Pubdate: Mon, 10 Jun 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc


Residents deserve the benefits and safety that antidrug effort provides.

Mayor Street did a poor job of lining up finances when he started the 
popular - and expensive - Safe Streets program. The effort has committed 
hundreds of police officers to chasing drug dealers from about 300 street 

Still, contrary to what cynics predicted, the offensive seems to be 
working. That's good news for the decent people of those neighborhoods who, 
for the first time in years, feel the streets belong to them.

They didn't before Safe Streets began. Consider these statistics from 
Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson: More than 700 deaths last year were 
drug-related crimes or drug overdoses.

Now, Mr. Johnson says, compare this May to last May: About 1,000 fewer 
major crimes were committed last month when Safe Streets began than a year ago.

It's understandable, then, that the commissioner believes Safe Streets is 
worth whatever it takes to shut down the open-air drug trade - even though 
he understands that overtime from the operation could bust his $437 million 
police budget.

He's right about the program's value.

Philadelphia's broken neighborhoods cannot be mended if drug dealers force 
residents to hide in their homes. The mayor cannot expect his Neighborhood 
Transformation Initiative to work if crime cramps communities.

So far, Safe Streets has reversed who controls the neighborhoods. It has 
had the bonus effect of warming relations between residents and police.

It has not polished Mayor Street's reputation as a manager who figures out 
a program's details well in advance of launching it. (See also his 
neighborhood initiative).

The mayor should have had a financial blueprint for what was sure to be an 
expensive battle against drugs in a city that is only a decade removed from 
the edge of bankruptcy. He should have put it in his January budget 
proposal. He could have pushed for it before Council passed a budget last 

His spokesman, Frank Keel, said the mayor believed the need was so urgent 
that he was willing to start the operation even though all of the pieces 
were not in place.

"You could argue that an operation of this scope requires a great deal of 
planning and funding," said Mr. Keel. But "there was a sense of emergency 
in the early spring, when the mayor counted 25 to 30 drug dealers working 
one corner, at 12th and Huntingdon. It so enraged him that he was willing 
to jump-start this immediately and allow the plan to evolve as it went."

You also could argue that politics played into the speed with which the 
program was launched.

It's a stretch to believe that Mayor Street - the former city councilman 
for a section of North Philadelphia where drug dealing on street corners 
flourished for decades - just "discovered" this emergency.

Emergencies of a political nature that the mayor faced early this spring 
may have had something to do with the operation's timetable: City Council 
cutting the wage tax over his objections; his stalling on making "acting" 
Commissioner Johnson permanent, and the fallout from his remark about how 
"the brothers and sisters" are running Philadelphia.

Public attention is on Mayor Street's war on drug dealing.

Still, the operation's effectiveness overshadows any politics that may be 
in the background. This time, the motivation isn't as important as the results.

A comment from an officer in last week's Inquirer that the $500,000-a- week 
operation may have to be reduced because of tight finances seems to have 
galvanized Mayor Street into a commitment not to reduce the program "now, 
or in the fall, or in the foreseeable future," Mr. Keel said.

The best case scenario is that Operation Safe Streets can be sustained.

That challenge could be more easily met if U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., 
Pa.) succeeds in finding federal dollars to help pave Safe Streets' way for 
the long term.

It could be aided too if, as Commissioner Johnson believes, the city 
ultimately saves money in reduced criminal justice costs and the creation 
of a stronger volunteer neighborhood watch effort that reduces the need for 
a police presence. Commissioner Johnson says the police presence also is 
drying up drug dealers' suburban customer base.

Residents say they are now enjoying the simple pleasures of sitting on 
stoops or playing on sidewalks without fear of bullets and mayhem.

What a cheat it would be - for Philadelphia and for its residents - if that 
enjoyment were short-lived.

Otherwise, if Philadelphia really cannot afford streets this safe, the 
cynics and the drug dealers will win.
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