After shootings, police cuts, Delco puts up money for state troopers in Chester

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After a recent rash of shootings, Delaware County officials said Wednesday they would pay the Pennsylvania State Police at least $100,000 to help patrol the impoverished city of Chester, which suffered major police staff cuts last year.

District Attorney Jack Whelan said he sought the state police help and worked out terms in which the county would cover most of the cost of using troopers, who were expected to help patrol Chester’s streets after their normal shifts had ended.

Whelan said the money would come in part from county casino revenues and the DA’s office.

The last time the county asked troopers to assist in Chester, in 2014, Whelan raised money from local businesses to pay for the overtime, he said.

Not a single arrest has been made in 10 homicides since January, and seven people were shot in three different locations during the weekend.

Dubbing the initiative “Operation Safe Streets,” Whelan announced his office additionally would finance $2,500 rewards for people with information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone found possessing illegal guns.

“We’re only a few months into 2017,” Whelan said during a news conference at a church parking lot near 22nd Street and Edgmont Avenue, “and already 46 people in the city of Chester have been shot.”

He was joined by Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, County Councilman Dave White, and about a dozen officials from local, state and federal government and law enforcement.

State police will begin patrolling high-crime neighborhoods in the next few days, Whelan said, and assist at least through the fall.  Whelan said he planned to solicit donations from the private sector to add to the $100,000 committed by Council and his office.

The arrangement comes as Democratic Gov. Wolf has made the financially strained condition of the state police part of his proposed $32.3 billion budget proposal this year,

Because so many towns have expanded their reliance on the troopers, as costs of running their departments have skyrocketed, Wolf announced he was seeking a $25 per-person tax on towns that use the state police for full-time policing.

The state police budget has ballooned in the last decade from $850 million, to $1.25 billion, records show.

For Chester, the need for help couldn’t be more urgent. The former industrial hub lost a quarter of its police, including veterans, to cost-cutting retirements and resignations last year, under pressure from state overseers.

The city along the Delaware River has been under state financial recovery oversight, through a program known as Act 47, since 1995. Its economy today remains anemic. Its 34.6 percent poverty rate is among the highest in Pennsylvania and officials continue to struggle to provide minimal services.

In police overtime costs alone, the city paid more than $2.7 million in 2015 —  a 25 percent increase over the prior year.

Chester has had the nation’s highest per-capita homicide rate, and police have closed only about one-third of the city’s 323 slayings since 2000, among the lowest rates in the country.  Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland in February said the city doubled a reward pot to lure reluctant witnesses. But said Wednesday that $10,000 incentive had not yet borne fruit.

The district attorney said the $2,500 reward – a pilot program – would work in conjunction with a recently formed illegal gun task force being run out of his office, with help from an on-site special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

“We are going after illegal guns,” Whelan said, as he and the other stood in the shadow of an exterior church wall adorned with a large cross.

White said he hoped the county assistance would improve life for people besieged by violence in Delaware County’s only city.

“We know many resisdents in the city are forced to sleep in their basements,” White said.

Indeed, on Sunday a stray bullet from the street found its way into a woman’s home and struck her in the back, said Blair, the police commissioner.

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