When a young mother with an infant in tow was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight outside the Wayne Starbucks this past May, it sent shivers through the Main Line. This isn’t the sort of thing normally associated with our tony neighborhoods and casual business districts. In this shaky economy, could ugly crime be increasing?
Not really, according to local police, who are working hard to downplay such perceptions. “Any time someone is victimized, we treat it as a major incident,” says Radnor Police Superintendent Bill Colarulo. “We want to nip it in the bud with relentless follow-up.”
Hereabouts, as everywhere, there is always pruning to be done; the Main Line is not immune. The reality that crime is stealthy and can happen anywhere really hit home on June 15, when Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman announced the arrest of 27 suspects in a drug investigation that had originated nearly three years ago at a barbershop on Upper Gulph Road in Wayne, a mere mile north of downtown.
The investigation—which also involved Chester and Philadelphia counties—uncovered a large stash of cocaine, cash, weapons and more. Numerous law enforcement agencies utilized wiretaps and thousands of man-hours to crack the case. “[We want to] send a message to these drug dealers that we don’t want them operating in our community,” says Ferman.
Radnor Township’s 2010 crime report does show a 15-percent increase in robberies, assaults, burglaries and auto theft during the previous year. Even so, 70 percent of those more serious offenses—435 in all—involved less threatening acts like purse snatching and shoplifting. Meanwhile, Class 2 offenses like fraud, vandalism, DUI and disorderly conduct fell by 8 percent, and total crime was flat. Encouragingly, there was not a single homicide in the period from 2006 to 2010.
But stable overall crime figures are of no solace to victims—which is why police response is everything. An arrest was made the day after the armed robbery, thanks to detective-sergeant Andy Block’s tracking of stolen credit cards used at a Target store in Springfield and compelling video obtained from surveillance cameras at the site. “When you get something like that, you want to send a message of zero tolerance,” says Colarulo.
But even lesser crimes are capable of disrupting our sense of security. A series of 10 vehicle break-ins in February and March cast a temporary pall over Wayne’s normally high-spirited restaurant row. Burglars smashed car windows and made off with laptops and iPads in about the time it takes to open a menu and locate the specials.
“It’s a crime of opportunity,” says Block. “They targeted the restaurants and marked the cars while it was still light, did the crime between 6 and 8 p.m., then scooted to a waiting car.”
The “marked” cars typically had valuables in plain sight. After police distributed laminated placards urging caution and common sense, the break-ins abruptly stopped. Alas, there were no surveillance cameras to document the thefts, so the opportunists simply moved on.
Another case that’s still open involves the circulation of counterfeit money last summer. Bogus bills that had been passed to Wayne merchants were rejected by banks and turned over to the police, who then engaged the U.S. Secret Service. Possible suspects have been identified as “transient,” according to Block, who cites one theory that the bills may have first surfaced at the Devon Horse Show.
Other criminal gambits have been directed at retailers—like the gab-and-grab. “One person distracts the owner, while the other goes in the back of the store,” says Diane Jiorle, president of the Wayne Business Association. “That’s been more prevalent in the past two years, with the [bad] economy. It gives retailers reason to be more cautious.”
Crime rates in the United States have been flat to down for several decades, with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report showing yearly drops in violent offenses since 2006. Main Line communities have long had the luxury of relatively low crime rates, freeing their police departments to concentrate on matters that compromise—rather than threaten—daily living.
“Traffic, parking, disorderly crowds and noise are normally our biggest challenges,” says Radnor’s Colarulo.
The objective is to keep it that way.
“If we respond to everything rapidly, [criminals] learn that this is not an attractive place to commit a crime,” says Tredyffrin’s police superintendent, Andy Chambers, whose playbook calls for a minute-and-a-half response time. In the past two years, he says, 911 calls for police service in Tredyffrin have increased by 20 percent. “People expect more,” says Chambers. “Police now teach in schools, intervene in domestic squabbles.”
The trend in Tredyffrin has been encouraging. Based on year-end totals, serious crime dropped by a third from 2007 to 2010, and less serious offenses decreased by half for the same period. Last year, 225 of 284 serious offenses were thefts.
“We’re not going the way of more in-your-face crime,” says Chambers, who credits the township’s Town Watch association for giving police a heads-up when potential trouble is spotted.
In Lower Merion Township, a spike in burglaries—from 133 in 2009 to 226 last year—may be a sign of the economic times. Likewise, the number of serious crimes—which had been dropping—climbed by 26 percent in 2010, with thefts and burglaries making up 1,092 of the 1,145 offenses.
“Thirty years ago, you knew where the burglars were coming from. Today, they travel from all over,” says Lower Merion Police Superintendent Mike McGrath. “One we caught was responsible for 14 burglaries in Chestnut Hill.”
Conversely, McGrath reports, Abington police snared a burglar who’d been busy in Lower Merion.
If police work requires interdepartmental cooperation, community involvement from a preventive standpoint may be just as important. Police work with schools and attend neighborhood civic association meetings in Lower Merion, whose residential profile, village centers (Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, Gladwyne) and City Avenue corridor can make it a challenging environment for law enforcement. “We need all of our citizens to be eyes and ears,” says McGrath.
His Main Line counterparts sound the same note. “We want to be immersed in Tredyffrin Township—not just police it,” says Chambers.
In Radnor, where police hosted recent seminars on substance abuse and senior-citizen scams, a small project with a large potential yield had a true community flavor: Police found a surprising amount of graffiti at transit stops and on private property—and got rid of it.
Of the graffiti strategy, Colarulo says, “If you let little things go, they can lead to big things.”
Which we all want to keep off the police blotter.
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