Sylvester Johnson is the black police chief in Philadelphia. By most measures, he's effective, popular and dedicated to law enforcement. But like countless other urban centers, Philadelphia has a growing crime problem.
Johnson took an unusual step last week to address the growing murder rate in Philadelphia. And though I can't fault his plan, he has made a statement on the status of law enforcement that is chilling.
Johnson is seeking 10,000 black men to patrol the streets of Philadelphia to reduce crime. They would be unarmed but trained in conflict resolution. With 294 homicides this year - most involving young black males and handguns - Johnson knows that traditional methods simply aren't working.
"It's time for African-American men to stand up," he said. "We have an obligation to protect our women, our children and our elderly."
Johnson is fighting against the "Don't snitch" mentality that has engulfed his community. And he has recognized that traditional law enforcement measures simply are not working.
Most experts applaud Johnson's efforts although they are highly skeptical about the number of volunteers who will enlist in the program. One expert said the exposure to violence for young people creates a "toxic environment" where youngsters feel they have to handle problems their own way.
There's a great deal of pressure on Chief Johnson and the Philadelphia mayor to do something to stem the rising crime rate. As the nation's 6th largest city, a number of urban centers are watching Philadelphia to see the outcome.
Here's my only problem with the plan. By seeking the volunteers, Johnson is admitting that traditional law enforcement is not working. He should be praised for seeking creative alternatives. But does he diminish law enforcement in the process? Does his plan send a signal to the thugs and wannabes that they should be more concerned with these volunteers than uniformed police officers? I don't know the answers and neither does anyone else. And if it takes 10,000 volunteers to clean up a community, then so be it.
But when society loses faith in law enforcement, can anarchy be far behind?