regard,” Nutter said. But for the relatives of murder victims, whose killers may still be at large, a non-working camera is no comfort.
On May 2, 2010, Linwood Bowser, 20, was with friends across from his mother’s house on the 1400 block of North 28th Street in the city’s Brewerytown section. At about 12:45 a.m. gunfire exploded and Bowser was fatally struck. Investigators said the motive was an argument. He was pronounced dead at Temple University Hospital. So far, police have not made any arrests and a nearby surveillance camera that could have recorded the incident wasn’t operational.
“No one has come forward,” said Bowser’s mother. “From talking with the detectives, I’ve learned there were two people involved. There were witnesses, but if that city surveillance camera was working, they wouldn’t need anyone to come forward.”
For the people of Philadelphia, particularly those who live in communities rife with crime, the questions are simple; how much in taxpayers’ money was spent to install the more than 200 existing cameras, why aren’t all of them operating and who, if anyone, is responsible for monitoring the system?
“I can answer most of those questions,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison. Gillison also confirmed that some of the city’s surveillance cameras aren’t working — some aren’t working at all, whereas others are having what he termed as “hiccups,” mechanical problems that affect their motors or even just a dirty lens that affects the clarity of the images.
At the filing of this article, 60 percent of the city’s surveillance cameras are working and 40 percent have either mechanical issues or just aren’t working at all.
“I can’t quote a figure in terms of the overall costs for the installation because I don’t have that information in front of me,” Gillison said. “I can get the figures — but for right now let me say that we originally had a contract with Unisys for about $12 million, and that contract was cancelled when we decided it would be more cost effective to handle the installation of the cameras in-house. We put up a lot of the cameras ourselves and by working with the police department and different communities we identified what areas where the cameras needed to be. We were able to save some money and again, I don’t have the figures for the total cost in front of me. Some contractors came in during the process, others went out.”
Gillison said that because the cameras are functioning 24 hours a day, maintenance issues do arise and the city either handles the repairs itself or calls in the warranty for the cameras. He said that after an exhaustive analysis of the camera network, it became clear that it would be advantageous to write up a request for proposal, and determine which contractors could handle the maintenance for the cameras on a continuing basis.
“We expect to have that process completed by the middle of February,” Gillison said. “In terms of the actual monitoring, I inherited a design model that I always had issues with. Right now the monitoring is handled by the Philadelphia Police Department. If the feeds are transmitting data to a single location, that can slow down response time — the more cameras you have, the greater amount of data transmitting through the lines. I prefer a regionalization of the monitoring, because with the SEPTA cameras and the ones installed at the airport, we’ve got at least 1,000. We don’t want that many feeding into one base area. We’re changing the platform so it’s more efficient and cost effective with the resources we have. We’re also expanding the SafeCam program so city residents can get a grant to buy surveillance cameras. These are web-based systems and a resident who is a part of the program authorizes us to access their data if there’s a crime committed near that location. I know that some people have Big Brother issues with surveillance cameras — so do I. But if you’re on public property there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy. These cameras help us solve crimes every day, from high profile crimes to small time robberies. They’re a proven technology.”
No arrests made in May 2011 killing of Linwood Bowser
Like most of the murders of young Black men in Philadelphia, the slaying of Linwood Bowser III was a senseless, needless act of gun violence that, despite whatever the motive may have been, didn’t have to happen.
Vonda Bowser, mother of the victim, is understandably angry, still grieving and has no sense of closure since her son’s murderer has never been caught. She said police do have a person that they’re looking at but haven’t been able to name him as a suspect because of a lack of evidence. And, just to rub salt into the wounded heart of his mother, witnesses won’t talk, per the required madness of the no-snitching rules and, as if that isn’t enough, city installed surveillance cameras that are located in the vicinity of the murder scene weren’t operational at the time.
But according to Bowser, there’s still another layer to the murder case.
Recently, in the Old City section of Philadelphia, a Temple University graduate, Kevin Klesse, was beaten to death. Three suspects were arrested following the announcement that the city and the Fraternal Order of Police had put up a $20,000 reward. When Vonda Bowser asked the city for similar help, she was told there was no money. A tip led to the arrests of Klesse’s killers. No tipsters have come forward to collect the $2,000 scraped up herself as a reward for the capture of her son’s murderer.
