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York fights crime with people power

October 04, 2015



This is part of a series of stories on crime and police work in Pennsylvania cities. Installments will appear periodically in the Sunday Reading Eagle. Jerri Zimmerman's bottled red hair is about as fiery as her temperament.

Three decades ago, after New York drug traffickers expanded their illicit business to the row homes on East Princess and Pine streets in York, Zimmerman and the bullhorn she nicknamed “Old Bessie” became synonymous with community crime fighting. “I care about my community. I care about kids,” said Zimmerman, 75. “I'm not the kind of person that will sit back and not be involved.” Zimmerman was fed up. She'd grown tired of people on the lookout for police whistling and yelling “Five Oh! Five Oh!” at all hours of the night, up and down her block. She was sick of the bar fights that routinely spilled into the neighborhood and the drunken patrons who urinated in the breezeways and alleys. But more than anything, she was irked at the dope pushers who had taken over her neighborhood.

That's when she took to the streets with Bessie and organized her neighbors. I started taking on the drug dealers,” Zimmerman said. She formed neighborhood marches, nailed signs to homes identifying drug houses, and she chased down a dealer or two, at least once with an ax handle. In the process, she was threatened, shot at multiple times, even run over by a pickup truck. “I would not back down from a drug dealer,” said Zimmerman, noting these traffickers actually called the police on her. It took about a year before the nuisance bar down the block shuttered and the drug peddlers relocated, Zimmerman said. But through everything she had learned an invaluable lesson: the power of community. Her work has been duplicated in neighborhood watch groups across the city. In the years since, Zimmerman has become something of an icon in this historic little city west of the Susquehanna River. Civic and business leaders say that same spirit of community involvement is ingrained into the very fabric and character of York. “I'm very proud of the fact that we took community policing very seriously,” said former Mayor John Brenner. “The community and police are really the ones that fight crime.” And given fiscal shortfalls and the increasing bite public safety takes out of the city budget, the need for increased community involvement could not be greater.

“With budget cuts, it makes it harder and harder to get things done without residents,” Brenner said. Interactive law enforcement Crime has gone down in York. In the decade from 2004 to 2013, York saw a 36.6 percent drop in overall violent crime, according to Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System data analyzed by the Reading Eagle. Most of the major crime categories — except assault, which rose 37.2 percent, and arson, which climbed 61.5 percent — have seen declines in York. Some of the crime categories have enjoyed significant drops over that period. Larceny, for example, fell 47.8 percent, and motor vehicle theft tumbled 63.9 percent over the 10 years of data examined. Most years the murder tally hovered around 10, but the city did have a couple of unusual years when the rate plummeted. It dropped more than 75 percent in 2006 and then 50 percent in 2010 before spiking 220 percent in 2011.

“If you look at our stats, they aren't all rosy,” said York County District Attorney Tom Kearney, noting that most murders are drug related. The city's top officials would not comment on York's crime statistics. York Mayor C. Kim Bracey declined to be interviewed, despite repeated requests, and York Police Chief Wes Kahley did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails made and sent over several weeks.

The drop in York's crime reflects a larger, national phenomenon that has confounded criminologists who partly attribute the declines to technological advances that improve crime fighting. In York, crime-fighting strategies have involved tools such as the roughly $500,000 ShotSpotter system that identifies where gunshots are fired with the use of sound detection and cameras at fixed locations in the city. It has included the “Target 25” initiative aimed at repeat drunken drivers after discovering 25 percent of York County cases were for DUI. And the strategy has embraced an emphasis on community policing, in particular Brenner's “Take 30” campaign, which required officers to get out of their squad car for at least 30 minutes each shift. Community policing isn't just walking the beat, though. It's about building relationships. In York, that's done, in part, through the department's community programs such as block parties and bowling. On the last Thursday of the police department's free summer bowling program for kids, which ended in August, Hope Kendrick watched her ball roll down the alley between the bumpers. “I love it so much,” Kendrick, a Hayshire Elementary School third-grader, said later between pizza bites.

The 9-year-old Kendrick was one of about 50 kids who knocked down pins and pizza on their final bowling day. While parents see the bowling program as something positive for kids to do while school is out, the police see the program as an important crime-fighting tool. “Law enforcement has to be more pro-interactive,” said York Police Department Lt. Gene Fells, who oversees the program, which costs about $4,000. “This is street cred for the officers.” The way Brenner, who served as mayor from 2002 until 2010, sees it, there is no single crime-fighting solution. “I don't think any one of these things magically make the numbers go down, but together it's a strategy that's vitally important to getting it done,” Brenner said. ‘Fair share of challenges' York has a reputation.

Two years ago, NeighborhoodScout.com ranked the city No. 18 on its annual list of the “Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S.” That ranking beat out a number of much larger communities well known for their crime — Baltimore (No. 27), Philadelphia (No. 50) and Chicago (No. 79). Last year York's rating fell to No. 33 and then slipped off the list this year. Because of the reporting lag, the 2015 list reflects 2013 crime data. “If you judge York by the newspapers, then you'll be scared to death to come to York,” said City Councilman Michael Helfrich. Residents and community leaders alike are quick to say York's reputation for danger is overblown. “The truth is we still have our fair share of challenges, particularly in drug street crime,” said Joe Wagman, who is the executive vice chair of Better York, a nonprofit organization formed to address economic development and public safety issues.

But Wagman — whose company, Wagman Construction Inc., which has built two, upscale apartment projects downtown — added: “We have a brand problem with the downtown because a lot of people in the county believe it's dangerous. That's a perception problem.”

City crime — Wagman and countywide law enforcement officials insisted — occurs in specific areas.

Two large-scale warrant sweeps involving the York County Drug Task Force and more than 100 officers have been credited with taking down the city's Latin Kings and Southside gangs in the past two years. The operations netted dozens of arrests and the seizure of cocaine and heroin, guns, money and vehicles.

Created in the 1980s as a countywide collaboration, the task force is composed of officers specially trained in drug interdiction and whose cases are assigned to a prosecutor in the DA's office with expertise prosecuting narcotics.

The team, Kearney said, was expanded three years ago and complements its work with a public education campaign. Despite the successes, officials recognize the issue is deeper than just a criminal element.

“We're not going to arrest ourselves out of this problem,” said York County Detective Craig Fenstermacher, who heads the task force.

The problem of crime in York, community members and leaders alike contend, is fueled in part by the concentration of poverty and its proximity to Baltimore and Interstate 83, which serves as a preferred corridor for drug traffickers.

Earl Thompson lives in the 300 block of East Poplar Street near the Cable House, a low-income apartment complex he called drug central.

The drug dealers in his block used to brazenly ride their bikes up and down the street looking for buyers. Thompson, 62, then helped organize his block this year as Zimmerman had done decades ago.

“Half the people were sitting in their houses afraid to come out,” said Thompson, who serves as block captain. “You got to get involved. You can't just sit there and say somebody else is going to do it.”

So they put in iron gates and locks on the alleys to cut off escape routes. And they started calling 9-1-1 at the first sign of trouble, as often as 20 times a night, Thompson said. They also alert city officials when an empty row house starts collecting broken windows.

Today, Thompson's area lies in stark contrast to an adjacent block, which was dotted recently with abandoned furniture and trash.

“We ain't got no problems here,” Thompson said. And then half-joking — he added, “All the problems are up in the 200 block.”

Reading Eagle