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Fighting Crime in Philadelphia

​IN MID-MAY, a thief embarked on a crime spree by stealing three laptops from office buildings in downtown Philadelphia. Security directors for the buildings notified the City Center District (CCD), a business improvement district that covers a 233-block area downtown. The CCD contacted the police. The CCD also put out an alert providing details of the incident to other downtown businesses. As the thefts continued, police were able to track some of the devices using information from the victimized companies and advice from technical firms, such as Apple. The thief’s conspirators were found as a result of the device tracking.

Around the same time, one of the companies that had been alerted to the crime spree captured an image of the thief on surveillance video and forwarded the image to the CCD, which forwarded it to the police officers in charge of the case and redistributed it to businesses. The police were able to identify the culprit from the photo, and he was arrested soon after that.

This coordinated effort is just one example of how the well-oiled machinery of the CCD and its coordination of police activities with business interests have helped reduce crime and make Philadelphia more attractive to businesses and tourists.

The CCD was launched in the early 1990s as part of a strategic plan to revitalize a city center that was considered unsafe and dirty. Under Pennsylvania law, the CCD is funded directly by district businesses rather than through taxes. The CCD does not focus only on security issues. Its annual funding from businesses, which has grown from $6.5 million in 1991 to $19.5 million in 2012, is spent on everything from pedestrian street lighting to trash collection and graffiti removal.

Among the major components of the CCD are the 42 uniformed Community Service Representatives (CSRs) who act as ambassadors for the city, helping tourists with directions and keeping an eye out for criminal activity. CSRs must be at least 20 years old and pass an extensive background check and drug screening. Once hired, the CSRs undergo six weeks of training in hospitality, crime prevention, and marketing.

Within the CSR group, a special team is dedicated to helping the homeless get the assistance they need through public services. Another team is responsible for patrolling the district and reporting on 83 different infrastructure problems, from downed electrical wires to lax trash collection. The members of this infrastructure team carry hand-held computers to record the problem and the location. This data is then transmitted to the appropriate city agency.

Crime has gone down 42 percent since the CCD was activated, says Stacy Irving, senior director of crime prevention services for the CCD. That’s partly due to additional initiatives developed by the group, including Alert Philadelphia, the City Center Sentencing Task Force, and the Philadelphia Crime Prevention Council.

“Alert Philadelphia came about as a result of the terrorist attacks on 9-11,” says Irving. “We became an information clearinghouse because we were receiving numerous calls from businesses and security directors who wanted to know what we knew about the attacks and whether Philadelphia was a possible target. Were businesses closing or sending employees home? Were the bridges open or the trains running? Was the city evacuating?”

Because of existing partnerships with local businesses and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, the CCD was able to provide some information. “But we realized that there was no way for the police to communicate detailed information to the public and especially to the center city population,” says Irving.

The solution was a text-based emergency communication system called Alert Philadelphia. Anyone can sign up to receive the alerts, but Irving must approve each applicant. Irving verifies the information on the registration and then places the applicant in one of 26 different groups so that applicants will receive alerts specific to their sector as well as general alerts. The alerts include photos and details about emergency situations and criminal suspects along with specific contact information for police.

Alerts can be on everything from crime patterns, protests, and major traffic detours to homeland security threat-level changes, evacuation or shelter-in-place information, bomb threats, and Amber Alerts. They are also used to make requests for witness information or surveillance footage.

The system has 2,600 users. To date, Alert Philadelphia has been credited with helping police make arrests in five cases. In one, the information went out on a Friday, and, when the suspect entered an office building on Monday, an AlliedBarton security officer spotted him and notified police.

Once a suspect is convicted, another CCD program kicks in. The City Center Sentencing Task Force organizes victims to appear at the sentencing phase of the criminal’s trial. In addition to getting victims to the courthouse, the task force organizes interested parties to attend the sentencing. For example, if a thief has targeted hotels, security directors from local hospitality companies may be asked to attend. If the crime took place in a parking garage, those in charge of parking lot security will come to the sentencing. For assaults that take place on the street, community watch groups will be on hand. “The purpose of the program is…not only to let victims know that they are not alone but to send a message to the courts as well, that center city takes crime seriously,” explains Irving.

And the program works. In the case of a serial office burglar who stole equipment from 36 office suites throughout the CCD, more than 60 people attended the sentencing. The judge commented on the turnout and gave the thief the maximum sentence—15 to 30 years in prison.

The task force has also helped the CCD form a strong relationship with the local district attorney’s office. And that relationship has provided benefits for the CCD. For example, Irving was able to interview the office equipment thief to see how he chose his targets, how he got past security, and what he did with the equipment once it was stolen. The thief said that he went into the office buildings during the morning or evening rush hours. He always dressed in business clothes to blend in and signed in at the security desk as if he were going to a specific company. He gleaned this information from the business directory in the lobby or from the person who signed in before him.

The thief noted that he often learned the names of security officers and became friendly with them. He entered some buildings so often that security officers waved him by the security desk. One guard even unwittingly helped with the heist, telling the thief to go next door to a hotel and borrow a luggage rack to transport the goods, which the guard did not realize were being stolen.

What buildings did the thief avoid? “Any that required visitors to show identification or where employees were required to escort visitors. A stringent visitor management program made a difference,” says Irving.

Irving took this information to the Philadelphia Crime Prevention Council and shared it with security professionals who, in turn, used it to launch new programs and provide training for their employees. Such information is a regular part of the agenda for the council, which boasts 300 members and meets twice a month. Hosted by the CCD, the meetings include lunch and are attended by representatives from all city agencies including federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as private security personnel.

Discussions include lessons learned from past events as well as tactical discussions of potential problems. For example, the June meeting included ways to address operations and emergency response for the national gathering of the Occupy groups, which were to take place the following month. Representatives from the Philadelphia Police Department came to talk about a game plan for the private sector and corporate security on how to respond if anyone tries to “occupy” their properties.