I had a conversation with a banker recently at the National Urban League Coalition’s annual conference held here in Philadelphia.

Though he was from Texas, our conversation revolved around familiar issues faced by homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure by modifying a mortgage to better fit their ability to keep up payments.

Despite several initiatives (both government and private) to assist in that process, the failure rate of those who have done the modifications and gotten new payment plans hovers around 49-percent across the country, said the banker.

In other words, even with reduced monthly payments and specialized plans, about half of those people still can’t stay current with their mortgage and wind up defaulting anyway.

Not a good figure.

To add insult to injury, there are a number of scam artists waiting to pounce on unsuspecting homeowners with promises of help and charge thousands of dollars for something the homeowner could have done themselves, or gotten the same help for free.

One reason for such a high failure rate is that even with modifications many still can’t make the payments because the original mortgage was far beyond their means in the first place.

Also, the volume and complexity of the paperwork involved can be more than when the homeowner first bought the house.

Still, there are a number of organizations and programs that can assist those facing foreclosure, as well as those struggling against all odds to keep pace with monthly payments.

The National Urban League, for example, has a program called Restore our Homes that helps individuals according to their specific needs as it relates to avoiding foreclosure.

Not everyone has the same problems and the program offers a number of services designed to meet you at your level of difficulty.

It is just one of several programs that homeowners can take advantage of as opposed to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous so-called “counselors” trying to make a few dollars off of someone else’s misery.

The concept of “home” is still embedded in the American psyche as a place worth the struggle to have, maintain, and turn as much into a refuge from the rest of the world as possible.

As the Sheriff of this great city, it is my sworn duty to not only execute the orders of the court when it comes to the selling of homes, it is also my responsibility to ensure the sanctity of homes by denying illegal evictions and doing educational outreach to help people keep their homes.

With that in mind, I encourage you to seek help with any problems you are having with paying your mortgage and take advantage of the opportunities available to assist you. 

I grew up in the shadow of great men like the Rev. Leon “Lion of Zion” Sullivan, and walked the same streets strolled by such renowned activists as Father Paul Washington, Malcolm X, and the Rev. Bill Gray.

Each had their own style but the common elements were passion, dedication, courage and a love of community—all of which I learned and earned from each, and especially Rev. Gray.

As a young community activist struggling to raise a voice loud enough to be heard by those in power, Rev. Gray always seemed to know the right decibel needed to get an ear in the right direction, and funnel resources to those most in need.

He understood the community that surrounded his beloved Bright Hope Baptist Church and, most importantly, he understood the common touch and used it as naturally as breathing.

He was my mentor, teacher, advisor, and friend.

Never more than a phone call away, he was available at each and every step of my political career and proved to be a worthy confidante who cleared up a problem with a few words, and could also lift a pitying spirit with some well-placed expletives.

I remember the Bill Gray Basketball League growing into a Mecca for fledgling players like Eugene Banks who went on to the NBA, but most importantly it helped to guide young men into manhood through teamwork, hard work, and a sense of dignity grounded in perfection.

When Rev. Gray walked into a room he could light it up with a smile or a scorn depending on the situation, and each was equally respected. He had the type of courage that allowed him to speak truth to power, and also consoling words to a family that lost a relative to senseless violence,

I will miss Rev. Gray. His style. His walk. His dress. His presence.

I will, however, continue to honor his legacy of fairness and equality in my position as the Sheriff of Philadelphia City and County as this department goes through its own challenges and hurdles.

It is not easy to fill the type of vacuum left by such a giant force in the community, and such a loss will be felt for years to come.

As the office of the Sheriff of Philadelphia City and County continues to look into different ways to better serve the public, we are also improving our internal structure to make our services as fluid and efficient as possible.

We are well on our way to instituting a new computing and accounting system that will allow us to track our transactions and keep records in a manner that will eventually allow

 the public to access much of it through the Internet.

We added three new dogs to our enforcement arm, as well as a bicycle patrol to provide added security to the courts and those doing business in them.

One of our dogs, Blair, and his handler, Deputy Sheriff Officer William O’Leary were recently used at the site of the collapsed building at 22nd and Market Streets that tragically took the lives of six people; and Deputy Sheriff Officer Andrew Ortiz and his partner Jimmy patrolled the grounds of the recent U.S. Open Golf Tournament in Merion, Pa.

We are, however, still in need of dozens of additional deputies to not only protect the existing courtrooms, but another approximately 127 to properly staff the new Juvenile Justice Center that is scheduled for completion in June, 2014.

We are also challenged with properly maintaining daily security for the courts, and even though our deputy sheriff’s have been doing a yeoman’s job of keeping everyone safe, there are instances where their abilities are pressed to the limit simply because we are understaffed.

