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A non-man's man in the mean streets

Louis Theroux with Philadelphia police officers

Many people have gained an insight from cop shows like The Wire into the violent underbelly of some of the cities on the US eastern seaboard. But what is life really like for the police who tackle serious crime? Louis Theroux found out.

I'm not the most macho guy in the world. I am not what you would call a "man's man". Physical confrontations scare me - the two or three occasions in my life when I thought I might be about to be punched, my heart started beating very quickly and my legs went weak.

The only time I've bloodied someone's nose was when I was a child, and it was my own, when I'd been picking it too much. So when the idea arose of making a documentary about crime fighting in one of America's most violent cities, with me spending time on the front line of the action, I felt a certain amount of trepidation.


Louis Theroux in Philadelphia

For a while I comforted myself with the thought that we might never find a police department willing to let a TV crew shadow their officers. But after much negotiation, we secured access to Philadelphia's Police Department.

Sited in the east of the US, Philadelphia is an elegant and stately old city. It was, briefly, in the 18th Century, the American capital, and is perhaps best known for being home to Rocky and a certain brand of cream cheese.

Louis Theroux: Law and Disorder in Philadelphia is on BBC Two on Sunday, 30 November, at 2100 GMT
Catch up at BBC iPlayer

Driving around Philadelphia it would be easy not to realise there is any kind of crime problem - indeed I'd recommend it as a nice place for a romantic weekend break. But with about 400 murders a year Philadelphia also has one of the worst homicide rates in the US.

Not surprisingly, the worst of the violent crime is confined to those areas hardest hit by unemployment and poverty. Many of these are in north Philadelphia - and there's nothing elegant or stately about them.

Here the city looks like a war zone, with whole rows of housing turned over to drug dens, ghostly addicts wandering about, and dealers stand round-the-clock on street corners. With the drugs come killings, committed largely by and on young men involved in the trade.


For the best part of four weeks these crime-ridden communities became our home from home as we patrolled them in the company of some of the most aggressive cops in the US. Our days became a ritual of 14-hour shifts with a variety of officers, often finishing in the wee hours.

Over time, we got to know the character of the officers in different divisions - the more aggressive cops detailed to special units like Swat, the slightly more laidback guys who worked criminal intelligence, the rufty-tufty plain clothes police whose unmarked vehicles meant they were able to sneak up on drug dealers unnoticed.

Louis Theroux travels in a police car
Much of Philly is lovely. Some is not

When psyching myself up for the rigours of the action, I'd completely overlooked the extreme cold. I'd brought a stylish serge overcoat that was ideal for afternoon autumn strolls in Hyde Park but not so ideal for prolonged standing around in Arctic conditions.

It got to the point where I would have been glad to have been shot or at least grazed by a stray bullet if it meant being stretchered into a lovely warm ambulance.

An investment in a bulky mountaineer's parka fixed this problem, leaving me free to focus on the less predictable hazards of guns and knives.

We had kitted ourselves out with ultra-heavy-duty flak jackets, able to stop an armour-piercing round (as long as it came straight at the jacket, and not, say, your head or your arms or your legs or your crotch). In fact, our jackets were much thicker and offered more protection than those worn by the police.

Dressing down

The day-to-day routine of policing was often boring and uneventful. Even when the dealers were out, the busts did not necessarily follow. It wasn't enough for someone to be hanging around on a street corner to be arrested, he had to be "holding", which most dealers were too smart to do - they'd keep their stash hidden down the street. (On one occasion a dealer who was holding a couple of small bags for a sale evaded arrest by popping his drugs into his mouth and swallowing them.)

For me as a visiting journalist to come under fire, I would either have to be very unlucky - or start my own drug-dealing business on a corner already 'owned' by someone else

But it was like fishing - long quiet spells followed by sudden bursts of excitement. A suspect might resist arrest, or suddenly flee the scene ("We've got a runner"), or simply, by dint of giving the officers "a little attitude", invite a verbal dressing down.

To an outsider like myself - fresh from the world of "please" and "thank you" and "would you mind?" - these encounters could sometimes look a touch over-aggressive. "I'm gonna shoot you in the face right now…" was one of the more colourful statements I heard from an officer - uttered while driving alongside and at the same time pointing a large gun at the man in question.

