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As Philadelphia Hit-Run Incidents Rise, Police Department's AID Pursues Justice

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Philadelphia has seen four hit-and-run deaths so far this year, including two in the last month involving very young children.

But identifying the car in these crimes is much easier than identifying who was behind the wheel, leaving victims seeking answers.

On April 13th, two separate hit-run incidents claimed the lives of young children.  In Southwest Philadelphia, Abdul Latif Wilson, 4, was struck and killed on 57th Street near Litchfield.

The same day in Kensington, David Alicea, 2, and his mother were struck; David later died.

In both cases investigators identified and recovered the cars involved.

But a month later, no arrests have been made.

"Of course we want, and the loved ones want, to make the arrest of the person responsible," says John Wilczynski, captain of the Philadelphia Police Department's accident investigation division (AID).

But he says getting to the bottom of these cases is sometimes difficult.

"We often arrest someone a year or year and a half, two years later," says Officer Gary Harrison, who investigates many of these crimes.  He reviews road tracks, speaks to car dealerships, and analyzes paint residue to identify the car.

But that's just the beginning. The next step is to identify the car's owner.

"(And) just because you find a car doesn't mean the owner was driving," Harrison notes.  "You have stolen cars, you have cars that are not registered."  And even if they identify a suspected driver, he adds, "oftentimes a driver won't talk to us.  If they're leaving the scene, lawyers advise them don't talk to the police."

Harrison says the problem is that most witnesses get a license plate number and a description of the car but never look at who is behind the wheel.

"They may be able to say it's a dark color car, or they may be looking at the victim -- and in many cases run and help the victim," says Harrison.

The lack of eyewitness identification, he says, makes their job harder because they then have to talk to neighbors and friends of those involved, and identify the facts that place a particular suspect behind the wheel at the moment of the crime.

Over the past three years, Harrison says, AID solved 15 out of 27 deadly hit-and-run cases.

"We take our time, we get the right person," he says.

But most accidents are not crimes.  They become a crime when the driver leaves the scene.

And there are tough penalties in Pennsylvania: hit-run drivers face a minimum of three years behind bars.  If someone dies, penalties are much steeper.

According to police statistics, the number of hit-and-runs appears to be on the rise.  In 2013, police reported 13,384 hit-runs. Last year, that number increased to 14,028.

"More pedestrians, more cars, and more distractions," speculates Capt. Wilczynski. "If you stop at a stop sign, (you can often see) there's somebody texting, fixing their hair, putting their makeup on, changing the channel."

And now, he adds, there are also distracted pedestrians.  Last Friday, a woman struck and killed in center city by a "duck boat" amphibious vehicle was reportedly distracted when she was run over.  And that's a problem AID investigators predict will simply get worse as the weather gets warmer.

"People have to pay attention," Wilczynski asserts.

The other problem, he adds, is more DUIs.  AID is hoping to lower that number through DUI checkpoints throughout the city every Friday night.



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