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Philadelphia ‘Call to Action' has gone silent

Wazier El remembers the excitement that day in October when nearly 10,000 men gathered in a stadium to send a message to drug dealers, gang members and gun-toting criminals: The violence must stop.

In a matter of days, the men vowed, they would patrol the streets of this city, where the homicide rate is among the highest in the nation.

But seven months later, many volunteers who once felt so full of hope have given up. The movement – “Call to Action: 10,000 Men: It's a New Day in Philadelphia” – has faced organizational and financial struggles. Frustrated with leadership, some volunteers have had second thoughts.

In the meantime, things in Philadelphia are not much better.

In May, police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was killed during a bank robbery – the third killing of a police officer here in two years. Two days later, a news helicopter captured more than a dozen white police officers kicking and using batons to hit three black shooting suspects. Parts of the footage aired on television stations nationwide and on the Internet. The Rev. Al Sharpton called the beating “worse than Rodney King.”

Following the beating incident, Mayor Michael Nutter said there was no indication that it was racially motivated. But he did not excuse the 19 officers involved, who were put on desk duty. (Some have since returned to patrol.) The internal affairs department and Philadelphia district attorney's office are investigating.

Desire to help fizzles out

For El, 58, a carpenter who lost a son to Philadelphia's street violence two years ago, the mayor's expressions of concern are not enough. The city could have prevented such problems from escalating, he said, if it had worked closely with the 10,000 men who wanted to help.

Groups of volunteers had gone through safety training. El, who received a certification of completion on Jan. 26, was appointed as a squad leader. Then he heard from some men who had not been contacted by organizers. When El brought the issue up, those in charge blamed technical problems. So he pressed on, knocking on doors with about 30 other volunteers, handing out fliers asking others to join. Cold weather cut down patrols. Once-eager volunteers drifted away.

This month, El told organizers he, too, was quitting.

“People don't want to see progress,” El said. “I am fed up. … I see people dying in the community.”

‘Where are they?'

The “Call to Action” headquarters is three miles from City Hall. It sat empty one recent Friday afternoon. Purple fliers, left over from promotions for the October gathering, papered the windows. No one picked up calls to the main phone line.

Local newspapers have poked fun at the initiative. A headline on a Philadelphia Inquirer column read: “10,000 men – where are they?”

But leaders say the nonprofit program is moving forward.

Several hundred men began patrolling the streets in April after a winter hiatus, said organizer Norm Bond.

The group also held a community-action fair in April to connect men with more than 40 other organizations in which they could serve as coaches or mentors or get involved in neighborhood watch programs.

“People are saying, ‘Well, guys, I don't see you on my block,'” Bond said. “Certainly we're not perfect and we would like to get some staff, full-time staff, and raise the funds. … We haven't received a lot of assistance from the city. We need support.”

Risks in citizen patrols

Nutter, who was elected last fall on a crime-fighting platform, said that despite supporting the 10,000 men project, he had reservations about sending citizens out on the streets to combat crime.

“We have to be very careful as a city government to encourage people to get involved in public safety and law-enforcement matters because, unfortunately, sometimes there's a fair amount of danger,” he said.

After his January inauguration, Nutter bumped up the number of officers on patrol by about 250, called for more aggressive “stop-and-frisk” tactics by police and instituted a program calling on local clergy to help persuade fugitives to surrender.

There have been 113 homicides this year as of mid-May, compared to 147 at around the same time last year.

Some attribute that drop to the initial momentum behind the 10,000 men. But everyone, including the mayor, is bracing for the summer – traditionally the most violent season.