It was perhaps not surprising to see a degree of jadedness creeping into the attitude of some of the cops. Seeing and interacting mainly with criminals meant there was a temptation to extrapolate that experience to the whole community - most of whom, it goes without saying, did not carry guns and were not drug dealers.

Sandwich incident

But as the days passed I came to see and understand what the police were up against. The gangster culture is so entrenched in the hood, especially among the younger generation, that there is very little co-operation with the authorities. The hood mantra is "never snitch" and even those who aren't "in the game" are afraid of retaliation against them or their families if they give up information.

Louis Theroux stands next to a police car
Wearing a flak jacket is advisable in many situations

In the weeks I was in Philadelphia I saw my fair share of action: I was called to the scenes of two killings and one near killing, numerous assaults, and countless drug busts. I watched as the police took on a crowd of onlookers, in an incident that looked for a few moments as though it might turn into a mini-riot.

The sad truth about the casualties in high crime areas is that the victims are much more likely to come from those areas themselves. For me as a visiting journalist to come under fire, I would either have to be very unlucky - or start my own drug-dealing business on a corner already "owned" by someone else (not one of my top priorities).

My own scariest encounter was with a man armed with nothing more than a sandwich.

Responding to a 911 call we'd followed an officer into the man's home. He was sitting in a rubbish-strewn front room wearing no shirt. He gave his name as "George Bush" then - possibly under the influence of drugs - began acting erratically, pacing around the room in an agitated manner, swearing at me and the crew and then throwing the aforementioned sandwich at the wall.

Though I don't doubt our flak jackets would have comfortably stopped an airborne snack, I evacuated the team just in case he graduated to something more serious - like a baked potato.

Having finished the film, it now feels good to have leapt out of my normal world of fine wines and walks in the park and plunged headlong into an episode of The Wire.

My only issue with the finished film is the huge flak jacket I'm wearing throughout. It does make me look a bit of a wally, especially when I'm interviewing a man holding a small child (neither of them wearing flak jackets). But there you are - I'm not a man's man and now the world will know.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I am a nurse that does house calls in that area of our city. I can confirm the dangers and threats in the community. Unfortunately I must disagree on one point. Most of Philly is not "lovely". Much of Philadelphia is, in fact, poor and overrun by the wrong people. However, having worked in the worst section for a few years, I must say that most of the residents are normal people, trapped in those communities and are the victims of the violence.
Ryan Sholin, Philadelphia

My husband, who was born and raised in Coventry, UK, and I - who is Philly-raised but lived in Cov for four years - have been keeping up with the news back home and crime is on the rise everywhere. People are getting desperate due to hard times, frustration is at a peak level. The crimes in Cov are more personal, it takes a lot of anger to stab someone, so I hope that when this comes out Louie will come back and do a story about the other side of the place I love. We get enough of a bad rap. My Brit hubby loves it here and wouldn't trade his time here for anything.
Nicole Colledge, Wilmington, Delaware

I am a Philadelphia native, and yes, we do have a murder problem. But I'm perfectly comfortable travelling all over my home city, while I do not want to be wandering alone in places like Camden, NJ or much of Baltimore. Most of the violence is limited to places like North Philly and West Philly where, Louis has pointed out correctly, the violence is drug- and poverty-related and where there is an inherent distrust of the police. However, even there, things have been improving because local community groups are fighting to take back their neighbourhoods from the drug dealers. Certainly, my fair city is not some exotic war zone where Louis needs a flak jacket on a regular basis. It's a very cosmopolitan, world-class city that rivals New York and London with its culture and local attractions. Like any city, we have our rougher sections, but Philadelphia is no more dangerous than any other urban area in the Western world. If Louis feels now that he looks like a "wally" in his film, there's a good reason for that - he is.
Kelly S, Philadelphia, PA, US

Total Crimes Per 1,000:
London region 134
Philly 67
London 1 - Philly 0
London 14
Philly 8.1
London 0.02
Philly 0.21
Vehicle Theft:
London 19
Philly 10.1
Total Violent Crimes:
London 34
Philly 15
London wins as most dangerous between London and Philly. Seems to me London is much worse than Philly at night. Although, I personally would not walk around either city at night and yes, I've been to London probably more times than I can count and to Philly twice. Sources: and Philadelphia (city) QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.
Henry, Denver, USA