Recently, for example, in the courtroom of Common Please Court Judge Rayford Means in the Criminal Justice Center, a prisoner attempted to escape from custody but never m

ade it from the courtroom before being tackled by the deputy on duty and escorted back to the holding facilities in the building.

Both the deputy sheriff and the prisoner suffered minor injuries during the incident, which may have been resolved even quicker had the courtroom been staffed properly with two deputies.

This was the third such event to happen in that particular courtroom over the past few months (a high volume of cases are heard there daily) and compounds the fact at least two deputies per courtroom are needed to maintain safety and security.

Though our deputy sheriff’s do a phenomenal job on a daily basis, we need to continue providing the kind of support and assistance necessary to continue the good work.

The budget for hiring new deputy sheriffs has already been approved and we are currently looking for qualified candidates.

These candidates will come from both the general population as well as former and current certified law enforcement officers.

We will be looking for more minorities and women to apply for those slots and I will pass along the information on how to apply as it becomes available.

Meanwhile, know that our challenges in regards to staffing and service are many but our resolve to keep the courtrooms safe and secure for all is being met thanks to the dedicated, professional deputy sheriff’s already in place, and soon to be supported by the new recruits. 

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Approaching the summer of my second year as the elected Sheriff of Philadelphia City and County, I, like most, am looking forward to the warmer weather and the many activities (most of them free) sponsored by the city and/or other organizations.

The sheriff’s office is also sponsoring a number of free informational workshops and seminars this summer on everything from how to buy at a sheriff’s sale, to things you can do to stop your home from foreclosure.

We’ve already partnered with folks in the African and Caribbean community to provide information to about 200 people at St. Cyprian’s Catholic Church on Cobbs Creek Parkway, immediately following an April Sunday Mass.

Most recently we teamed up with El Concilio (council of Latin speaking organizations) and El Sol, a local Spanish language newspaper to present a workshop at 7th & Fairmont that addressed the rising number of foreclosures in this community and how to possibly bring those numbers down.

Councilwoman Maria D. Quinones-Sanchez was also there to offer information about AVI and stress the importance of workshops like ours to help those in need of advice, and/or, counseling from a mortgage foreclosure expert.

We will also be supporting clean up efforts throughout the city this summer, as well as host a number of informational seminars and workshops at places of worship, recreation centers and banquet halls across the city.

I recently read a report called Collateral Damage: The Spillover Costs of Foreclosures by Debbie Bruenstein Bocian, Peter Smith and Wei Li. The report gave some very somber statistics that stated: “Between 2007 and 2011, 10.9 million homes went into foreclosure” across the country.

The report went on to say that these foreclosures “not only have harmed the families that experienced them, they also have had the negative effects that extend to the neighborhood, community and wider economy”.

In other words, when a house goes into foreclosure, there is a ripple effect that impacts the block, and even the entire neighborhood.

My office understands the dynamics of this, which is why you will see us this summer offering encouragement and even muscle to street cleaning events, community gardens, job fairs, and free medical tests.

The complexities that lead to a foreclosure are often small in the beginning, but grow large and unstoppable because of apathy and a lack of knowledge. This, in turn, kicks in the sense of hopelessness because there seems to be no way out of their situation.

As my office continues to offer assistance in the form of advice and referrals, I sincerely hope that those who need help will take advantage of this information and share it as often as necessary.

I believe that a stable and aesthetically pleasing community is a large part of the incentive for folks to understand the importance of keeping up with mortgage payments.

After all, if you like where you live, you will want to stay where you live. 

The Office of the Sheriff offers monthly workshops – one conducted in the Spanish language and one in the English language – on How to Buy Property at a Philadelphia Sheriff Sale. Subjects covered in both sessions include the amount of money and required documents to secure a winning bid, what is the right of redemption and how that might impact a buyer’s purchase, and why it is important to make a visit to the site before you bid on a property.

Sign up for one of our upcoming serminars, conducted in English or in Spanish by clicking here.

Here Sheriff Jewell Williams (left) greets participants in a May session with moderator and Deputy Sheriff Mark Parsons answering questions.  In the second photo, participants of the May Workshop listen as Deputy Sheriff Mark Parsons explains the bidding process and offers tips on how to be a knowledgeable bidder.
 

On May 2, 2013 members of the staff of the Office of the Sheriff and city dignitaries gathered to watch the "Raising of Top Beam" ceremony celebrated at the new Family Court building in Philadelphia. The new 15-story, 51,000 square-foot building will unify the city’s juvenile court and its domestic-relations division at 1501 Arch when it opens in June, 2014.