“And that’s another one of my problems,” Bowser said. “They told me there was no money, but when this other guy gets killed they managed to find all kinds of money. To me, there’s a different standard between a murder committed in Old City and murders committed in North or South Philadelphia. I’m a member of Mothers in Charge and that helps, but the pain over this just never goes away. I can say this: I’m on a mission to find out who killed my son. He has his own son who is now 14 months old, who will never know his father.”
On Sunday, May 2, 2010, Linwood Bowser, 20, who was known as “Wood,” was with friends across from his mother’s house on the 1400 block of N. 28th Street in the city’s Brewerytown section. At about 12:45 a.m. gunfire exploded in the 2700 block of West Jefferson Street and “Wood” was fatally struck. Investigators said the motive was an argument. He was pronounced dead at Temple University Hospital. So far, police have not made any arrests.
Since that night, nothing has been the same for Vonda Bowser.
“No one has come forward,” she said. “From talking with the detectives, I’ve learned there were two people involved. There were witnesses, but if that city surveillance camera at 28th and Jefferson was working they wouldn’t need anyone to come forward. Is it hard for me? Yes.”
Edward Nelson, a close family friend said he’s very disappointed in the way the case has been handled.
“Yeah, I think they handle cases differently and yes, I think if the surveillance camera was working the police would at least be able to identify who shot ‘Wood.’ To me, the security camera gives the community a false sense that it’s working, and I still don’t think it is,” Nelson said. “First we had to deal with the trauma of my friend being shot and then to find out the camera wasn’t even working was insult to the injury. We went to our city councilman, Darrell Clarke for help. We never heard back from him. I have to say that I’ve lost some respect for Councilman Clarke behind this.”
“I went to his office and sat there for almost an hour but he never came out to see me,” Bowser said. “He never even called to offer his condolences.”
The Tribune called City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office to ask him to comment to Bowser’s assertion but he was unable to respond by the filing of this story.
“Mothers in Charge is an organization that no one wants to belong to,” said organization founder Dorothy Johnson-Speight. “I know Vonda went to several city officials and community leaders for help in putting together reward money, but no one stepped up. When you’ve lost a child to this senseless violence and you get very little community support it adds to the tragedy. It’s a pain that never goes away. For me, it’s been ten years since my son Khaaliq was murdered and I still feel it.”
The Citizens Crime Commission is offering Vonda Bowser’s $2,000 reward to bring the killer to justice, but so far there haven’t been any takers. But there are a lot of unsolved murders listed on the Philadelphia Crime Commission’s website.
“I really feel sorry for this poor woman,” said John Apeldorn, head of the Crime Commission of the Delaware Valley. “It’s one tragedy of the many listed on our website. To speak to Ms. Bowser’s issue though, the commission is a non-profit organization, we’re a 501C3. We really don’t put up any money for rewards for any of the cases listed on our website; all of it comes from the city and private donations.”
As for the operation of the city’s surveillance cameras, 207 cameras have been installed, but only 151 are working. Tribune reporters called the Deputy Mayor of Public Safety, Everett Gillison, to determine if the city’s surveillance cameras were working and if not, why not. Gillison was in a meeting in preparation for Mayor Michael Nutter’s Thursday press conference regarding new public safety initiatives and was unable to respond to inquiries immediately.
Meanwhile, Vonda Bowser gets to live with the pain that never goes away, hoping that someday, her son’s killer will finally be brought to justice.
“Will that bring my son back? No, nothing can do that,” she said. “Will seeing his murderer tried and convicted make me feel better? Yes, knowing that person is off the streets should make us all feel better.”
As the investigation into the killing of two teens who were shot to death while riding a stolen ATV continues, the issue of illegally operated all-terrain vehicles remains.
The ATVs speed through residential neighborhoods during the warmer months — up and down 52nd Street and along Baltimore Avenue in West Philly, near Broad and Washington Avenue in South Philly, in North Philly, in Kensington, in Germantown and in most other neighborhoods in the city. The operators are popping wheelies and darting in and out of traffic — and don’t wear protective helmets. They’re illegal to drive on city streets, and law enforcement authorities and city officials say their proliferation is becoming a real problem, not just because they are illegal, but also because, like the one in Monday night’s double murders, a great many ATVs in Philadelphia are unregistered — and stolen.
Is there anything that can be done to deal with the problem? Because of their proliferation in the city — and they are all over the city — is there a black market for them? Why don’t the police just chase them down?
