September 1017, 1998
Car 32 Where Are You?
Juvenile parole officers are teaming up with city cops to track down some of Philadelphia's most hardcore teenage offenders. Finally, probation has some teeth. Or does it?
by Gwen Shaffer
But the two-person team riding in Car 32 this sticky August morning is anything but a likely pair.
Officer Pat Lynch is in the driver's seat. She grasps the steering wheel in one hand and a two-way radio in another. A middle-aged black woman with 24 years on the force, she comes across as slightly boredclearly not a woman who tolerates any nonsense.
You wouldn't pick her out as a cop, though. In blue jeans and Mickey Mouse T-shirt, dangly gold teardrop earrings, fashionably long fingernails painted shocking pink and a baseball cap covering her closely cropped hair, Lynch could be anyone from a street tough to a PTA mom. And that's precisely her intent.
Juvenile parole officer Ryan Egan, 25, sits next to her in the passenger seat. His slicked-back dark hair and clean-cut features suggest the stereotypical frat boy. In his blue and white striped shirt, blue jeans and glistening white sneakers, he looks like someone more likely to be seen driving around in a late model SUV than this old heap.
But don't let his wide-eyed, naive expression fool you: Egan spends his days dealing with some of the most street-savvynot to mention dangerouskids around.
Together, he and Lynch are taking part in an innovative partnership that began this spring. Police and juvenile probation officers are teaming up for the first time to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problem of trackingand helping to reformjuvenile offenders.
Today they're looking for a house where they hope to find a 17-year-old kid charged last year with firearm possession. He violated his parole and now, with a bench warrant out for his arrest, the law is coming after him.
Lynch, Egan and their colleagues are putting new teeth into probation.
And the kids are beginning to take notice.
It was a classic case of the left arm not knowing what the right was doing. Until recently, when kids failed to show up for court dates or violated parole, they rarely faced consequences. Because many of these juveniles were originally arrested for violent offensesgun possession and drug trafficking are two of the most commonattempting to track them down and confront them was deemed too risky for parole officers. All Family Court could do was wait until the juvenile was caught breaking the law again, and brought in on a new charge.
And, almost always, there was a next time. Precisely what the system was set up to avoid.
Family Court began to explore how it could prevent kids already in trouble with the law from committing additional crimes, or from being victimized themselves.
That's where the Police Probation Partnership came inthe initiative between Family Court and the Philadelphia Police Department to track down juveniles with warrants out for their arrest.
Beginning in May, the Philadelphia Police Department began teaming up with parole officers from the city's Family Court. Nearly every day, representatives from each entity pair up and scour the city for juveniles who are eluding the law. Just one day's worth of rap sheets lists kids wanted for crimes ranging from armed robbery to rape.
Police Lt. Daniel Placentra runs the day-to-day operations of the partnership. It is a program of the Juvenile Aid Unit, headquartered at the Frankford Arsenal in Northeast Philly. He sends his officers to problem corners, homes and even schools, if necessary. So far, they've picked up more than 100 kids, he says. Even so, less than half the stops are fruitful, and the process is very time-consuming. Police and probation officers have made about 500 home visits since January.
Officer Adoniram "Johnny U" Ulloa (front) with probation officers Angelia Cooper and Rodney Handy
When kids see cops at their doors, they are more than a little surprised. Boys tend to posture, to cultivate a macho image and show they aren't afraid of no damn cops. Girls more often run like hell. Either way, they simply don't wanna go.
The parents of these kids react all sorts of ways. Sometimes, the cops and probation officer will show up at a home where a parent lies for the kid, insisting he isn't around. Meanwhile an uncle is sitting on the sofa, rolling his eyes toward the second floor, where the kid is actually hiding out. Other times, parents are relieved to see the police. Finally, they think, some help.