(From Left) Chief Deputy Kevin Lamb, Special Consultant John Keaveney (Retired Captain Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office), Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille, Chief of Staff Bob Jackson, and Lt. Richard Verrecchio.

Sheriff Jewell Williams joined several of his top officers to officially welcome three canines (Carter, Blair and Jimmy) to the Office of the Sheriff of Philadelphia City and County, that will be trained to sniff out bombs and narcotics.

The three dogs—donated to the sheriff’s office by James Binns, Philadelphia lawyer and philanthropist—are about a year old and will form the newly created K-9 Unit.  Their handlers are Deputy Sheriff’s Barry Johnson, William O’Leary and Andrew Ortiz.

The dogs, named after the grandchildren of Binns, made their first public appearance on recently during ceremonies at the Citizens Bank Park to also recognize the  newly formed Bike Patrol Unit, and awarded badges and pins to the Special Operations Group, Honor Guard Unit, and Homeland Security.

The event was hosted by Sheriff Williams, Staff Inspector Paris Washington and Lt. Roy B. Herbert.

“I want to especially thank Jimmy Binns,” said Sheriff Williams, “for his extreme generosity and for the support he has shown myself and these officers over the past several years”.

The Special Operations Group honored at recent ceremonies at Citizens Bank Park consisted of :

Standing—(left to right)—DSO Willard Rozier, DSO Ronald Jones, DSO Bilin Carera, Deputy Sheriff Sergeant Robert Castelli,   Sheriff Chief of Staff Robert Jackson, Deputy Sheriff Lt. Vernon Muse, CFO Benjamin Hyllar, Sheriff Jewell Williams, Chief Sheriff Deputy Kevin Lamb, DSO Bryan Dixon, DSO Virginia Killman, DSO Paris Davenport.

Kneeling—(left to right)—DSO George Morse, DSO Kevin Butler, DSO Andrew Ortiz.

 

 

 

The newly created Bike Patrol Unit was recognized and given certificates of merit to mark the admission of this unit into the Office of the Sheriff of Philadelphia City and County. 

Standing—(from left to right)—DSO Arnelio Alanguillan, Deputy Sheriff Sergeant Robert Castelli, DSO Marcus Morris, DSO Jennifer Burrell, DSO Craig Palmer, DSO Phil Belton, Sheriff Chief of Staff Robert Jackson, DSO John McCleary, James Binns, Sheriff Jewell Williams, Deputy Sheriff Sergeant Michael Bastone, Deputy Sheriff Lt. Monte Guess.

Kneeling—(left to right)—DSO  Vance Robinson, DSO Roberto Cosme

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time officially set aside by President Barak Obama for special consideration of one of the most vulnerable groups in America.

The subject permeates every level of our society and crosses all racial, political and religious boundaries and it comes in many forms.

From physical abuse, to neglect, to the type of emotional abuse that leaves them with low self-esteem and a growing resentment of authority.

It also touches my office because it is the children who suffer as much as anyone when a family loses a home for one reason or another.

The stress it creates, as mentioned last year in the journal Pediatrics, can lead to child abuse as parents manifest their frustrations in the form of physical assaults on their own children.

The children become victims again when they are forced to physically leave their home and move in with relatives, or another, probably less desirable home, or even a shelter.

As Sheriff of Philadelphia City and County, the above scenario is one my office bends over backwards to prevent.

We sponsor mortgage foreclosure workshops across the city and invite any entity we feel can address some aspect of the myriad of reasons that lead to a family losing their home.

From immigration officials, to health experts offering advice on everything from high blood pressure to diabetes and heart disease.

If you are sick, you can’t work, and if you can’t work, you can’t pay your mortgage.

At a workshop in West Philadelphia recently we had more than 250 members of the Caribbean and African community come together at St. Cyprian’s where we spoke in detail on different programs and hotlines available to help keep people in their homes.

Among the informational vendors were representatives from health care agencies, immigration, and certified mortgage counselors offering valuable advice for free.

On May 4th we will host another such workshop at The Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations (Concilio) at 705-709 N. Franklin Street from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in partnership with El Sol, a Spanish language newspaper and will repeat this scenario in other neighborhoods throughout the city at least once a month for the rest of the year.

I have always believed that education is a powerful deterrent to hopelessness and ignorance.

New courts integrating First Judicial District juvenile delinquency and domestic cases are slated to open next June.

But at a budget hearing today before City Council, Sheriff Jewell Williams said he doesn’t have the manpower to staff the building – or even to adequately fulfill his office’s existing duties.

That’s why he’s asking for $4.1 million in additional funding to hire 100 additional deputies, along with several support staffers.

“If we have to deploy 40 people over to that building, it will not be enough to secure that building the way it should be,” Williams said.

