In what has been a historically dangerous city, major crime has dropped significantly over the past year, at least in part due to Democratic Mayor John Street's innovative anti-drug campaign.
The program, Operation Safe Streets, was created last year in a massive attempt to combat Philadelphia's nearly insurmountable drug problem and is one of Street's largest initiatives as mayor.
Last May, 300 of the city's worst drug corners were identified, and police officers were dispatched to break up the crimes.
According to mayoral spokeswoman Christine Ottow, the problem was so bad that "there were drug dealers standing right out on the corner. You could just drive up to them and buy drugs."
To combat this, police officers were stationed in those areas, "sometimes on a 24-hour basis," said Sgt. Roland Lee of the Philadelphia Police Department.
"When Safe Streets first started, [we] were working 12-hour shifts. It was mandatory for a while."
But a year later, the omnipresence of the officers has begun to have an effect, and all overtime is now on a voluntary basis.
This is a beneficial change, at least for the city's budget. The anti-drug blitz, came with a price tag of at least $100 million over the program's first five years.
This year, Safe Streets will cost a total of $25 million, compared to the rest of the police force's budget of $460 million.
But so far, Street's office feels that the results justify the expense. During the first year of the program, police confiscated $89.9 million worth of drugs, compared to just $24.7 million the previous year.
Over the same period, gun confiscations rose from 2,700 to 3,900, major crime dropped by 14 percent and overall crime dropped by 11 percent.
However, Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz's spokesman, Nate Raab, questioned the effectiveness of the policy.
"If the administration's efforts to stem the flow of drugs in the city had been effective, then we wouldn't be seeing stable drug prices," he said.
Katz's anti-drug strategy focuses on treatment, according to a July 24 press release which said Katz's anti-drug plan includes expanding the Drug Treatment Court and establishing a Juvenile Treatment Court, potentially saving the city millions.
"We have to get to the root of the problem by getting people off drugs so they won't break the law," Katz said.
According to Katz's release, incarcerating a single drug offender costs between $20,000 and $30,000. That is six times as much as the $4,500 it would cost to put him through the Treatment Court rehabilitation program, according to Katz's campaign.
Raab said that Katz is "committed to keeping the parts of Safe Streets that work, and rethinking the ones that don't."
He did not provide specific details about what parts of the program would be changed.
Raab made it clear that Katz does not believe in "blindly locking up drug offenders. [It's] not the best way to keep them from committing the same crime again."
But, according to Ottow, one of the key aspects of the Safe Streets program is that it is "two-pronged."
She explained that one of the program's messages to the public is "if you are involved in drugs, or know someone who is, seek help."
Ottow said that this emphasis on treatment has contributed to a 30 percent increase in enrollment into the city's substance abuse centers.
"We believe that as it has become harder for people to buy drugs, it has almost forced them into treatment," she said.
She also stressed that the police were being proactive in their anti-drug activities.
"As the drug dealers' methods change, so do the police's," Ottow said. "They aren't just staying on those same corners anymore, because those corners aren't problem corners now."
Regardless of the police's attempts to keep drugs off the street, Ottow said that the focus was not on arresting the dealers, but rather on an increased police presence that forces them to move elsewhere.
"The police will arrest, they aren't going to sit there and watch a drug deal go down, but what happened was just their mere presence took out a lot of the business."
Lee agreed that mass arrests might not be the answer.
"In one of the years prior to Safe Streets, I remember we locked up 37,000 people for narcotics-related offenses," Lee said. "As fast as we were locking people up, they were going right back out. Safe Streets is an alternative method."
Neither the police nor Street's office could provide arrest figures for last year.Comments powered by Disqus
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