When a kid is successfully apprehended, the parole officer on the scene immediately calls into the Youth Study Center to give administrators the heads up that a new client will be checking in. The center is where juveniles are detained, anywhere from two to 10 days, while waiting for a hearing to be held on their cases. Not uncommonly, however, things at the center are hectic, and probation officers have a difficult time getting through quickly.
The center, at 20th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, is constantly abuzz. The building has an institutional feel, but is also more high energy than one might expect a detention facility to be. As people clamor through its glass doors and up the stairs into the residential wings, their footsteps echo loudly through the halls. Cigarette smoke wafts down the hallway from a waiting room lined with neat rows of vinyl-upholstered chairs.
Farther down the hall, the laughter of workers mingles with voices of inmates. Cork bulletin boards are hung along the corridors, announcing rules and activities. A snake of boys, some of whom look way too innocent to have broken the law, are lined up against the wall, waiting in line for a fresh change of clothes.
The Youth Study Center has a federally imposed cap of 105 juveniles. But over the last year, the number of kids being brought into the Youth Study Center has swelled. While its current capacity is actually below capacity for the first time in many yearshovering around 95overcrowding has been ridiculously high. Nearly 200 kids sometimes cram into the center, says Bob Listenbee, chief of the juvenile unit at the Public Defenders Association, which represents 70 percent of Family Court cases.
The reason for this is due, in part, to an increase in juveniles being picked up on bench warrants, Listenbee says. "But that has been going on for the past eight months or so," he adds, prior to the Police Probation Partnership moving into high gear.
Listenbee won't go so far as to say the atmosphere is one of chaos, but acknowledges it is far from ideal.
"If you have 190 children, with no beds and no space, the kids are agitated and the employees have to work overtime," he says. "It's certainly not pleasant. Whether or not it's dangerous, I can't substantiate."
Listenbee says Philadelphia's Deputy Commissioner of Human Services Joyce Burrell deserves accolades for successfully bringing down the number of kids detained at the Youth Study Center.
But the center itself has no control over how many teens it houses, stresses one of its assistant directors, Tom Quick. "The kids come here by order of Family Court. We take care of the kids, but when and who comes is up to the court."
The Police Probation Partnership is part of a new approach to juvenile crime. In 1995, the Pennsylvania legislature became the first in the nation to pass laws that specifically take into account the needs of victims and of the community. Act 33the Balanced Approach for Restorative Justice (BARJ)says that when a crime is committed by a juvenile, there are actually three victims involved: the community, whose sense of security is weakened; the victim of that specific crime; and the offender, due to the circumstances that brought him down in the first place.
One of BARJ's broadest mandates is for local probation departments to build competency among juvenile offenders. That means determining what the child needs to get his or her life back on trackwhether it be additional schooling, drug treatment or employment.
A second piece of the new law takes a hard look at community protection. Traditionally, the court system focused solely on the offender when determining where to place juvenile offenders. Now, the victim and the community are considered equal partners in the process. A risk assessment takes into account the juvenile's prior history and the seriousness of the offense.
A strong emphasis on accountability is perhaps the most significant piece of BARJ legislation. Both the offender and the community are better served when the juvenile is held accountable to his or her victim, according to the law. If there is a specific victim involvedsuch as when a teen steals a carmonetary restitution is ordered. If no specific victim is involvedsuch as when a neighborhood park is vandalizedthe child may be sentenced to perform community service. Often, both restitution and community service are ordered. Currently, 1,500 juvenile offenders in Philadelphia are performing community service at 350 sites throughout the city.
The Police Probation Partnership is an effort to combine all elements of BARJ. It is positive for the kids, advocates contend, because it gets them any help they may need. At the same time, the initiative is good for the community because it gets offenders off the streets, where they are likely to commit additional crimes.
Most importantly, champions of the project say, it holds juvenile offenders responsible for their actions. It sends the message that if a kid violates parole or fails to show up for court, a cop may be knocking at the door. Finally, probation means something.
Or does it?
Both the probation office and the police department insist their combined effort is making a significant dent in juvenile probation violations. Still, there are a few kinks to be worked out.
