Crime Watchers: Meet the Citizens Who Patrol Our Streets

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 7, 2011

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“Sometimes you don’t get a second chance,” she says. “Your first time could be your last time—either dead or in jail. I’m giving people another chance.”

Unlike Ricks, Moore doesn’t have any stats to back up her efforts, but she insists she’s having an impact; she says she sees behaviors slowly changing for the better, one person at a time. “I know we can’t save everybody … But if we save one ...” She chokes up for a moment. “I can’t give up on anybody,” she says.

The person overseeing Ricks’ and Moore’s efforts is Anthony Murphy, executive director of Town Watch Integrated Services. In 1996, TWIS was launched as Philadelphia Operation Town Watch: Murphy and two staffers tasked with bringing the city’s 300 volunteer town-watch groups—which to that point had been operating individually in concert with local police districts—under one umbrella. TWIS’ mission was to provide training, as well as such tools of the trade as handheld radios and reflective vests, and oversee town watch recruitment efforts.

Town Watch was the official manifestation of efforts that have become Murphy’s life’s work. A native of the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philly, Murphy returned home in the mid-’70s from a stint in the Navy to find his old neighborhood wracked by violence and crime. He began teaching troubled youth at the nearby Marcus Garvey School for Positive Education, preaching self-reliance and personal responsibility. Soon, he joined Philly activist Bennie Swans’ Crisis Intervention Network to combat gang and drug violence, in part by rallying people to develop town watch groups in crime-infested areas.

“Citizens have to be a part of community policing,” says the 60-year-old Murphy. Friendly, soft-spoken and quick to flash a smile, Murphy is zealous when talking about the need for town watch. “You cannot accept [crime] in your community and do nothing,” he says, “because then it continues, and at the point where you wanna blame the police and say ‘Why do you let that happen?’ you have to recognize that you allowed that to make its way into your community.”

He’s led by example. In the ’80s, in the midst of race riots between blacks and whites in South Philly compounded by high-crime rates, Murphy set up and helmed a town-watch patrol unit in Grays Ferry, arguably the most dangerous neighborhood in the city at the time. “It was tough,” he says. “But we did what we had to do. That was our job. And eventually, things got better.”

These days, there’s more than 700 town-watch groups, comprising more than 20,000 volunteers.

“There’s town-watch people out there volunteering to do the hard work every day, all over the city,” says Murphy.

But after 10 years at the helm of Philadelphia Operation Town Watch, Murphy became convinced that in order to make a real, permanent dent in the crime rate and improve quality of life, changing hearts and minds was just as important as being eyes and ears. So in 2006, the agency was rechristened Town Watch Integrated Services to reflect that broader approach. Training town watchers to observe and report remained a central mission. But Murphy and his staff started dropping into communities where there’d been a recent deadly shooting, or persistent drug issues, or gang warfare, and they’d organize conflict resolution meetings that put angry, fearful citizens in a room with top police brass, city officials and community leaders to overcome issues of mistrust and miscommunication and find ways to work together to address the violence.

More crucially, though, Murphy initiated a process of going into schools and neighborhoods, reaching out to at-risk youth and wayward adults to connect them with significant, existing city resources that could help turn their lives around: Literacy and education programs, job training and employment opportunities, family counseling, basketball leagues, drug and alcohol counseling, arts programs, mental-health treatment, and business and entrepreneurial programs.

“Look, law enforcement has to be a part of it,” Murphy says. “There has to be consequences for people who commit crimes. But we’ve already proven that prisons have revolving doors, so we try to do more than that.”

Murphy says some town-watch volunteers are beginning to adopt an approach that resembles Moore’s more than Ricks’. Still, he’s wary. Having people observe and report is one thing; having them act as roving social workers is quite another.

“Some people are better at it that others,” says Murphy, who fears potentially ugly confrontations between town watchers and criminals who can’t be swayed by reason. “[Town watch volunteers] are not police. They are organized and trained to document what they see and report it to police, and you want them to do that. That’s vital. I’d prefer that they call [TWIS] and we’ll handle the interventions in a more controlled environment. But yes, when the opportunities present themselves, go and do what you can to make a difference in [peoples’] lives. You wanna change their minds [about committing crime]? That’s what’s going to generate the change we want and need.”

While Ricks admires Moore’s courage and respects her approach, he’s not about to change his own. “The people out here clubbing little old ladies over the head, you think they’re gonna just stop and listen to me? I’m not a community activist. I’m a town watcher. I can’t save the world. We’re not the ones who have the ability to make crime stop, that’s the police. We just help them do their job, and they need somebody that’s gonna call in the crime at the proper time and give them the solvability factors. That’s what we have to train people to do. That’s how we put together a program that’s gonna have an actual impact.”

Still, Ricks says he’ll be back at the table with Moore as always during the next monthly town-watch meeting at 12th District headquarters. “We do things differently, but in the end we’re on the same page,” says Ricks. “We’re just doing what we can to make this a better place to live for everybody.”

For more information about town watch in your area, visit phila.gov/townwatch.

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