How can a city with so much illegal dumping and so much infrastructure in place for catching offenders, churn out so few arrests and convictions? How is it that City officials effectively allow dumpers to use our poorest neighborhoods as trash cans, free of consequence?
Flashback to October 30, 1989.
A 19-year-old mother of twins is shot to death in Kensington. Two days later, an 18-year-old shooter is arrested, then found guilty of murder and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison.
He does his time, is released, and stays out of legal trouble until 2007, when he’s arrested for theft by unlawful taking, then, for burglary, then, forgery and theft by deception, then, possession of a prohibited firearm. This last one lands him back in prison.
North of 20 million pounds of garbage get dumped on our streets annually. The City has a sprawling, interdepartmental system of enforcement. And, since 2014, only ten instances of illegal dumping have led to convictions.
On May 17, 2017, this same man is arrested for illegal dumping and theft by deception. For this, he serves the minimum of 11.5 months and five years of probation. Fresh out of prison, on August 12, 2018, he’s again arrested for illegal dumping. He pays a fine of $1,000 and performs 50 hours of community service with a nonprofit that clears trash off the streets of Philadelphia.
Flash forward to May 24, 2022. The Philadelphia Police Department announces that this man, now 50 years old, is again wanted for arrest in connection with two separate illegal dumping incidents that took place late last year. But this time, he wasn’t working alone. His mugshot is released alongside that of a 22-year-old partner in crime. Their names: Paul and John Vidra.
Paul and John are uncle and nephew. Like Paul, John has been arrested before, starting at age 18. Post-arrest, the pair was recorded illegally dumping on the 1300 block of Unity Street in Frankford twice, including on the day of John’s trial in a case for receipt of stolen property, which he didn’t show for. Now both men are wanted by the PPD, again, who asks “anyone with any information on either of [John or Paul’s] whereabouts … please contact Major Crimes/Environmental at 215-685-9130.”
So much illegal dumping, so few convictions
The scales of both Philadelphia’s dumping problem and enforcement system are massive. In 2021, over 7,000 tons of waste and 83,000 tires were removed from over 1,300 sites by Streets Department cleanup crews. This year, the Streets Department requested funding to double their removal capacity. This means at least 10,000 tons — tons — of waste will be dumped on our streets, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, in 2022.
The City has a sprawling, interdepartmental system of enforcement. And, since 2014, only ten instances of illegal dumping have led to convictions.
The story of Paul and John Vidra is tragic, bizarre, convoluted — and illustrates themes common to illegal dumping cases that Philadelphia law enforcement has successfully prosecuted over the past eight years. According to court records, two-thirds of dumpers that have been convicted — or are being prosecuted — have at least one prior or subsequent arrest. They often work in groups — and typically reside in the city where they do their illegal dumping.
Between 2014 and 2021, Philadelphia’s criminal justice system churned out 14 convictions for acts of illegal dumping — officially “depositing trash on the street.” Another 24 convictions involved the lesser crime of “scattering rubbish,” which could mean littering or illegal dumping. Another 12 cases are active and awaiting a final ruling. Four of them involve illegal dumping.
At least 10,000 tons — tons — of waste will be dumped on our streets, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, in 2022.
Two of the 14 convictions for illegal dumping belong to Paul Vidra. Of the remaining 12 and four open cases, six involve lone dumpers. Two involve out-of-county defendants: one from Old Forge in 2014, and a pair of dumpers from Camden, New Jersey, in 2018. The latter, whose cases are still open, allegedly brought bags of construction debris across the Delaware to dump in Port Richmond on Martha Street between Clearfield and Clementine.
Of the 16 defendants charged or convicted of depositing trash on the street, 12 have prior arrests and three have subsequent arrests.
Of the defendants who’ve actually been convicted, the penalties imposed have included fines and restitution fees ranging from $234 to $1,937, probation terms ranging from 90 days to one year, 50 hours of community service at Philly’s Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP), and completion of an accelerated misdemeanor program.
