PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Philadelphia's black community on Tuesday launched civilian street patrols aimed at curbing the highest murder rate among major American cities.
In an experiment being watched by at least five other U.S. cities, 32 men in two groups spent the early evening hours walking the streets of South Philadelphia to deter street crime in one of the city's most dangerous areas.
Organizers said the groups were the "vanguard." More than 10,000 men have volunteered to become a regular presence in crime hot spots, and to provide advice and professional services to the young men who make up about 85 percent of the city's shooting victims.
The initiative, called "10,000 Men: It's a New Day," responds to a sharp rise in street violence that caused 406 murders last year, the highest in nine years. National media now refer to the "City of Brotherly Love' as "Killadelphia." So far this year, there have been 368 homicides.
Sulayman Muhammad, a 51-year-old father of seven who led one of Tuesday's street patrols, said he signed up because he feared for the safety of his children and his elderly mother on neighborhood streets.
He said the unarmed patrols, which have no powers of arrest, have a better chance of curbing violence than police because the volunteers work in their own communities and know many of the young people who deal drugs and pull guns.
"If they are tempted to do something, they know there's 100 eyes looking at them," said Muhammad, who has lived in South Philadelphia all his life.
Flyers handed out by the patrolmen to the few people on the streets offered information on who to contact for advice on finding jobs, starting a business, obtaining financial services and seeking accommodation.
Carolyn Sapp, 59, passing with two children, said the patrols offered a chance to stop the killing that has scarred the neighborhood where she has lived for more than 50 years.
"It's wonderful that they are out there, to keep young men from killing each other," she said. "They are going to respect it. It's about saving lives."
But Juan Espinal, 20, who works in a corner store, was not convinced. "You can't change everybody's minds," said Espinal, whose store was recently robbed of $1,000.
Spokesman Norm Bond said the initiative aimed in the long to provide strong male role models for young men who often lack them, and to offer them marketable skills that will deter them from street crime.
"But the first priority is to stop the bleeding," he said.