Pa. city fights crime with soccer, strict curfews

Pa. city fights crime with soccer, strict curfews

Published June 23, 2010

CHESTER, Pa. – Marjorie Clark lost her husband to the swing of a baseball bat against his skull after he dared confront a drug dealer in 1993. Her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, was attacked about 12 years later by a man who broke into their home. Last week, her 2-year-old neighbor was shot in the head and killed just outside.

"It's getting worse and worse. I'm angry. I don't want to be here no more," said Clark, 66, who has lived for 20 years in this historic but troubled riverside city of 29,500.

Leaders, also angry and desperate as they try to see through a $500 million revitalization plan that includes the inauguration this weekend of a Major League Soccer stadium, are preparing to extend a five-day state of emergency to at least a month.

Wendell Butler Jr., mayor of this once-mighty manufacturing center halfway between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., responded to the recent shooting deaths of four people in eight days by instituting a curfew in five of Chester's high-crime neighborhoods, putting police on 12-hour shifts and announcing that eight more officers will be added "as soon as possible" to the 96-member force.

The shootings and resulting crackdown will have no effect on the Philadelphia Union soccer team's home opener Sunday, team spokeswoman Aimee Cicero said. The game, a sold-out event that has been hyped for months, will be the team's first there.

The city council is expected Wednesday to approve a one-month extension to the emergency declaration, which bars anyone in the designated zones from being outside "without a legitimate reason" between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. and requires a permit for any gathering of three or more people.

The move would also give police authority to stop and question anyone in those areas after curfew and cite them if they're without a "reasonable or legitimate reason for their activity."

Some residents in the city's most violence-prone sections doubt those changes will make them any safer.

"It's kind of too little, too late, isn't it?" said Charles Stansbury, 56, whose 2-year-old cousin, Terrence "Pop" Webster, was among the victims of the recent spate of slayings. "This is nothing new in Chester. Why did they decide to not do something until now?"

Terrence's parents were ambushed outside their apartment June 13, police said. The boy was shot in the head, and his parents suffered minor injuries and have not returned home.

Clark, the little boy's next-door neighbor, said that the crimes against her daughter and her husband, who had shoved a drug dealer near the family home, were never solved.

"He came home and went to bed, and his brain swelled. He died," she told The Associated Press, wiping her brow and her eyes as she sat in a folding chair under the shade of a tree outside her home.

"We have been through a lot of tragedy in this neighborhood, and nobody ever knows nothing," she said. "It's just gone sour. People don't stick together any more."

Situated on the Delaware River, Chester was settled in 1644 and was the site of William Penn's first landing in America in 1682. It grew into a robust manufacturing and shipbuilding town of 65,000 by 1950; "What Chester Makes Makes Chester," boasted a sign greeting visitors.

After World War II, however, Chester made less and less. Unemployment and poverty rose as factories that assembled cars and locomotives and mills that made lace, parachutes, yarn and textiles vanished.

The 2008 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 29.8 percent of Chester families live below the poverty level, compared with 9.6 percent nationwide.

The city has had 11 homicides this year, compared with seven in the same period last year. In recent years, the murder rate has averaged about 20 per year.

Some bright spots have appeared recently. A Harrah's racetrack and casino opened on the waterfront in January 2007, adjacent to the county prison. In late 2008, Chester got its first major hotel in more than three decades. None are located in the high-crime neighborhoods affected by the curfew.

Still, though, the bloodshed continues. Police say the illegal drug trade is behind much of it, though residents who live in areas plagued by drugs appear apprehensive to agree, a reticence common in areas where dealers have been known to mete out retribution to snitches.

Stansbury, 56, a Chester native, faults a lack of discipline at home and at school, easy access to handguns and lack of community engagement.

"I understand what they're trying to do with the curfew, but you can't just step on people's civil rights," added his wife, Rose Stansbury, 51, who lost a female relative to gun violence in 2004. "We have kids out here with no remorse, and with guns. It's like the Wild West."

Clark, who said she doesn't leave her house after dark for fear of being caught in the frequent shootouts happening within earshot, said she prays her young neighbor's death will "finally wake people up."

"This wasn't somebody out making trouble. This was a baby," she said. "My grandson is the same age; he's 2 years old. It could have been him."

Directly outside Terrence Webster's front door, now piled high with teddy bears and covered with written messages of sympathy, a sliding board and jungle gym sit unused on a warm summer afternoon. Drug dealers sometimes conduct their business on the park benches rimming the little playground, neighbors say, making it too dangerous for children.

"He should be out here, running around and playing," Charles Stansbury said. "But he's not here. He's gone. Whose child is going to be next?"



City of Chester:

Written by JOANN LOVIGLIO, Associated Press Writer


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