Five of the arrests were made on the same day of the offense; the dumpers were almost certainly caught in the act of dumping by the arresting officer. Seven of the arrests were made one or two days after the offense, one 11 days after, one more than five months after, and two nearly two years after. For the latter arrests, it’s conceivable the dumpers were caught on surveillance cameras and tracked down by investigating officers.
About those illegal dumping surveillance cameras
As of May 5, 2022, the Streets Department had a network of 188 surveillance cameras installed in known dumping hotspots around the city. The department paid three full-time employees to manually monitor those cameras and has plans to install 80 more cameras in the near future.
The Police Department has an Environmental Crimes Unit with two full-time detectives. When those detectives need assistance on an investigation, they can request help from the Law Department, the DA’s office, the Inspector General, and Licenses & Inspections. Each of the aforementioned departments is involved with the Cleaner Public Spaces Enforcement Committee, which is headed by the Streets Department’s Kyle Lewis, charged with improving enforcement outcomes.
Next year, the Streets Department is set to receive a $2 million boost, some of which will go toward increased removal capacity, and some toward investigation efforts. But it’s clear that existing investigation efforts aren’t merely under-resourced; they’re fundamentally flawed. So, before we throw more money at the problem, we would do well to carefully scrutinize the methods we’ve been using to solve it.
Before we throw more money at the problem, we would do well to carefully scrutinize the methods we’ve been using to solve it.
Of the ten instances of dumping that have led to successful prosecutions, three involved same-day arrests, which means that dumpers were likely caught in the act. Our extensive network of surveillance cameras — and the employees who monitor them — have helped us to convict those responsible for seven instances of illegal dumping, and to charge four more.
Compare that to Dallas, which has 50 surveillance cameras — about a quarter of Philadelphia’s total — and they’ve made as many as 301 illegal dumping arrests in a single year. Houston, Texas also has fewer cameras than we do, coming in at around 150, and yet they’ve made at least 1,307 illegal dumping arrests dating back to 2012.
With 188 cameras, Philadelphia made one — one! — arrest in 2021. The difference lies in enforcement manpower. Whereas Houston has nine environmental crimes detectives, Philadelphia has two. Whereas Columbus has five solid waste investigators in their Refuse Collection department, Philadelphia has none. Whereas other cities are proactive about facilitating civilian tip rewards, Philadelphia is not.
Something is deeply wrong with our system of camera surveillance. Is the video quality too low? Invest in an upgrade. Is there too much footage for City employees to handle? Hire more, or automate the process with an already proven tech solution.
Then, pursue any of these ideas for stopping illegal dumpers
- Add patrol officers to the Environmental Crime Unit. Put them on the ground in areas where dumping is rampant. Make catching dumpers in the act top priority. Dallas, Texas uses patrol and covert surveillance officers for this purpose; their annual illegal dumping arrest tallies are astronomically higher than Philly’s, and they’ve successfully reduced the number of chronic dump sites city-wide.
- Add “solid waste investigators” to the Streets Department, who would go to dump sites ahead of removal crews to look through piles for identifying clues. Columbus, Ohio has five of them, and they work closely with their DA’s office to build cases against illegal dumpers, and their city’s annual conviction tally has been steadily increasing.
- Start posting surveillance camera footage online, like this. Promote the videos on all social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. Consider implementing a partnership with CrimeStoppers, as in Dallas, Columbus, and Flint, Michigan (but be wary of local chapter mismanagement).
- Revamp the civilian tip reward system laid out in § 10-710.1 of the Philadelphia Code. Add a statement in those online videos to prominently advertise rewards for reporting dumpers.
- Create a special provision in that reward system for contractors and other junk-generating businesses who report illegal dumpers. Give them some kind of break for doing so. How about a discount on legal dumping?
There’s no question that solutions to Philadelphia’s illegal dumping problem exist. The only question is whether there’s a corresponding will to implement them.
Data provided by the District Attorney’s Transparency Analytics (DATA) Lab.
WHO’S HELPING TO CLEAN UP PHILLY?
MOST POPULAR ARTICLES ON THE CITIZEN RIGHT NOWIllegal construction waste, photo by 7C0 via Flickr