“We’re seeing them much earlier because of the warmer weather,” said Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel. “They’re very mobile vehicles, and the guys who are operating them know it’s illegal to drive them on the streets. They know, but they just don’t care; these guys have no fear. And most of them are unregistered.”
According to statistics from the website ATVSafety.gov, in Pennsylvania, between 1982 and 2010 there were 521 reported deaths related to ATVs. Information supplied by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission shows that the number of 4-wheel ATVs in use across the nation has increased from just over 2 million to more than 6.9 million over the past decade. Nationally, from 1982 through 2004, there were almost 6,500 deaths involving ATVs and 115,000 injuries in 2010. About 30 percent of all deaths and injuries from ATV accidents involve children younger than 16.
In Pennsylvania, there are a number of regulations regarding the operation of ATVs:
• No ATV shall be operated without a lighted headlight and taillight from ½ hour after sunset to ½ hour before sunrise.
• All ATVs must be titled and registered, with the owner receiving one numbered plate.
• Registration is to be renewed once every two years.
• No one under age 8 shall operate an ATV on state-owned land.
• No one between ages 8 and 15 may operate an ATV unless on a parent’s land or in possession of a safety training certificate.
• No one under 16 years old may cross a highway or operate an ATV on designated roads unless in possession of a safety certificate and with an adult 18 or older.
• ATV use on any street or highway is prohibited, except to cross and except for roads designated as ATV roads.
Bethel said he wasn’t aware of any black market organization keeping ATVs on the streets, but there is no shortage of them, and it is a fact that 99 percent of them are stolen.
“Almost all of them are stolen and there is no shortage of them. They are a growing problem for us because it’s just too dangerous to pursue them, according to the Police Pursuit Directive because they’re just too mobile. The last thing we want is to be chasing some of them and the drivers decide to run up on the sidewalks. It’s just too reckless; however, we do get them. In some patrol districts they have strategies for boxing them in — and of course, we confiscate them. I don’t know the success rate for returning them, but as fast as we take them off the streets there are more of them. The thieves just head out to the suburbs and steal them. Now the public can help us with this. They have to be stored somewhere, in warehouses or garages; they have launch points and if people know where those spots are, they should call us so we can get them. They’re just unsafe to run on the streets.”
The victims of Monday’s double murders have been identified as Dexter Bowie, 17, of the 3000 block of North 8th Street and Johnathan Stokely, 18, of the 3100 block of North Darien Street. Bowie was fatally shot in the head and body and was pronounced dead at the scene at 8:10 p.m., according to Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson Officer Jillian Russell. Stokely was hit by gunfire multiple times and was pronounced dead at Temple University Hospital a short time later.
The ATV they were running was stolen from northern Pennsylvania, according to investigators.
The shooting happened in the 2900 block of North 9th Street at 7:54 p.m. while the teens were riding an ATV that had been reported stolen. Investigators said so far the evidence points to the fact that the pair had been targeted by a still unknown shooter or shooters. The motive has not yet been determined yet.
According to Capt. James Clark, crime scene investigators recovered more than 30 shell casings from the location; shell casings from an AK47 assault rifle and a 9mm handgun. Clark also confirmed that both teens had a history of arrests; Stokley had six prior arrests and Bowie had three.
A $40,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.
“We try to get intelligence as to where and when these guys are operating these vehicles; then we corral them and take the ATVs. Beyond that, we don’t want to endanger the operator or anyone else because they’re going to take off if chased by the police,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison. “What we’re developing now is community partners and cooperation from the gas stations — they have to gas up someplace. As to where stolen ATVs can be stored, there are a lot of garages and other storage spaces. There’s no shortage of space.”
When 22-year-old Zykia Sanders was shot to death in West Philadelphia last year, she became a victim of the undeclared urban war.
It is a war that has no political goals, seeks no strategic advantages of any kind and pushes no social agenda other than to make life miserable for the families of those unfortunate enough to have become a victim of it.
Recently, after a year in which the city saw 331 homicides, Mayor Michael Nutter said his administration would be announcing new crime fighting strategies to be initiated in 2013.
“What we see now at crime scenes is 20 to 30 shell casings, the number of head shots involved in homicides is up in the 10 percent range, the multiple shell casings number is up pretty significantly as well,” said Nutter in a published report. The mayor noted that a significant aspect of the problem is the issue of firepower — guns with a high rate of fire discharging round after round.
“You will hear from us very soon about additional efforts to deal with this issue from my perspective at the city, the state and the federal level in my capacity as head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors,” Nutter said.
