"It's Still Edgy Here"

The feds are helping with the Faheem Thomas-Childs case, but fear still rules Philadelphia.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 18, 2004

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Commissioner Johnson is well aware the Coles murder could become symbolic. If people in North Philadelphia were already too scared to testify in Thomas-Childs' case, the shooting of a do-gooder like Coles might only reinforce their fears. But Johnson wants this particular killing to become a different kind of symbol.

"It's awful what happened," he says. "But people from that community decided enough was enough. They came forward, provided us with information, agreed to testify, and two people have been arrested for killing Kevin Coles."

Johnson's intended audience couldn't be more clear.

North Philly, are you listening?

Will someone step up and testify against the other shooters in the Faheem Thomas-Childs case?

Only time will tell, but federal involvement in the Thomas-Childs shooting suggests the new direction the feds are taking. They've become increasingly involved in quelling the community's fears.

In June the Justice Department announced Philadelphia would be one of 14 cities targeted by an ATF-led task force.

The task force will pull together 14 federal agents, seven Philly cops, five Bureau of Narcotics Interdiction agents, two officers from the bench warrant unit, one DEA agent and one U.S. marshal to target West and Southwest Philadelphia gun crime. Perhaps most important, the techniques they employ will sound eerily familiar to anyone named Broaster.

"There's a combination of things we're doing," says ATF supervisor Tom Bowen. "We're targeting the people who are supplying guns to violent criminals, and we're targeting violent criminals themselves."

Bowen says that so far they're meeting with some success, and uncovering the depth of Philly's drug culture in the process. "We discovered one grandmother," says Bowen, "who was buying handguns for her grandson because he needed them to protect himself."

Most significant, Bowen acknowledges the Broasters are symbolic of the kinds of perpetrators the Violent Crime Impact Team is targeting. "Sometimes you have information on a person," says Bowen, "and you're aware of their criminal activities, but you can't yet prove them. The Impact Teams have the resources to conduct surveillance on these people and gather the evidence necessary to make an arrest."

A similar scenario may well have played out with the most recently arrested Broaster, Jerome.

As the story goes, a highway patrol officer just happened to stop an Oldsmobile with a busted brake light. Jerome Broaster happened to be inside. Broaster may well have been under surveillance or spotted by a cop who recognized him. However the arrest happened, the federal focus on individual violent criminals--over and above the broader scourge of "drugs"--could represent a much-needed change.

"These Streets Ain't Safe"

Politics impact upon every level of law enforcement, but perhaps nowhere so much as at the federal level, where the need for congressmen and senators to be seen as "tough on crime" resulted in "a war on drugs."

These days, though, talk about drug policing is dominated by phrases like "harm reduction" and "improving the quality of life."

The buzz phrases change with the times. Legal scholars say this latest shift reflects a lesson learned. The so-called war on drugs was Ronald Reagan's big anticrime initiative. The first President Bush talked about it less and less as his administration progressed. Now we hear about the war on terror, but the war on drugs is the object of ridicule.

Locally, we saw this shift in Operation Safe Streets, which forced drug dealers off the streets and behind closed doors. Commissioner Johnson's refreshing admission that "We will never arrest our way out of this problem" provided the reasoning for Safe Streets and tacitly acknowledged the war no longer existed.

On a federal level, we see the new line of thinking in prosecutors like Reed who now target particularly notorious criminals not to eliminate drug dealing or punish dealers for their crimes but to "improve the quality of life" in the neighborhoods these "career criminals" terrorize. Clearly, we're still engaged in sloganeering, but these slogans could lead to more significant change.

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