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All-out assault on crime-ridden area

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When Grafton Toliver and his young family moved onto their new block a year ago, they found themselves surrounded by drug addicts, prostitutes and the sound of gunfire. Other neighbors tended to stay indoors.

But this week, police officers and work crews swept through, making arrests and boarding up drug houses as part of Operation Sunrise.The landmark offensive is a round-the-clock effort intended to clean up a crime-ridden section of Philadelphia, the nation's fifth-largest city, with 1.5 million people.

"It's about time they did something. I was getting ready to move," Toliver, 42, said Tuesday as he and his 3-year-old son watched workers nail plywood over windows on a neighboring house. Drug addicts had used the place to shoot up, he said, and left their needles outside on the ground.

This massive endeavor of city, state and federal agencies represents the largest single anti-crime, anti-blight effort in Philadelphia in a generation, if not ever, and is one of the most extensive operations of its kind nationally.

It centers on the Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods in the police department's East Division, which accounts for nearly a third of the city's homicides and 40 percent of its drug arrests, according to the plan's architect, Deputy Commissioner Sylvester Johnson.

Also, 50 percent to 70 percent of the drugs coming into the city - and much of the narcotics throughout Pennsylvania - enter through that area, a sea of tattered row homes in north Philadelphia.

Such figures are not insignificant in Philadelphia, where there were 411 homicides last year and, federal authorities say, the purest heroin in the United States.

"We're trying to make life better and we will make life better for the citizens out there. I think they deserve it," Johnson said Wednesday, the third day of an effort expected to last at least 18 months.

While Operation Sunrise targets graffiti and other nuisances as part of a zero-tolerance policy toward crimes big and small, drug-dealing and violence are the focus.

Besides squashing street-level dealers, hundreds of police officers are working with federal agencies to reach high-level drug sources in New York, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republican and Colombia.

City agencies and community groups plan to organize block captains and town watches and expand drug-prevention and treatment programs. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is contributing $1.3 million to the effort.

Officials did not have figures for the full cost of the operation or the exact number of participants.

Reactions were mixed in Kensington, where the operation went into full swing this week with dozens of prostitution and street-level drug arrests following four months of undercover work.

"I think it's great. It's about time they do something with Kensington," said Dolores Weller.

But Frank Kelly complained that police had pulled over his two daughters and their boyfriends on their way to dinner and conducted a body search of his 20-year-old daughter.