Marsha Moore points to the back door of her rowhouse in the Kingsessing section of Southwest Philly and wonders if an extra deadbolt or a bar in the window would have made a difference. Walking through her dining room, Moore retraces the intruder’s steps inside the house that morning last October, in the hours after her husband had left for work and her daughter for school. They had to walk past walls filled with Obama posters, family portraits and dozens of commendations from the city marking three decades of anti-crime activism before they got to the stairs, climbed up to the second-floor bedroom where she was sleeping, and savagely beat her with a metal pipe, leaving her for dead.
The 53-year-old Moore, wearing a patch over her right eye, grimaces as she describes her injuries. Her face was split open, necessitating a titanium plate. Her septum was crushed. She required 50 staples in her skull. And her eye was knocked back two centimeters, the lens jammed into her cheek. She was in a coma for three days, the hospital for three weeks.
The mayor fumed. An $11,000 reward was offered, but no suspect was ever identified.
But just two months later—with lingering pain and a bit of fear in the back of her mind—Moore was back out on the streets doing her town-watch patrols.
“I refuse to let these children see me just give up on them because something happened to me,” says Moore. “I refuse to let the perpetrators take anything more from our community and myself than what they took already.”
Few would fault Moore if the ordeal had changed her outlook on how criminals should be dealt with, but she’s remained true to the beliefs that have guided her anti-crime efforts for more than 30 years.
“Like I tell the mayor and the [police commissioner], we cannot lock our way up to safe. I know how to get people arrested. But why do that when we can prevent a lot of these crimes? Especially with young people. It’s learned behavior, so you can unlearn it.”
But two miles down the street, 57-year-old Sam Ricks—who’s been a town-watch volunteer in the Elmwood section of Southwest Philly for 20 years—couldn’t feel more differently.
The only way to stop crime, says Ricks, “is to get [criminals] arrested and off the street. They get out [of custody] and come back and keep doing what they do, you go out there night after night and get them back in. You stay at it. Hopefully they get tired of that and they stop.”
Ricks and Moore are longtime friends and allies in the fight to reduce crime and better the quality of life in their corner of Philadelphia. But the pair are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the way town watch should operate—a divide that reflects a broader debate about how the city should deal with its always-shifting, never-ending problem of crime.
As twilight descends on Elmwood Park, Ricks sits on a bench, walkie-talkie in hand, and surveys the scene. All appears serene—people are out with their dogs, kids ride their bikes, a few joggers skirt across the grass. “There have been times when it’s been fairly rough around here,” says Ricks. He points to a nearby bench where, two summers ago, 22-year-old Mamadou Makadji—a native of Mali who’d come to Philadelphia four months earlier to study at Temple University—was shot and killed during a botched, late-night robbery. “Thankfully, we haven’t had anything like that in a while.”
But Ricks won’t be lulled into a sense of complacency. Violent crime and property crime have fallen significantly in Southwest Philly—including Ricks’ Elmwood neighborhood, also known as Police Sector 12E—over the past five years. And so far this year there have been fewer homicides in the 12th District than at this point last year.
Yet the 12th still has seen more homicides this year than all but five of the city’s 21 police districts. And the number of reported assaults and burglaries is more than twice the city average, according to PPD statistics. So Ricks says that he and his 35-member-strong town-watch group must remain vigilant.
“What we find is that you go through these periods where crime drops and then [town watchers] grab the popcorn and sit in front of the TV and they disappear,” he says. “But you’ve always got to be out there patrolling.”
Most nights, Ricks—a reserved yet cordial guy who lives alone in a rowhome across the street from the park—heads out by himself to patrol for a few hours. A graduate of St. Joe’s who worked for years in the trucking industry, Ricks suffered a stroke in 1999; the nightly walks, he says, are as good for his own health as for the health of the neighborhood.
He co-founded his town watch in 1991, after the city put out a call for volunteers similar to the one they issued this summer. “Crime was up, the police were desperate,” Ricks recalls. “They came out and told a whole crowd of people at a community meeting, ‘You gotta organize a town watch because the city’s on the verge of bankruptcy and the only way we can effectively deal with crime is if you’re organized and you help us.’”
Ricks’ twin brother, Mike, served as the group’s president until his death in 2004. Ricks has been president since last November.
His methods are adamantly old-school and by-the-book: Observe and report, nothing more. No direct contact or confrontations with anyone in the act of committing a crime. Call 911 if there’s a serious crime in progress, or if a situation appears suspicious. Take note of various other crimes—suspected drug activity, prostitution and nuisance crimes like vandalism or graffiti—and report them later. Show up in court when necessary to testify as a witness.
Ricks believes it’s only the hard lesson of prison time that can steer someone away from crime for good. “I’ve had cases where I’ve testified against someone and they went to jail and they got out and actually thanked me,” he says. “They were teenagers and they got a taste of jail and they learned a trade in there. One guy’s a carpenter now—he was an asshole then and he’s probably an asshole now, but at least he’s a carpenter.”