Going After the Scumbags
Tough police chief offers his take on today’s brand of conflict close to home

He can recall, growing up in South Philly, a simpler life in the neighborhood. Little old ladies scrubbed down the street, people interacted in a positive way, neighbors drove neighbors to the doctor. “The family structure was intact,” he says. “In too many households, the family structure is deteriorating.”

The Philadelphia region has its share of charismatic cops, and one reigns supreme as a top cop’s cop – Upper Darby Police Chief Michael “Not in my Town, Scumbag” Chitwood.

“Once the family structure went away, discipline went away,” he observes. “Once, you could complain to a parent about his kids’ behavior, and those kids would be punished. Today, you get a punch in the mouth if you dare say anything about someone’s kid to their face.

“Neighborhoods don’t have residents who grow roots the way they used to,” he says. “Too few people care anymore about what their neighbor needs. In the past we had so many things like communication among neighbors and commitment among people to their communities, and that made neighborhoods safe and clean – in urban, suburban and rural areas. Today in America, people have just lost interest in their communities, and it shows in the escalation of neighbor conflict.”

Chief Chitwood’s face is a favorite on the local news with his no-nonsense style and his utter disinterest in taking crap from villains. His book, Tough Cop: Mike Chitwood vs. the “Scumbags,” sums up much of his early career in Philadelphia’s worst areas and worst situations from the 1960s on. He is a media darling for a good reason – his commendations through his three decades of service are not the result of seeking attention or a “hero” label, but of being a true cop at heart, looking out for the good guys through long hours and unwavering dedication to putting away bad guys.

Mike and I follow each other on Twitter and I wanted to get his sense of my signature subject, neighbor conflict, and how police departments are coming to terms with its rise and its growingly sad outcomes of violence.

Follow Mike Chitwood on Twitter @ChiefMChitwood

“Neighbor disputes are a part of our everyday routine,” he says. “They’re like speeding, from our standpoint, in that you’re always going to have speeders out there, the same way you’re going to have neighbors who are aggressive and in some cases are breaking the law.”

Barking dogs, bad kids, trash issues, renters not respecting their surroundings – these are what police agencies deal with on a daily basis. “You have to look at the issues and at what level they’re at. Is this a nuisance? Is the bad neighbor a criminal? We’re seeing terroristic threats, trespassing, harassment, and the list goes on,” he says. “After 16 or 17 times there at the same location, and these folks just don’t want to have anything to do with each other, no one is willing to go into mediation, this starts to impact costs, and I have to take officers off other duties to handle these disputes.”

Given today’s technology, as soon as they arrive on the scene police can pull up a report on the history of calls at the location, which, the chief says, has advanced neighbor dispute policing into the 21st century. “Before we go in, regardless of officers’ personal experience at that address, those who arrive see who the aggressor has been in the past and likely is this time.” In fact, just in the last five years, many departments have modernized their data tracking systems, so the “good guy” in a neighbor dispute has one less thing to worry about – bringing arriving officers up to date on what is sometimes a years-long battle.

“In a neighbor dispute where all sides are victimizing each other, you need to eventually tell the parties you’re going to make an arrest next time,” he says. Naturally, assault, homicide and other major crimes call for an arrest as they happen, but the typical disputes, I write in Neighbors From Hell, don’t start out that way – but they’re increasingly ending that way. “We need to contain things so it doesn’t come to this.” The threat of arrest is often a deterrent to future un-neighborly acts being perpetrated by bad neighbors.

Chief Chitwood’s platform for handling neighbor conflict cases comes down to Communication, External Mediation, and a seldom-heard-among-police-leaders’ preference for 911 Calling.

Communication is key, of course. Police officers are trained in handling conflict, and ultimately are able to determine who is victimizing whom, even in the midst of a protracted case that has dragged on for years with neither neighbor emerging as angelic from an outsider’s standpoint. “Our goal is to get these disputes resolved in a nonviolent way,” he says. Police leaders are seeing an increase in not only the incidence of neighbor conflicts, but also their violent severity and bad outcomes. Like body bag outcomes. “You don’t need the violence that ultimately comes in so many of these cases. So we look at what points in time we should move in and make an arrest to quickly intervene. It’s a lot like the continuum of use of force --- you measure the situation with all sides communicating with officers, and decide from there.”

Upper Darby is part of Pennsylvania’s Delaware County, which with neighboring Chester County offers resolution centers for handling ongoing disputes. The services are voluntary and confidential, and the police systems in those counties can refer cases there; that’s the External Mediation the chief says is useful to all parties – the residents in conflict, and the police departments who want to help, but often cannot. “We aren’t mediators,” Chitwood says. “We’re more referee than anything in a neighbor dispute.”

“We certainly promote using 911 to report neighbor disputes,” he says. “It helps us in tracking these situations so we can prioritize the disputes and hopefully bring them to individualized conclusions before they escalate.” Each shift in the UDPD ends with a synopsis of what took place on that shift being written up, then read by all officers taking the next shift. Between 911 tracking and keeping all officers on the same page, says Chitwood, “We make everyone aware of these neighbor dispute situations, we can start to see where there is risk, where it’s growing and it stays on our radar so we can quickly deal with the records that complainants are building.”

UDPD officers are now in the habit, in ongoing disputes that are looking nastier with each police call, of getting orders of protection against perps for things like harassment and intimidation. Chief Chitwood explains why: “This enables us to go in and actually arrest truly hellish neighbors as repeat offenders.”

Through ticketing, fines, arrests and jail time, Upper Darby Township has a police organization proactively helping its good citizens in turning the rising tide, which has been against them in many ways, against the Neighbors From Hell.

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