On Ninth Street in Philadelphia's Italian Market neighborhood, the mural of former Mayor Frank Rizzo covers the side of an entire three-story brick building. Can you say larger than life?

Rizzo rose through the ranks of the police department to become chief -- and then mayor for two terms. Granted, Rizzo was a brute. He and the African-American community clashed.

But Rizzo always supported the men in blue, and the city was safer for it.

Vince Gray is no Frank Rizzo, and that's a good thing. But D.C.'s mayor is starting to take actions that make me think he's coming Rizzo's way when it comes to understanding the value of police on the street.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson doesn't seem to share that value. Law and order might provide the first serious, substantive clash between Gray and the new chairman.

Earlier this year, Gray proposed increasing the number of sworn police officers to more than 3,900 from the current force of about 3,800. Police Chief Cathy Lanier had testified that she needed more cops to keep the streets safe. Gray would fund the new cops with $1.8 million from revenues taken in by traffic fines from photo enforcement.

Mendelson, chair of the Judiciary Committee, took no action, and the bill languished.

This week, Gray proposed reprogramming $1.7 million to start hiring 48 more police officers immediately. His proposal came before the city council's final, marathon legislative session of the year.

Mendelson went thumbs down and urged his colleagues to kill Gray's request.

"There has been no discussion about increasing the size of the force," Mendelson wrote, and added the department should "civilianize" by hiring clerks to run the back office and put cops on the street.

Two problems:

» There has been plenty of discussion about more cops. Mendelson needs to get out of his office and into the violent neighborhoods, where residents are pleading for more police. The Metropolitan Police Department has taken down its crime stats, but the most recent reports from October say violent crime is up 8 percent citywide, sexual assaults are up 67 percent and robbery with a gun had increased 20 percent from the same period in the past year.

» The city is growing, adding hundreds of new residents a year. Night life is hotter than ever. The new residents and folks out at night are targets for criminals. Crime could kill the growth.

Mayor Gray wants to ramp up hiring now rather than wait for the need to become dire.

In Tuesday's session, Mendelson said turning down Gray's request would not delay hiring new cops. The council bought it and killed Gray's plan. Only Tommy Wells stuck with Gray and the police.

That could come back to haunt Mendelson. You don't have to be Frank Rizzo to realize the city would be safer with more police officers -- now rather than later.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.