By Vinny Vella, the Philadelphia Inquirer
After Philadelphia rapper RunUp Rico and a friend were shot to death in Chester in February, police there took a new, aggressive approach to finding those responsible.
They walked around neighborhoods they believed the group behind the shootings frequented. They handed out fliers asking for help catching the people who orchestrated the slayings of the rapper, whose given name was Rasheen Jones, and Kwann Henderson under the guise of purchasing marijuana. And they spoke with residents who expressed outrage at the violence and surprise at seeing uniformed officers outside their cars.
Seven weeks later, the alleged shooter and two people who police say helped lure the victims to their deaths were in custody. One of the suspects had called detectives and pleaded with them, saying “please don’t kick down my grandmother’s door. I will turn myself in tomorrow,” according to court filings.
At a time when Philadelphia and other big cities are seeing a surge in homicides and fatal shootings, Delaware County’s lone city is experiencing the opposite. Homicides in Chester are down 63% this year compared with 2020, and fatal shootings are down 43%, according to police statistics. Investigators in Chester are also making more arrests in homicide cases this year, a clearance rate of 50%, the highest since 2004.
Prosecutors in Delaware County are reluctant to attribute those trends to a single factor. But they believe one of the biggest reasons for the change has been the Chester Partnerships for Safe Neighborhoods, a program that, above all else, opens a clear line of communication between residents and investigators working with District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.
Activists and community leaders agree, praising the program as a rare instance of positive attention for, and resources being diverted to, a city that has long felt abandoned.
“It’s just community engagement. It’s showing and putting more money where our mouth is that we are trying to invest in the community,” said Deputy District Attorney Matthew Krouse. “Because the majority of the 35,000 people that live in Chester are tired of being held hostage by the violence.”
The partnership — modeled after the Focused Deterrence program used in other cities — launched in November. Krouse, Stollsteimer, and police officials met with prominent members of some of the city’s most violent groups and took a “carrot-and-stick” approach. The “carrot,” he said, was access to programs including free trade-school degrees, rental assistance, and even counseling for trauma. The “stick” was the usual functions of his office: arrest, prosecution, and jail time.
“We told them, ‘We know who you run with. We know your groups. You can’t have group shootouts anymore,’” Stollsteimer said. “We will help you if you ask us, but we will stop you if you make us.”
The message apparently resonated. Inmates at the county jail were recorded on prison calls telling their friends to “put the guns down,” prosecutors said. Defense attorneys, in meetings with prosecutors, presented text messages from their clients, promising the same thing.
Jean-Pierre Brice, a Chester native and the partnership’s community resource consultant, said that face-to-face meeting made a strong impression on the city’s residents. The conversation was honest and frank, and coming straight from the source.
“No one was saying this to them before. It was just, ‘You’re going to jail,’” Brice said. “They’re offering themselves to the community for you to see how this works and how it can help. And that’s never happened before.”
The initiative isn’t just benefiting people involved with crime. The program is partnering with different groups in the city to provide services and bolster struggling projects, including resurrecting the city’s dormant 3 v 3 Biddy League basketball tournament and sponsoring membership for kids in the Boys & Girls Clubs.
The efforts have drawn the attention of longtime Chester boosters, including Cory Long, a former city official who runs Making A Change Group, a youth-development organization.
Long believes Stollsteimer is the “real deal,” and said the efforts his office is bringing to the city are years overdue.
“People in the community know when people aren’t just trying to lock everyone up,” he said. “They may not vocalize it, because it may not be the most celebrated thing to work with law enforcement, but it’s beginning to matriculate throughout Chester.”
Long said there’s a renewed sense of peace in the city as the shooting numbers fall.
“People in this city love their community and they want solutions,” Long said. “And this attention has been a strong part of the solution to help curb it.”
The newfound attention from the district attorney isn’t exclusive to community groups. Chester Police Commissioner Steven Gretsky said he has been impressed with the constant communication and focus from Stollsteimer and his prosecutors, who check in weekly on shooting investigations and other criminal cases.
“We’re all looking at that same goal, which is to bridge the gap between community and law enforcement,” Gretsky said. “Some of the people involved in this, committing this crime, they feel like they never had anyone reach out to them. It was ‘You’re cops, we’re the bad guys, and whatever happens happens.’”
The conversation, according to Stollsteimer, is now being steered in a different direction.
“Gun violence is just a symptom of poverty and the only way we can eventually cure this problem is if we can bring good jobs, a good quality of life, the American dream to everybody in the city of Chester,” Stollsteimer said. “We can do our piece, and we’re ready.”
This story first ran in Governing and is being republished by permission through the Solutions Journalism Exchange. Read the original reporting here.