TO go on patrol with a special Philadelphia police unit in the working-class streets of Kensington is to see how wrenching social conflict can be held in check.
Day and night, police in the Community Interaction Task Force walk a tense beat, past silent gray factories mixed with endless, identical blocks of brightly colored, two-story wooden row houses. As factories have closed in Kensington - a once-prosperous collection of neighborhoods that make up about 10 percent of the city's population - a way of life has disappeared. And in its place, ethnic rivalries have risen.
What were once clear lines between races are now blurred, as Hispanics, Asians, and some blacks have moved into formerly all-white blocks.
``[The racial groups] know that we know who they are,'' said Jack Jonas, one of seven officers in the unit. ``So that if anything does happen, they know we're coming to find them - that calms them down.
``It's not that we eliminate the tension. Now, they just put up with each other.''
The unit in Kensington - where more than half of the city's race crimes occur - aims to keep warring factions apart and aggressively educate potential victims and assailants about Pennsylvania's 1982 ``hate crimes'' law.
The unit also accompanies minority families when they move onto an all-white block. ``It sounds stupid,'' said Sgt. Richard Wiley, ``but it lets them [the white residents] know that the police are involved.''
Some all-white sections of Kensington are run-down. Graffiti-covered walls include ``WTO,'' the initials of the gang ``Whites Taking Over.''
``The ones still here are not going to move because they either don't have the money, or they think this is where they're from,'' said Sergeant Wiley, the unit's commander. ``This is the last great white hope for some of these people.''
The mainly minority police unit has worked with a coalition of more than 20 community organizations since 1989, when both were organized after white and Latino youth were killed in separate incidents that many residents felt were racially motivated.
``I've been able to spend time in the community, and that's helped. I act as a mediator and try to get people to compromise,'' said Officer Ronald Couce, who is white and speaks Spanish. ``It's not going to turn things around here overnight, but little by little it changes things.''
Nonetheless, the number of hate crimes has increased steadily in Kensington and the city. Citywide, hate crimes rose by 38 percent in 1993. In the Kensington area alone last year, the number of reported racial incidents rose by 72 percent. (See chart.)
Police officers say that once tension dies down in one area, problems erupt in another.
The increase in hate crimes, which tend to be underreported, can be interpreted as a good or a bad sign, according to unit commander Wiley. More reports can mean minorities have more faith in the police's ability.
Two white teenagers shooting baskets at a Kensington basketball court pause to talk to a stranger about racial tension in the neighborhood. Blacks and Hispanics ``come in and start things up,'' said one. They drive by and yell something nasty, and ``we've got to respond.''
A couple of Puerto Ricans are his friends and are ``cool,'' he adds, but if a large group of them ever showed up in the neighborhood - ``no chance.''
``It's just gonna keep going and going,'' he said, referring to the racial tensions in Kensington, ``nothin's gonna stop it, it's never gonna change.''
In 1991, a minor traffic accident erupted into a racial confrontation that resulted in a white bystander being stabbed by a group of Latino youths. In separate incidents, other Latinos reported having bottles thrown at their cars and racial epithets yelled at them by whites.
In 1992, Robert Burns, a white youth who was a bystander to a bottle-throwing incident between white and Hispanic youths, was killed by a bullet fired by a Latino in a passing car.
``There's an insanity to it all, and there's plenty [of racism] to go around on all sides,'' said Officer Leo Santiago, Mr. Jonas's partner. ``Sometimes we're the only thing that keeps two groups from annihilating each other.''
Several months after Burns's death, 13 houses owned by minorities who had moved onto formerly all-white blocks were vandalized or sprayed with racist graffiti. Two of the targeted families subsequently moved.
But when verdicts in the Burns killing were handed down this January - verdicts that many whites called too lenient - there was no retaliation or new graffiti. Residents said that the unit has reduced tensions and racist graffiti.
``I was surprised,'' said Andrea Cuttillo, a friend of Burns's who worked with him. ``It was really quieter than I expected.''
Mary Jane Burns, Burns's mother, has urged white youths not to retaliate for her son's death. She and Burns's sister are active in the community group that works closely with police.
``The community has equal say as far as what preventive and outreach efforts the [police] unit focuses on,'' said Sister Eileen McNally, chair of the community group. ``A task force with so many [community] groups [and the police] can respond to an incident quickly and on many different levels.''
Creating the unit is an extension of the Philadelphia Police Department's shift to community policing, which includes returning officers to walking beats.
``We're really on new ground here [with this unit],'' said Wiley. ``We're trying to be pro-active and stop conflict before it develops.''
Creating safe areas
Safe zones are often needed to delineate ethnic boundaries.
For a black church congregation in one run-down neighborhood, their cars were often spray-painted with racial epithets by white kids. Now their church parking lot has a new 12-foot chain-link fence around it.
And where racial graffiti once marred the exterior of a recreation center, now interracial basketball games and other sports programs have been organized.
``We've tried to make the recreation center a neutral zone where the kids can play,'' said Mr. Couce, the officer assigned to walk the beat in the area. ``Before, a Puerto Rican or black kid would come here, and they'd get jumped. Then he'd go get some friends, and they would retaliate.''
Ramiro Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican businessman who owns an automotive repair shop, said the area has settled down. ``Before, nobody had respect for anyone,'' Mr. Gonzalez said. ``I think now they know somebody is out there watching them if they do something.''
Wiley said the need to establish a hate-crime law and the unit was, in a way, a sign of how little progress society has made. ``It's sad,'' he said. ``When we don't know how to deal with a problem, we make it a crime.''
Officer Santiago said the unit wasn't the answer to racism. ``This unit was never developed as a cure-all,'' he said. ``The best we can do is to be a thread that binds different community groups together.''
Both Jonas and Santiago, who have been in the unit since it was created, said less overt racial violence occurs, but the basic problem - racism - still exists.
``Things have definitely calmed down since we started,'' Jonas said, ``It [racism] still goes on. They're just more careful about expressing it.'' Santiago agreed. ``As we evolve, they evolve,'' he said.
``Seeing the terror in people's eyes gets tiresome,'' Santiago said, as a weary look passed over his face.
``If we can't make things better, we can at least try to make things not get worse.''