I have served in the Met for 10 years, almost exclusively in the inner cities on proactive teams dealing with the street drugs trade. I wanted to congratulate the BBC on one of the best documentaries I have seen on the subject. Bar the American accents and carrying of side arms, I promise unbelieving readers this could have been certain parts of London. Louis' awakening to the realities of the danger and opposition we face everyday should serve as a lesson for all those whose only experience of the street drugs trade is parlour conversation and Radio 4.
Craig, London

I am disgusted at Louis Theroux's inappropriate comment that, "I would have been glad to have been shot or at least grazed by a stray bullet if it meant being stretchered into a lovely warm ambulance". At a time when gun crime in Britain is on the rise this remark is an insult to the victims of such crimes.
Paul, Tunbridge Wells, England

A couple of decades ago I often walked alone after dark in areas where murdered bodies showed up. When friends and family chastised me, I said that I felt pretty safe because I didn't owe any money to pimps or dealers. Of course, that was before drive-by shootings became such a popular way to kill bystanders.
Penelope Prince, Kansas City, MO, USA

Nice, very nice. You may not be a man's man but you come across as very hu-man.
Ola Dimeji, Lagos, Nigeria

Just had my first visit to Philly in the summer. Love the old worldliness of it as I sat back in the horse-drawn tourist carriage. Did all the touristy things visiting the Liberty Bell etc but our courier was very alarmed when I suggested that we would like to walk up a few blocks to go to mass in St Augustine's. He relaxed when we told him that we were from Glasgow where going to mass can be risky at the best of times. After mass we were invited to join other members of the congregation for coffee and donuts. The people couldn't have been more friendly but our courier showed real relief at our rendezvous point outside the American Mint. Hope you don't put people off going to Philadelphia.
Patricia O'Neill, Strathaven

The antecedents of crime are the same in just about any society, and so are the most effective ways of curbing it. The problem is getting the commitment and involvement of citizenry who are isolated from crime-ridden areas, because in order to enact solutions you need the efforts and resources of the whole society. Thanks to Louis Theroux for giving an unjaded eye and doing a bit towards that end.
Mary Cody, Baxter, USA

You need to tell your audiences that you tend to have a flare for the dramatic and turn boring events into heart-pounding excitement. Calling North Philly a war zone is not accurate, I know of a group of people that live normal lives in that area and don't fear for their lives as long as they don't do stupid things like go buy drugs. For the sake of image of N Philly, show that normal working people make up the majority of the populace, and not drug dealers and users.
Zach from the States, Arkansas

Well at least you weren't out on a full moon, or in Dallas or Milwaukee, which are about on par or worse than Philadelphia. The Wire is set in Baltimore by the way, which is about a couple of hours drive. Baltimore partially fixed their problem by just bulldozing the projects.
Will, Oconomowoc, WI

I live in a different world to the one he has visited and it is terrifying to think that is a way of life for some people.
Susan, Gravesend

Ah... the good old US of A. As its influence seem to now pervade every facet of western life to an ever-increasing degree, is this what we have to look forward to? Along with fast-food joints, appalling linguistic abbreviations, really bad TV shows, ridiculous clothing for youths and (perhaps most importantly) certain legal, economic and business practices being adopted by our government, we probably should expect our inner city areas to become something like 80s Beirut within a couple of years. For the richest, most influential nation on Earth to view this as a normal part of its geography is incredible.
Chris Halligan, Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, UK

Hang on, I thought Louis Theorux prefers pretending to befriend oddballs while simultaneously mocking them? Perhaps, with this police doc he wants to be taken more seriously now? As for not being a man's man, I recall an interview with Louis where he said his father used to take him out into the wilderness to build log cabins, or something, so methinks Louis doth protest too much.
MRC, Saltburn-by-the-Sea

I like Louis Theroux, he represents most decent, law abiding people, and has non-threatening demeanour that allows to show the true reflection of the people that he interviews.
Simon, London

I misread the line "We had kitted ourselves out with ultra-heavy-duty flak jackets" as "We had knitted ourselves ultra-heavy-duty flak jackets".
Chris Green, Clevedon

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