Philadelphia Launches Dragnet To Rid the 'Badlands' of Drugs

'Operation Sunrise' is the latest police strategy in the rehabilitation of crime-ridden neighborhoods.

For Bernadette Sterling, the past few weeks have been remarkable. The grandmother of 17 has not had people sullying the side of her row home. There have been fewer empty crack vials and heroin packs littering her sidewalk, and prostitutes no longer hang out on the corner.

"It's 75 percent better than it was less than a month ago," says Ms. Sterling, who has lived in her home for 25 years. She credits Operation Sunrise with the improvement.

Operation Sunrise is an aggressive effort on the part of more than a dozen city, state, and federal agencies to rehabilitate a 2.4 square-mile section of Philadelphia that has been blighted by drugs and crime. The initiative is fashioned after a similar program successfully instituted by police several years ago to clean up the Washington Heights section of New York.

According to Marcus Feldson, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice in Newark, N.J., both programs are part of a new thinking regarding urban rehabilitation. "The smartest thing communities can do is go right to the core of the problem with solution-oriented policing," he says.

Operation Sunrise differs from the Washington Heights program because it is depending on community and church leaders. "It's a partnership between everybody," says Sylvester Johnson, deputy chief of police and architect of the operation. "I started this because I found out there were a lot of individual people working independently, but there was no sense of cooperation."

For Chief Johnson, the East Division neighborhoods of Kensington and Fairhill (known as "The Badlands") were the logical site for the operation. A once-thriving blue-collar factory area, it has experienced a gradual erosion over the past 20 years - a combination of white flight and the influx of drug dealers, who found the area and its proximity to I-95 perfect for heroin sale.

Special Agent Lawrence McElynn, head of the Philadelphia division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), one of the federal agencies involved, describes the drug situation here as severe. "The visual impact of drug trafficking is staggering, and the control exerted ... by the traffickers is overwhelming."

IT is a presence borne out in statistics. According to Mr. McElynn, Philadelphia has the highest levels of heroin purity in the country, the highest number of emergency admissions for drug overdoses, and the most abandoned houses. Most of this is concentrated in the East Division, which has more drug dealing than anywhere else in the city. In 1997, 68 murders occurred there. Forty-six percent of the area's 70,000 residents live below the poverty level, more than twice the percentage in the rest of Philadelphia.

City managing director Joseph Certaine calls the situation "a neighborhood emergency. This is an area where hope hasn't existed in some time," he says.

"This is a military regimen," he says, referring to mobile offices and barricades that have been set up, and planning which involves extensive undercover work, as well as beefed-up police presence.

Operation Sunrise was launched with a flourish early in the morning of June 15. In a dramatic cavalcade, police cruisers - their sirens blaring - drove through the area along with a parade of city vehicles, including trash and tow trucks, an anti-graffiti unit, and a mobile van that could field citizens' complaints.

The program is being closely watched by the American Civil Liberties Union because of concerns about the violations of citizens rights by aggressive police officers.

So far, says ACLU legal director Stefan Presser of Philadelphia, the police department has gotten it right: They are not breaking the law in order to enforce it.

But Police Inspector Joseph O'Connor, who is overseeing the three police precincts in the area, is careful not to claim success yet - although fewer drug dealers are on the streets.

"I don't think we've gotten rid of them.... The narcotics problem has just been driven underground. [But] this will work."

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