Worries Linger as Volunteers Patrol Philadelphia Hundreds of volunteer peacekeepers began patrolling some of the toughest streets in Philadelphia this week. But questions remain about how the unarmed volunteers will interact with neighbors and police, and whether they'll be safe.
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Worries Linger as Volunteers Patrol Philadelphia

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Worries Linger as Volunteers Patrol Philadelphia

Worries Linger as Volunteers Patrol Philadelphia

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Philadelphia, people are volunteering to help deter or at least report crime. Community organizers put out a call to action to get men to walk some of the city's toughest streets. They were hoping to recruit thousands of people, but the patrols began this week with much smaller numbers.

And Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports there are some doubts about how much difference the program will make.

Unidentified Man #1: Sound off.

Unidentified Man #2: One.

Unidentified Man #3: Two.

Unidentified Man #4: Three.

Unidentified Man #5: Four.

Unidentified Man #6: Five.

JOEL ROSE: About 50 volunteers line up at seven in the evening outside a city recreation center in South Philadelphia. They wear matching reflective vests and black armbands over their winter coats. Although city police have endorsed the efforts, men don't carry weapons and they can't make arrests. Still, as the patrols get underway, the men sound anything but afraid.

Unidentified Man #7: Let's move it out.

Unidentified Group: A new day.

Unidentified Man #8: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Group: A new day

Unidentified Man #9: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Group: A new day.

Unidentified Man #10: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Group: Seize the way.

ROSE: For two hours, the men walked the streets in groups of about a dozen, chanting or laughing most of the way. Wayne Rahman is one of the organizers of the effort. He's a former Marine and president of the South Philadelphia Block Association.

Mr. WAYNE RAHMAN (President, South Philadelphia Block Association; Former U.S. Marine): We care about this neighborhood. We care about the people who are hung up in these houses and who can't come out, afraid, intimidated on what was going on out here.

ROSE: Almost everywhere we walked on this first night, residents said they think the patrols will help make the neighborhood safer. Diane Peterson(ph) thinks the men can make a difference because they know these streets well.

Ms. DIANE PETERSON: They probably know half of te people that's doing the crimes, so I'm sure they can make a difference. If they see their cousin, uncle, brother, sister walking down the street, you know, in a peaceful way, of course they can make a difference.

ROSE: But not everyone here is so sure. Philadelphia has the highest murder rate of any big city in the country, Illegal guns are fairly easy to find, and young people in particular don't seemed convinced that these volunteers are going to succeed where police and politicians have failed.

Twenty-something Malcolm Pendleton(ph) thinks the men are just asking for trouble.

Mr. MALCOLM PENDLETTON: I think they're stupid. (Unintelligible) to go home because it's cold outside and they don't get hurt. That's what I think. I don't think they're going to make a difference, personally.

ROSE: His friend Chris Mickey(ph) isn't so sure.

Mr. CHRIS MICKEY: Maybe if they get more people right now, I mean, big enough. They got to do to a lot of people, so that you're sending a stronger message, like we're not playing anymore.

Unidentified Man #11: Tomorrow, patrol formation, 6:30, 18:30 here. All right? Same thing. Different squad leaders. Same thing.

ROSE: Back at the wreck center after the patrol, it's about 9 o'clock and the volunteers are dropping off their armbands and heading home. Organizers are calling these 50 men the vanguard. Squad leaders will eventually oversee thousands of volunteers on similar patrols. More than 10,000 showed up for the kickoff event last month, though it's not clear how many will come back. Whatever the number, Philadelphia police inspector Steve Johnson says the volunteers will make his job a little bit easier.

Inspector STEVE JOHNSON (Divisional Inspector, Philadelphia Police Department): Quite frequently, crime will pass by because people believe that they exist in a vacuum, that no one else will see it. There will be no credible witness to what's going on. And a sight of a large number dignified African-American men, any dignified group is going to serve us over terror.

ROSE: The organizers say training exercises like this one will continue for the next few weeks. They hope to get patrols going across the city by the end of the year.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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