THE PANIC BUTTONS have already been pushed. The alarm bells continue to sound.
Yet Philadelphia remains in the throes of a violent crisis that has surged since Friday, claiming the lives of 12 people and making this the deadliest four-day stretch of the year. With the homicide total at 128 - a 17 percent increase over last year's brutal pace - residents and police worry that the arrival of warm weather will trigger another spike in murders.
* An unidentified 31-year-old man became the city's latest homicide victim - the 128th - after he was shot at 30th and Cumberland streets in Strawberry Mansion about 7:15 last night. p.m. See story on Page 5.
* The city's 127th homicide victim was an unidentified man who was shot to death on Roosevelt Boulevard near Front Street about 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Police had no suspects in the case.
* Earlier that same evening, Sterling Almond, 18, was shot to death on Bringhurst Street near Wakefield, police said. Almond's address was not immediately available.
A 16-year-old boy was shot in the left leg and wrist and an unidentified 20-year-old man was shot in the leg in the same incident. Both were listed in stable condition at Albert Einstein Medical Center. Police said the triple shooting appeared to be the result of an argument.
"With more people on the streets in warmer weather, you have a greater chance for a confrontation, and a greater chance for a confrontation to escalate into someone being killed," said Homicide Lt. Walt Bell.
The rising temperatures put many cops on red alert.
"Absolutely, when the weather starts turning warm, our senses pick up," said Lt. James Dambach, head of the Strategic Intervention Tactical Enforcement unit (SITE), a squad charged with patrolling the city late at night. "We have to be much more aware of our surroundings.
"Certainly, we're seeing more guns out there than ever before," said Dambach, a 30-year veteran.
"If you go down almost any street, the chances are good that you'll find a person who has a gun on them, or has easy access to one."
The triggermen are often teens and young adults who are loyal only to themselves, Dambach said. Homicides are often the results of arguments over such trifles as bicycles and girls, not hotly contested drug turfs.
"The things that normally people would have had an argument over now escalate into shootings at the drop of a hat. It's disconcerting," Dambach said.
"There's a distinct loss of a value for life. It's been trivialized, and you don't see [shooters] having any remorse for what they do. They don't have a larger picture of what they're doing to their community."
With an eye toward slowing the uncontrolled street violence, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson created the SITE unit last June. The mobile, 53-member squad usually spends two or three weeks in gun violence-ravaged sections of the city, working from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.
SITE cops swarm neighborhoods in scores of police cruisers, responding to everything from 911 calls to quality-of-life crimes, such as street-corner boozers and people who urinate in public.
"When we start employing that type of New York, [William] Bratton-styled policing, it makes an impact," Dambach said.
Since its inception, SITE has been well-received in many of the city's tougher neighborhoods, Dambach said. The visual presence of so many cops reassured many residents, and the improvements in the quality of life were appreciated. That the unit has excelled at getting guns off the street - since Jan. 1, SITE has confiscated 95 firearms citywide - hasn't hurt, either.
"The goal, from the beginning, was to try and take the neighborhoods back," he said. "We try to stay there for several weeks to get a handle on things and lessen the violence."
Since March 13, SITE has made up the bulk of 80 cops who were temporarily assigned to the notorious 12th District in Southwest Philly as part of a mayoral initiative to curb crime in the area.
The task force has made a dent in gun violence, decreasing shootings from an average of six per week to two per week. But police still face an uphill task: winning back residents who have bought into a "No Snitching" mentality.
"We see families who lose their children, but don't want to cooperate," Dambachsaid. "What does that say for what's going on out here?" *