But Listenbee, the public defender, questions whether the partnership is actually encouraging juveniles to turn themselves in or take parole more seriously. Many of his clients are clueless that cops are even going after bench warrants now.
"Deterrents work when kids know about them. If they want kids to turn themselves in, they need to publicize the program," he says.
As they drive along, Lynch and Egan reminisce about a run they made the previous week. The owners had a horse penned up in the side yard. "The house was right in the middle of North Philly, that's what's so funny about it," Egan laughs.
But the horse was just the beginning. When family members answered the door, they told cops the kid being pursued wasn't home.
It just so happened, however, that construction workers were making some repairs at the home. "They tipped us off that the kid was hiding out on the third floor," Egan says. So the crew barged up the stairs. Still, the kid was nowhere in sight.
Enter Grandpa. The old man points his finger toward the roof. Apparently, the kid climbed out a window.
By pure coincidence, the Philadelphia Fire Department was installing some batteries in a smoke alarm at a house around the corner. The cops contacted the fire truck, and had firefighters haul their ladder up to the roof. By the time they raised it, though, the kid was gone.
"With this job, every day is different. There's always an adventure," Lynch smiles, shaking her head. "We have to laugh, to keep from crying."
She and Egan return their attention to the situation at handfinding the house near 19th and Dauphin. They radio district cops for backup.
The Fury sails past an abandoned lot. Empty potato chip bags, an egg carton, crushed soda cans and de-treaded tires are strewn about. A line of elderly African-American men, some of them leaning on wooden canes, are gathered along the fence that hems in the lot. Across the street, a heavyset woman sits, surrounded by about a half-dozen toddlers, some of them munching on TastyKakes. A police siren wails faintly in the distance.
The Police Probation Partnership is modeled after a Boston project that got off the ground in the early '90s, known as "Operation Night Light." Dust from the crack epidemic was continuing to settle and teenagers were no small players in the scene. Cops in the anti-gang unit got to talking with juvenile probation officers.
"There was a core group of kidsroughly about 16 to 22causing havoc on the streets," says Boston Police Detective Robert Merner. "We found out that many of these kids were already on probation."
Sure, a fresh arrest would bring the juvenile offender back before a judge, but anything short of that, and there were almost no consequences for a kid who violated probation. Many of the kids hanging out till all hours were doing so in spite of a 9 p.m. curfew.
"But the parole officer went home when the court closed at 5 p.m.," Merner says. "And police didn't know the conditions of probation."
Merner and his colleagues got together and developed a list of the juveniles whom they suspected caused the bulk of trouble. They asked the judge to impose an "area restriction" on many of these kidsforbidding them from entering certain parts of the city, such as a specific housing project or street corner.
Then they let the kids know that things had changed.
When the cops showed up in tandem with a probation officer, Merner says the kids were "in shock. " If a cop and probation officer visited a kid's home and no one answered, they left a card ordering the juvenile to call down to the station. Rarely were they ignored.
"These kids want to please their parole officers, just to keep 'em off their backs," Merner points out. "If they called or came in, we said you need to abide by your probation restrictions, and if you fail to, you'll be brought back before a judge."
Operation Night Light has had a profound impact on parents of children involved in the juvenile court system. In the past, parents often perceived cops as villains who were there to take their children to prison, or they felt intimidated because interaction took place in a courtroom. "Before, we never went into the house and spoke to the parent they see us on a different level now," Merner says.
The majority of time that a probation officer and police officer knock on the door, he adds, parents are "thrilled" to know someone exists to help them with a troubled child. "We deal with a lot of parents who feel they have no control, and they ask us, 'What can I do?'"
When the program began, about 17 percent of juveniles were complying with probation. By 1995, that number had shot up to 70 percent, and three times as many probation violators have been jailed.
