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Crime Fighters Roll Out High-Speed Weapon in Philadelphia : Public safety: A group of volunteer in-line skaters are the latest evolution of the Neighborhood Watch. Cruising streets at night, they act as the eyes and ears of local police.

October 29, 1995|MICHAEL RAPHAEL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHILADELPHIA — Danzo Perry skates through the dark streets of Philadelphia like a bee in a field of flowers--fluttering in and out of alleys, rolling through crowded intersections and stopping, just for a moment, from time to time.

When he stops, it's always for a reason--to search bushes for suspicious characters, to check car doors for tell-tale scratches.

He and his five-person squad of in-line skaters are the latest evolution in citizen crime prevention--a blading version of the traditional Town Watch, equipped with flashing lights, cellular phones and four-wheeled skates.

National experts say Perry's effort is the first of its kind in the country, and local police say it has cut crime.

"I've seen 'em on horseback, I've seen the seniors that do it out in Arizona, but I haven't seen it on skates yet," said Matt Peskin, executive director of the National Assn. of Town Watch.

Since June, 40 skaters taking turns three nights a week have cruised downtown streets, acting as the eyes and ears of the local police precinct.

"We haven't done any studies, but we know one thing: When they are working, there is a drop in crime," Officer Val Izzo said.

About 20 other traditional town watch groups exist in the 9th Police District, where Izzo works and where the in-line group focuses its efforts. But none has the range and dexterity of skaters.

"To see six guys coming down the street, it's not so bad," Izzo said. "Put them on skates and put helmets on them, they're looking 7 feet tall. They do make an impact. If I was a bad guy coming down the street, I'd think about going another way fast."

The rolling Town Watch grew out of a popular weekly group skate that involved up to hundreds of enthusiasts winding through the streets in a long ribbon of color and flash.

The spectacle--unnerving to the uninitiated--led several city officials to start talking about banning it.

So Perry, president of the Landskaters Inline Skate Club, went on the offensive, telling officials about the safety measures taken during the weekly skate. He and a skating cohort decided to go even further and approached the police with their radical idea for rolling justice.

"I ran it by a couple of colleagues and everybody had a good laugh," Izzo said.

Unwilling to give up, Perry and Rick Short, who now runs the group, returned a few days later and got the department's blessing.

"It's definitely positive community work," Short said. "You hate to be associated with the hard-core skaters, the ones the cops are after."

Each team, usually made up of six people, is equipped with a cellular phone programmed to dial only police dispatchers. At least one person carries a first-aid kit. A local sports store has signed on with some cash, mostly for T-shirts and equipment, and an in-line wheel manufacturer has donated wheels.

The group concentrates on property crime. In the 9th District, the most common problems involve vandalism: Car windows are smashed, radios are stolen, cars are dented.

During the last three months, the skaters have responded to a gas explosion, helped police catch a church vandal and reported dozens of suspicious characters.

To Sid Macleod, one of the more aggressive skaters in the group, it's personal.

"It's about ego, to a point," Macleod said. "This is my city. In the past 25 years, this city has worked so hard [to improve], and to have people prey on other people. . . . "

The group has attracted widespread support from pedestrians, usually lukewarm to skaters.

"I just want to tell you something," Barbara Lichtman said as the group made its way through an upscale neighborhood recently. "When I see you, I feel safe."

Her unprompted kind words echoed reactions throughout the city; some people waved and others cheered as the group rolled by.

"It's the next best thing to cops," said Neil Gutman, a member of the Pine Street Civic Assn. Town Watch.

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