“We can do it if we have to, but it’ll be a risk. I just hope the victim of that risk is not a citizen doing their civic duty or someone bringing their grandkid to visit a father who has an issue in the court.”

He said the Sheriff’s Office has reached a “critical point” and is in “desperate need” of additional manpower.

“I want to say on the record if you do not hire additional deputies, you’ll be opening up a courthouse next June with untrained professionals,” he said.

Williams pointed out that most violent courthouse incidents – such as the recent shooting in New Castle, Del. – have occurred in domestic courthouses, often in connection with cases involving visitation or child support.

Those are the very courthouses that are in Philadelphia currently staffed by private security firms.

“We have some courthouses where the front line is security personnel, not trained Sheriff’s deputies that go to school to look for certain types of weapons, certain kinds of weapons that disperse projectiles. We’re trained for that.”

Williams said private security workers aren’t held to the same standardized educational programs and retraining sessions as sheriff’s deputies.

“I would not recommend people who don’t have the training on how to recognize a bomb – I would not want to put those people in the courthouse,” he said.

“Because if you don’t have the training, you can actually cost someone’s life.”

He said his staff “are more trained that you could ever imagine,” so much so that he “couldn’t imagine paying someone $8 an hour from a security company” to do the same job.

Travel to train?

The training process for Sheriff’s deputies is another issue Williams raised – the only state-authorized program is currently offered through Penn State University in State College, a two to three-hour commute for most Philadelphians.

“One of the bigger problems with having that is when the Sheriff invites someone to join the Sheriff’s Office and the Sheriff informs them they have to go for 20 weeks to Penn State, many decline because it means 20 weeks away from their families,” he said.

He said he’s advocating for a change in those laws, but it would require action from the state.

“It’s very difficult because of the Republican power structure in Harrisburg but we’re working very hard to see if we can have that legislation amended,” he said.

Dire straits

Williams said he also needs more equipment for the Sheriff’s Office.

“We have deputies who have bulletproof vests and the clock is ticking, it’s expiring,” he said.

“When you wear vests over a certain period of time, the Kevlar or bulletproof material on the vest gets weakened by your body sweat. They haven’t changed those vests in over five years so that’s another incident waiting to happen.”

He said he’d also like to have the staff to be able to confiscate all cell phones and cameras from each courthouse and return them when visitors leave.

“If I had the manpower, I would collect every camera and every phone that came inside that courthouse,” he said.

“But I have to choose between protection from the immediate threat or the threat that may happen later on and I have to use it to protect judges in that courthouse.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “That picture’s going somewhere else. That’s why we need additional deputies.”

Court delays

Some Council members were critical that Philadelphia’s courts may simply not be run efficiently enough to best use Williams’ services.

Williams said prisoners are escorted to the courthouse an average of five times before they actually see a judge due to delays in proceedings.

He said the sojourn to and from jails alone is also time-consuming.

“There’s a delay bringing people down in morning on 95,” he said.

“If we had a dedicated highway lane, we could bring people faster down to the Criminal Justice Center and, likewise, get them back faster to the prison in the evening.”

He said the court system is clogged – and the backlog is only going to continue.

“The problem is the courts are overwhelmed,” he said.

“We’re getting more inmates every day. The juvenile courts [are] off the hook. There’s an increasing number of young people getting arrested and when look at the adult side, we have more multi-defendant cases which require more deputies in courtroom.”

Downplayed

Williams said the Sheriff’s Office is often left out of public discussions about public safety but plays a key role in protecting judges, witnesses and court staff, as well as assisting other law enforcement agencies in their duties.

He recounted how the Philadelphia Police had to request his office’s assistance during last week’s “flash mob” incident at 15th and Chestnut.

“We are an integral part of law enforcement but a lot of the time we get downplayed because we don’t have the manpower we deserve,” he said.

“Let me just say that again – we deserve to have more deputies to protect the public. Thank God we haven’t had any major incidents at our courthouses, but we are stretched very thin.”

He said in light of recent tragedies, it’s time to “get ready for the unknown.”

“I cannot say this enough,” he said.

“The Sheriff’s Office is in desperate need of those deputies. God forbid if we had a major incident, we could not help all the people we would want to help. And unless we get those additional bodies – I have to put this on public notice – it would be a very disastrous incident if we don’t have the bodies and the trained personnel.”

But as far as raising court fees to pay for his proposed staffing increase, Williams said that’s not a something he’s willing to fight for.

“I can tell you as a political maverick – you don’t talk fees to City Council,” he said. “I’ll be supportive, but I won’t be making the recommendations.”


Written by Alex Wigglesworth for the Metro on April 17, 2013.