Although the specifics of the Nutter administration’s plans haven’t been revealed yet, Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said the announcement would be coming soon.
“The mayor spoke about the number of shooting incidents in which victims were shot in the head and often shot multiple times,” Gillison said. “Statistically, the number of shootings are down and the number of part one crimes are down — but we did an analysis and saw that more people were being killed as a result of more bullets being fired in these incidents — the number of people shot in the head was up 11 percent. That significantly increases the likelihood that the victim is going to be killed. This shows that firepower needs to be addressed, and we’ve been working on coming up with strategies that can be pursued. Look, Sandy Hook happened — but this administration has been dealing with the problem of gun violence in this city over the last five years we’ve been in office.”
Gillison said that the Philadelphia Police Department would be continuing its efforts of targeting specific neighborhoods throughout the city where incidents of gun violence are highest. Part of that targeting strategy is called GunStat, in which police work with assistant district attorneys to identify the city’s most violent offenders in a specific area, and keep them under close observation.
“If the suspect is arrested, we can request higher bail and stiffer penalties if a firearm is confiscated. We’re going to continue the targeting strategies and other tactics but the mayor has said that he wants more. President Obama has made a commitment to push for stronger gun laws, and I know he would like to announce something in his upcoming State of the Union Address. We’re committed to initiating new strategies in our city.”
In 2012, there were 331 murders in Philadelphia and Zykia Sanders was an innocent bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time on November 17. Her accused killer, Amin Gibbs, 33, of the 6800 block of Dicks Avenue, allegedly shot Sanders outside West Park Apartments on the 4400 block of Holden Street. Investigators knew from the beginning that Sanders was not the intended target. Gibbs, who has a criminal history going back to 1997, has been charged with murder, conspiracy, weapons offenses and related charges. He was arrested less than a week after the killing.
Philadelphia Police Department statistics show that Gibbs is not an anomaly, but part of a consistent dynamic that fuels deadly violence in the city. Sanders was not the intended target when she was killed — and statistically most of the murder victims in Philadelphia are young, Black males who are killed by other young, Black males in the same 18 to 34 age range. Statistics provided by the Philadelphia Police Department show that in 2012 from January to March, 84 percent of all murder offenders had at least one prior arrest before they were arrested for homicide. Twenty-eight of the 42 offenders with prior arrests were arrested for a violent crime before they were arrested for homicide, including juveniles.
“Much of the violence is sparked by arguments over nonsense,” lamented Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. “The slightest thing can end up leading to someone’s death. If two guys get into a fistfight, the loser goes and gets a gun and shoots and kills the winner — so when you win, you lose. That’s the way it is. The most violent district is the 22nd. The 25th would be the second and the 24th is the third. The 12th District is also pretty rough, but the 22nd is where we have most of our problems. Some of these guys are getting out of jail and they return to their neighborhood and try to re-establish themselves. The neighborhood has changed; there are different players and they’re not letting anyone re-establish anything; so you get a shooting.”
There has been some consternation this week among Philadelphia’s political community because of a single word, uttered by City Councilwoman Marian Tasco during a heated exchange with mayoral chief of staff Everett Gillison at Tuesday’s budget hearing in city hall.
That eight-letter word, used by many adults every day, and with alarming frequency in most newsrooms, is not printable in a family newspaper – but generally accepted these days as part of the modern lexicon. The word – actually two words compounded – is most often used in the context of saying, “That statement is not true,” or “this sounds like a fallacy,” only much more succinct. Literally meaning bovine excrement, the word is almost never used literally, as cows are usually not involved in talking it, shoveling it, stirring it up, or listening to it.
Let me start off by saying that I have only used the word myself on extremely rare occasions. (Those who know me well recognize the above sentence as a perfect example.)
Because it is still a “bad word” and not one spoken by prim and proper ladies (in theory, anyway), Tasco’s use of the expletive was seen by some as a breach of the decorum of City Council. (The mere fact that I was able to type “decorum” and “City Council” in the same sentence while maintaining a straight face is my second example.)
Tasco was taking Gillison to task over the delayed renovations to the Sturgis Rec Center, a gathering spot and playground in her East Oak Lane district whose much-needed repairs have been held up for more than a year. Tasco believes the delay is political payback for her reluctance to go along with Mayor Nutter’s plans for selling off the Philadelphia Gas Works. Tasco, who sits on the PGW board, voted nay, at least until further studies are done to gauge the sale’s impact on city finances.
