For more than a decade, police in Coatesville, Pa., bred antipathy on the town’s largely black east side with aggressive tactics that featured some of the highest arrest rates in Pennsylvania – and the nation – for minor crimes such as disorderly conduct and violating curfew, says the Philadelphia Inquirer in the third of a series. Coatesville’s story is similar to those of other small, economically struggling towns near Philadelphia. Undermanned, confronted with serious crime and dwindling resources, the largely white police forces in these cities fought back with blunt tactics to clear streets of drug dealers and idle teenagers.
The Coatesville sweeps, aimed mainly at the black east side, inevitably snared many innocent people with the bad guys. Two years ago, the town’s growing African American population flexed its muscle and helped elect a new City Council, with a 5-2 black majority. Soon, the white police chief was gone, replaced by William Matthews, 61, an African American former street cop who had spent the last decade in a Washington think tank. Bursting with optimism and reform ideas, he declared a new day in this town of 11,000, with a retooled crime-fighting strategy built on strong links to neighborhoods. The tough streets of Coatesville are now a kind of laboratory, testing Matthews’ theories of police work against the hard realities of history and crime, poverty and small-town politics. The experiment’s outcome is still in doubt.