Night Light is continuously evolving. What began in a single neighborhood has spread to every district and superior court in the city. While the program was initially focused on enforcement, today it is primarily focused on intervention and maintenance. Cops and probation officers help kids vulnerable to crime enroll in school and land jobs.
When probation officers go along to pick up or check in on juvenile offenders, they don't carry weaponsdespite the fact that they can wind up in some fairly dangerous situations. That's why the police department places strong emphasis on training probation officers, Merner says. They spend two weeks at the Boston Police Academy, learning the intricacies of "officer safety"everything from constitutional law to how to handle controlled substances and firearms.
It is difficult to quantify how much of a role Operation Night Light has played in Boston's dramatic drop in juvenile homicidesfactors such as a strong economy have led to an overall drop in crimebut the statistics are impressive. The city went two and a half years without a juvenile homicide, a streak that was broken when a teenage boy was killed this past Dec. 16.
There are still kinks to be worked out in Philadelphia's police/probation office partnership. For instance, in Philadelphia, unlike Boston, probation officers receive only cursory training and aren't invited to attend classes at the police academy.
But the partners insist the combined effort is making a significant dent in juvenile probation violations.
Officer Brian Richardson has worked in the Philadelphia Police Department's Juvenile Aid Unit for five years. Since an alliance was forged with the probation office, Richardson feels as though he has been able to make a difference in kids' lives. "I like to get up close and personal, give advice," he says. "Let 'em know they could be doing something better with their lives than this."
Many of the teen offenders he comes into contact with daily are good kids who have succumbed to peer pressure, Richardson believes. "Times are different. Nobody has patience, it's gotta be right then and there," he laments. "Some juveniles can't take orders from authority."
Egan agrees. "These kids don't have the same structure, values or guidance we had. A lot of these kids doing the crime, it's not their fault."
The problem is, he adds, these kids out there on the street never learned the meaning of respect. "Parents tell their kids, 'Don't do that' and then backhand 'em. They don't explain why they shouldn't be doing it."
Of course, not every moment is rewarding for these bounty hunters.
"Some days, I get frustrated and feel like I'm not making any difference," Richardson admits. "We go out with warrants and discover that we just missed them or nobody is home."
By the time Lynch and Egan pull up to their intended destination at 19th and Dauphin Streets, a marked police van has beat them to the scene. The pair is followed by another unmarked Plymouth Fury. That car carries Lynch's boss, Placentra, and Richardson. All four pile out of their cars.
Placentra is the first to reach the door. When he knocks, a woman in cut-off jean shorts, a tight pumpkin-orange tee and bare feet ambles onto the stoop. Egan flashes the warrant and explains why the gang is there. A teenage boy emerges from the house. Within seconds, a uniformed officer is restraining him with handcuffs. The whole time, the boy's eyes are glued to the pavement and no emotion is evident in his facial expression.
His mother hasn't budged from the stoop, where she continues to stand with her hand resting under her chin, simply shaking her head.
Egan tries calling the Youth Study Centerwhere the offender will be held until a hearing is held on his case, probably the following Mondaybut has trouble reaching anyone working "intake." His call gets bounced around to various departments, and the kid can't be taken in until the center has been notified.
Over the next 15 minutes, more people appear from inside the house: a little girl with brightly colored barrettes in her hair grabs on to her mother's leg; a teenage girl sporting a Polo shirt and Spandex shorts walks out and pads down the street; a teenage boy dressed in black jeans and Timberland boots steps outside, glances at the scene unfolding, and pushes the door closed again.
Meanwhile, on the street below, small children pedal by on their dirt bikes, shoot plastic water guns, dribble basketballs. They hardly seem to take note of the arrest in progress.
After the juvenile is finally led into the police car, he is driven to the Youth Study Center. There, he receives a medical and psychiatric evaluationhealth care he probably would never receive if he weren't brought in on a bench warrant. The kid will be assigned a social worker who will act as a liaison between himself and the public defender assigned to his case.
"Really, we're not here to hurt these kids," Egan says. "We're here to help."