Gillison was right in the middle of his carefully and politically crafted explanation of the renovation delay when Tasco cut him off with that word. “Stop!” she finally cried in exasperation. “Just stop all this bull——.”
Yup. She said it. Right there in Council chambers for all to hear and record for posterity.
Now as you know, I am the first to chastise an elected official who does wrong. In fact, I used this column to call out Tasco herself a while back, when it was discovered she would take the DROP money and retire for one weekend.
But this time, Tasco wasn’t wrong. In fact, rather than berate her, I applaud her use of the word in this instance. First, as any of you who use the word know perfectly well, there are times when no other word will do. And second, she was spot-on. Gillison was shoveling, and she wasn’t buying.
I’m glad she said it. I’d like to see it used more often in politics.
Imagine how short campaign speeches would become if more people called out their politicians when they start shoveling. Political discourse wouldn’t fill a 30-second campaign commercial if politicians were forced to rely on straight talk and common sense, rather than fall back on their natural proclivity to… well, you know.
Plus, Tasco has been in the game long enough to know that local politics is filled with the most petty, vindictive, immature people you can find. It is not unreasonable to question whether a certain move is political payback for some imagined slight. Once you’ve seen it enough times, you have every right to expect some of that petty vindictiveness to come your way. In fact, you’re being naive if you think otherwise.
Even if she happened to be mistaken in this particular instance, and Gillison was sincerely trying to explain the unexplainable, Tasco took the safe bet and called it like she smelled it. And for that, I commend her.
In a city that is slopping over with it, from politics to business to nonprofits to used car dealers, it’s high time someone started calling it by its name, just like Tasco did. We all should follow her example.
Use the word appropriately, and use it only when no other word will suffice for clarity and impact, and I will help champion the cause - bringing it out of the mouths of sailors and newspapermen and into the mainstream of polite society.
I don’t know about you, but I’m far less offended by the word itself than I am by those who expect you to just take all they can shovel without at least one word of objection.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of The Philadelphia Tribune.
Proposed office would represent poor clients
In a move the administration says would streamline and improve legal services for the poor, the city is looking to create an Office of Conflicts Counsel — ending the longstanding practice of court assigned lawyers.
“This is one way of raising investments in this area, so that ultimately we can give people the kind of services we believe they need to get,” said Everett Gillison, chief of staff to Mayor Michael Nutter, who explained the plan to the Tribune. “This is a way of making the system better.”
The city recently released a request for proposals, asking firms across the city to bid on providing conflict counseling services and explain how they would integrate other services into their plans. Responses to the RFP are due Jan. 18.
Gillison described the thought process behind the change as a desire by the administration to provide defendants with “wrap-around services” that are currently unavailable.
Hopes are that by establishing a separate office of conflicts counsel, the city will also be able to roll other services – things like investigative work, drug, mental, social and other services – into one office.
“Hopefully, we’ll help them [defendants] transition out of the areas that they’re getting involved in now, and meeting some of the other needs that they have,” he said. “We’re trying to expand services.”
Typically, the court appoints conflicts counsel in multi-defendant cases where the interests of all defendants cannot be represented by a single attorney and defendants cannot afford their own lawyers. Those attorneys are paid a flat fee of $350 in misdemeanor cases and $600 in felony cases. In some cases they may get other needed services, too. But, in others they may not.
In fiscal 2011 there were 22,441 private attorneys appointed as conflicts counsel. The city usually spends between $8 and $10 million a year in attorneys’ fees, according to Gillison.
He declined to estimate how much might be spent with a separate office and new procedures. Gillison did say that he expected some cost savings, but that it was unclear how much the city might save.
“If it’s done right perhaps there might be,” he said. “But, the main motivation here is to raise the level of investment in this area, so that ultimately we can have it done more efficiently.
With a specially established office, the city could rely on salaried attorneys, investigators and social workers on staff.
“We’d be able to have a comprehensive, holistic approach to a defense,” he said, adding that in many cases private attorneys would still be needed.
Bids will be received by Jan. 18 – though Gillison hinted that the deadline could be extended. But beyond that, the city doesn’t have a timeline for setting up the new office. In fact, it is not even certain that the administration will follow through. That all depends on the quality of RFPs, he said.
“We’re trying to make sure that we have a discussion and entertain all the questions so there is no firm timeline,” he said. “I’d rather get it right and make sure that we’re getting what we need out of it rather than rush something through.”
