Violent crime drops in Philly

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey talks on the phone outside Temple Hospital after a shooting Jan. 30. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )

Like other big cities, Philadelphia’s murder rate and other violent crimes dropped last year despite a poor economy and increased unemployment that — in past recessions — might well have driven more people to crime.

The city has recorded fewer murders for the second year in a row under Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who has proven to be one of Mayor Nutter’s best moves.

The drop in crime also makes the job slightly easier for new District Attorney Seth Williams, who yesterday pledged at his swearing-in to get “smarter on crime.”

Clearly, the Police Department has bought into the idea of smart policing under Ramsey. Its seven-month joint crime-fighting effort with 16 other law enforcement agencies successfully targeted a dozen violent areas of the city every weekend over the spring, summer, and fall. That followed a similar data-driven push that helped reduce murders by 15 percent in 2008.

The planned return this spring of the so-called Operation Pressure Point makes sense, and it could help determine whether the city is able to match the 8 percent drop in violent crime over a 12-month period that Ramsey reported in December.

Meanwhile, other cities, like New York and even Camden, have made even greater strides recently against their murder rates.

New York has long set the standard for big-city crime fighting. Those tactics should be emulated here. But the broader drop in crime in cities across the country indicates other trends may be at work as well.

For Philadelphia, it’s not only a question of keeping up the crime-fighting efforts this year. That’s because there are other alarming criminal-justice statistics working against citizens’ sense of safety.

As revealed in a recent Inquirer series, the city boasts the dubious distinction of having the worst record in prosecuting violent criminals among all other large urban areas. An Inquirer analysis of 31,000 criminal court cases over a three-year period concluded that defendants beat all the charges in nearly two-thirds of violent-crime cases.

A system that frees defendants due to court delays, when fearful witnesses fail to show, or through strained resources, victimizes crime victims twice.

Fortunately, Williams had those grim statistics on his mind when he faced the gathered officials and well-wishers at the Kimmel Center. “Four years from now, when I stand before you again, we will not have the lowest conviction rate in America,” the new district attorney vowed.

Ironically, the nationwide crime trends give the city a little bit of breathing room to deal with its wider criminal-justice reform needs. Given the dismal record of bringing perps to justice in Philadelphia, city residents deserve to breathe a sigh of relief twice-over when a crime isn’t committed.

The energy and enthusiasm that Williams brings to the challenge offers hope. The same holds true for the willingness to explore reform demonstrated by President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe of Common Pleas Court.

But Williams and Dembe will need help from many other players in the criminal-justice system if the city hopes to better its justice record.