It’s not the statistic you would expect for a neighborhood with a ringside seat to Pennsylvania’s heroin epidemic:
Specifically, zero residential burglaries. In Olde Richmond–a neighborhood bordered by York Street, Trenton Avenue, Lehigh Avenue and the Delaware river–has not seen a residential house burglary occur since Jan 16th–over 50 straight days. Not even Chestnut Hill can boast of that achievement. There were a few close calls–a residential burglary or two that came within feet of the neighborhood’s boundaries and a couple of commercial break-ins within the neighborhood; but not one resident saw their home burglarized and items taken within.
Property crime in this region of the city is closely connected to the heroin crisis and that dramatically amplifies the level of property crime. That makes this achievement even more remarkable.
The reason why property crime is so high in the River Wards is pretty simple. People who have turned their lives over to the tan powder inevitably fall into an income dilemma. In order to buy the next series of bags to keep withdrawal pangs away there is a strong motivation to gather cash to purchase heroin. For prostitues who line several miles of intersections along Kensington Avenue, that’s easy. For everyone else who has no hope of converting sex into cash–the answer is to steal something–anything–and then convert that into cash. Usually that happens by hustling.
If you ever wonder why when you sit in any shot-n-beer bar anywhere in Kensington, some random dude will walk in and start pestering the patrons to buy random products you normally see sold at CVS or an electronics store, that’s hustling. Few bars here ever go without seeing a hustler or two walk in any given night of the week. On paydays it’s a steady stream. I think the most impressive thing I’ve seen someone try to pawn off to bar guests one night I was out drinking was an electric chainsaw. Likely stolen out of the back of a work truck.
Besides the hustling, another extremely common problem where heroin sales happen are burglaries of nearby residences. Olde Richmond has gone a number of years being festooned with them. In one nasty winter as many as 3 house burglaries a day were being recorded in a week with outdoor temps registering in the low 20s.
Property crime in Philadelphia is a massive problem. It always has to take a backseat to violent crime and the narcotics trade. The turnover rate–the rate at which police file charges against suspects involved in a burglary can hover as low as 2% in certain neighborhoods. If your house gets burglarized chances are very good you’ll never see your stuff ever and the person(s) who did it will never be caught. It’s just the reality of living here, and Olde Richmond has had this problem in spades.
Why No Burglaries?
As with a bunch of other neighborhoods, Olde Richmond Civic Association created its own town watch program. This town watch is a little bit different from many of the other ones that exist.
The biggest innovation that ORCA Townwatch has done is the implementation of a free camera program to homeowners. No other neighborhood in Philly has a program as comprehensive as this one. The free resident camera program is open to all homeowners who live in the neighborhood regardless of background. The install allows up to eight security cameras that any homeowner can install on their own property and four cameras are included with the system. Residents who sign up for the program agree to join the Townwatch and stay connected with it as well as register their home security camera system with the Philadelphia Police. The system and the software is provided for free while the homeowner arranges installation through an electrician or data installer of their own choosing.
The civic association then changed-up its zoning process to put heavy pressure on zoning applicants to agree to install video surveillance on all new properties they propose to build. Several ORCA residents have been trained to display hesitation and irritation to be asked to support zoning proposals that lack security features. That in-turn has led to every zoning applicant over the last 2 years to promise to set up video surveillance systems on all new construction in the neighborhood. Since most of that new construction was taking place in areas of the neighborhood which had no surveillance systems installed at all, video coverage of Olde Richmond has increased dramatically. With that added coverage on top of the coverage ORCA was installing itself there have been dozens of high-profile incidents caught on tape and social-media sharing among residents has made it possible to aid police in identifying suspects.
The next innovation ORCA Townwatch implemented was a data program. Strategic maps of the neighborhood were created to pattern the crime the same way the Philadelphia Police does and look for patterns that speak to property, street or block-sized issues that need attention. Bad or missing street lighting, the absence of security cameras, the lack of eyes on the street and sometimes interpersonal issues among residents themselves may be causes for crime reports on certain blocks to be higher than others. Each problem is added to an issues list and worked on.
In certain problem zones identified by ORCA’s data program, the free residential camera program was modified so key neighbors located in crime “sweet spots” installed much higher resolution surveillance systems than what most people install on their properties.
One key feature of the ORCA data program was the creation of PhillyBlotter, the mobile-phone based crime information app. PhillyBlotter solves a communications issue with the Philadelphia Police: getting up-to-date information of crime reports. Suspect information gathering was also major manual chore until PhillyBlotter solved it. Often the reports police produced were so far out of date that few residents would read them, much less members of the town watch. And the police were too busy to remember to pass along “resolution” information that a suspect was apprehended or even who it apprehended.
Within minutes of releasing PhillyBlotter, ORCA Townwatch had compiled a full listing of every person who was caught repeatedly burglarizing the neighborhood stretching back 5 years. One individual ORCA discovered was arrested no less than five times and would prefer to hit houses only within Olde Richmond than any other neighborhood. Most of the time when he’s released from prison he would return to a house less than two miles away from the neighborhood.
The most active part of ORCA Townwatch is responding to incidents rapidly. For burglaries, PhillyBlotter is checked every day. If a burglary happens, the block where the burglary happened is hit with flyers the same day so residents who hadn’t heard about their neighbor’s burglary would not only hear about it but also be reminded of the ORCA Townwatch free camera program. On blocks that were getting hit repeatedly, several camera installs were made by participating residents and burglary reports then dwindled.
Police and Property
The most important aspect of making Olde Richmond’s town watch work so residents can enjoy the improving crime levels is maintaining a working relationship with the local police district. And by working I mean working, which goes above a simple level of congeniality or platitudes. When police spot a problem it turns into a high priority item to be worked on by both the town watch and the civic association or even the entire neighborhood. Likewise, the town watch connects the police to information or situations it may not be aware of. For instance, cameras that it may have missed that would have critical video evidence they need.
Last spring when weather started to improve, a number of neighbors would leave front windows unsecured and screen doors exposed which created a sudden spike in burglaries. Within two days ORCA’s town watch had noted the spike as well as police and social media blasts combined with flyering ended the burglary wave as soon as it had begun.
ORCA has also rid itself of all but a few remaining fallow properties within the neighborhood. In 2005 there were over 40 shells and fallow properties spread over the 120-block neighborhood. Today there are few. The neighborhood has also promoted its schools to prospective parents and has sent nearly all of its severely tax delinquent property to Sheriff Sale to be transformed into new properties with new neighbors.
ORCA also keeps a “shit list,” namely an internal file of very difficult properties which have become crime sores. Every piece of information that can be gathered about each property on the list is compiled. Most of these are active drug dealing or vacant properties which have appeared in crime reports in the neighborhood. Those properties are reviewed periodically and any weakness–be it property taxes or code violations and sometimes even political will are deployed to free a property up so it gets off the notorious list.
Having a proactive but also a smart town watch can certainly help drive down crime levels. Even in a neighborhood that has a front row seat to the heroin epidemic. Within the last 50 days, Chestnut Hill had 1 residential burglary. ORCA however, had zero.