The concept is not new.
Previous efforts to change the system have been shot down by objections from attorneys.
Officials from the Philadelphia Bar Association were unavailable for comment Thursday, though a spokesman said officials there were meeting with the administration, adding that the chancellor would speak to the Tribune as soon as possible.
A city plan to create a special office for conflict counsel — attorneys representing clients who cannot be represented by the Public Defender’s Office — is being met with opposition from several criminal defense lawyers.
“These changes are going to make a bad situation even worse,” said attorney Michael Coard. “The reason I say that is that when you talk about justice in the American courtroom, the problem is that you get only as much justice as you can afford.”
City officials contend the proposal would aid poor defendants by providing legal representation and related services from one office.
Coard disagrees, saying that it boils down to money.
“Any lawyer who is qualified, a veteran attorney, is not going accept the minimum and meager wages, salaries and fees that the city is talking about paying,” he said, adding that he thought the idea was part of a plan to save money. “You’re talking about rookie lawyers, and you can imagine what is going to happen.”
One Philadelphia attorney, Sam Stretton, has threatened to sue over the proposed changes. He did not return phone calls Friday. He told WHYY that the move would hurt defendants.
“The mayor’s office is doing this in an attempt to save money and have a cheaper system,” Stretton said. “It’s just not going to work and it’s just going to have a terrible impact on the right to counsel.”
Ronald Greenblatt, who heads up the Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also failed to return the Tribune’s phone calls.
The Philadelphia Bar Association has not taken an official position.
“The bar association has not taken an official position,” said Chancellor Kathleen Wilkinson. “However, we are very concerned, and we certainly want to see that litigants are afforded quality representation.”
Association members, including members of the Barrister’s Association of Philadelphia, will meet next week with the administration to discuss the proposed changes. Neither the president nor past president of the Barrister’s Association responded to the Tribune’s request for comment.
Wilkinson said it was too early to discuss the bar association’s input, but that she hoped to discuss all facets of the proposal with city officials.
“My impression is that the city is trying to do the right thing,” Wilkinson said. “Trying to provide representation with litigants in cases where there is a conflict with the Public Defenders’ Office. The important thing here is that we’re going to sit down and have input.”
Earlier this week, Everett Gillison, Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief of staff, outlined proposed changes to the way the city deals with poor defendants who need an attorney outside the public defender’s office.
Administration officials contend the changes would streamline and improve legal services for the poor. Gillison said the administration hoped to provide defendants with “wrap-around services” that are currently unavailable. By establishing a separate office of conflicts counsel, the city will also be able to roll other services — things like investigative work, drug, mental, social and other services — into one office, he said.
Typically the court appoints conflicts counsel in multi-defendant cases where the interests of all defendants cannot be represented by a single attorney, and defendants cannot afford their own lawyers. Those attorneys are paid a flat fee of $350 in misdemeanor cases and $600 in felony cases. In some cases they may get other needed services too. But, in others they may not.
In fiscal 2011 there were 22,441 private attorneys appointed as conflicts counsel. The city usually spends between $8 and $10 million a year in attorneys’ fees, according to Gillison.
He declined to estimate how much might be spent with a separate office and new procedures. Gillison did say that he expected some cost savings but that it was unclear how much the city might save.
“If it’s done right perhaps there might be,” he said. “But, the main motivation here is to raise the level of investment in this area so that ultimately we can have it done more efficiently.
With a specially established office, the city could rely on salaried attorneys, investigators and social workers on staff.
“We’d be able to have a comprehensive, wholistic approach to a defense,” he said, adding that in many cases private attorneys would still be needed.
Coard suggested that if the city really wanted to help defendants, it should create a fund, equal in size to the budget of the District Attorney’s Office, and the additional resources at its disposal and dedicate that money to public defenders and conflicts counsel.
“Now you have not only equality, but equity,” he said.
Officials predict slight increase in revenue
As City Council heard opening testimony on Monday from Mayor Michael Nutter’s top administration officials regarding details of Nutter’s five-year financial plan and fiscal year 2014 capital budget, it quickly became clear that Council is concerned with the administration’s handling of municipal contracts and pensions. Council also had probing questions regarding furlough language contained in the financial proposals, along with seeking a better understanding of revenue collection and the controversial Actual Value Index.
Chief of Staff Everett Gillison, joined by Finance Director Rob Dubow and Finance Director Rebecca Rhynhart, noted that overall, the city’s finances are on the uptick.
“After several difficult years coming out of the deep recession of 2007-2008, tax revenues are growing moderately again. In addition, the administration has taken actions to improve efficiencies in operations which are expected to yield budget savings,” Gillison said. “The city has worked with a global business consulting firm over the last year and the report issued by FTI Consulting estimated that the city can make changes in operations to increase revenues and avoid costs without impacting personnel or implementing tax increases.
“The proposed FY 2014 budget includes those savings…as tax revenues increase and savings from efficiencies are realized, the administration is able to make some modest investments in the services the city provides,” Gillison’s testimony continued, “but even with just these modes investments, fund balances of $80 million in FY 2014 and $45 million in FY 2015 and FY 2016 are very low compared to the Government Finance Officers Association’s minimum fund balance recommendation of no less than 5 percent of total obligations, or roughly $185 million.”
According to Gillison, FTI Consulting, the outside agency hired by the city to do an assessment of its operations, has estimated the city could save roughly $463 million over the life of the five-year plan by reducing the city’s phone bills, hedging on fuel (meaning, buying future quantities of fuel now at a set price rather than have the market dictate costs at the pump) and improving collections.
Gillison said the administration will hire a chief collections officer who will oversee the tax collections process of several revenue-generating departments. This new post will report to both the finance director and mayor.
Gillison also testified that he expects growth in the city’s four major taxes outside of property taxes, of which Gillison doesn’t forecast there to be any growth. The administration believes that wage tax and sales tax revenue would see moderate gains before tapering down in FY 2018.
Gillison and his team also noted that the FY 2014 assumes the same AVI revenues the city received in FY 2013; along with $15,000 available to homeowners in the Homestead relief program and $30 million in other relief measures has allowed the city to lower the combined property tax rate for the school district and city to 1.32 percent. Previously, that number stood at 9.77 percent.
“The proposed FY 2014 expenditures total $3.755 billion, a $99 million increase from FY 2013 estimates. Rising pension costs account for $49 million of this increase, debt service makes up $11 million and an additional $20 million is due to a salary increase awarded to the Fraternal Order of Police. He remaining $19 million represents a .5 percent increase,” Gillison testified. “In addition to the total expenditures of $3.755 billion, the administration has set aside $26 million of reserved fund balance as a provision for future labor obligations related to District Council 33, District Council 47 and IAFF 22.
“In addition to including raises, any collective bargaining agreements must include essential reforms to help the pension fund, make common sense changes to overtime rules and allow the city to furlough employees to provide options in addition to layoffs during times of fiscal distress.”
Several council members, including Council President Darrell Clarke and members Bill Green, Wilson Goode Jr. and Curtis Jones Jr., took issue with the inclusion of such loophole language, when Gillison testified that the city doesn’t foresee a situation where furloughs would be necessary. Under intense questioning, Gillison said the furloughs are “a way of dealing with financial downturn.”
While Clarke sought clarity between furlough and layoff and noted that unions by and large preferred layoffs to being furloughed (so they can then apply for unemployment benefits, whereas furloughed employees cannot), Gillison maintained that in the administration’s view, furloughs are much better because a furloughed employee can be quickly rehired, and the city will not lose the knowledge possessed by the laid off worker.
Councilman David Oh pressed Gillison on the union issue in general, and on the non-inclusion of funds in the budget for a potential settlement with the fire department. Oh noted that the city has lost two binding arbitrations with the fire department, and it would make prudent fiscal sense to include potential losses on that front into the budget. While Rhynhart said the city simply doesn’t have any other monies to pay for any potential losses in the fire department negotiations, Gillison was more forthcoming.
“We are prepared for all contingencies, but there’s no additional money anywhere,” Gillison said when Oh questioned the possibility of a $200 million settlement. “We would need to make up those funds. It won’t be the end of the world, but will significantly alter the way we are trying to do things. The value of the award, we have indicated, they city cannot afford.”
Gillison, not wanting to debate in council the merits of the administration’s position versus that of its two largest unions, did say he has tried to talk with the unions about wage, benefit and pension reform in the wake of pensions payments alone counting for 16 percent of the budget.
“We are in the courts now because there are no other options,” Gillison said, adding that on Thursday, he will release more details regarding the budget. “Our pensions need reform. At 16 percent, it’s squeezing the city, and this will take give-and-take on both sides” to reach an agreement.