Hitting close to home


In April, four Asian men pulled off a heist at an Asian-owned jewelry store at 1215 S. Sixth St. in the 3rd District. After two of them entered, pretending to want an appraisal, they produced guns and ordered the owner and his wife to the ground, hitting the man in the head with a pistol. Using the store security buzzer, the pair let in two more accomplices.

The group walked away with about $30,000 in goods, Detective Jim Dunlap of South Detective Division said. Two months later, police have been unable to crack the case, despite appealing to the media and releasing store surveillance footage, the detective said.

That same month, three Asian men were arrested after shooting a 27-year-old Asian in the buttocks on the 1600 block of South Fifth Street.

The most recent example of Asian-on-Asian crime happened shortly after 12:30 p.m. Sunday in Mifflin Square Park at Sixth and Wolf streets when a group of males, ages 18 to 25, attacked an 18-year-old with broken bottles, cutting and stabbing him in the face, head and arms, Detective Joe Chiaro of South Detectives said. The teen, who was treated and released at a local hospital, told police he knew the group that jumped him.

At a June 8 police meeting, 4th District Capt. Joseph Zaffino expressed concern about an "ongoing Asian-animosity issue," in his district. "We’ve had numerous shootings involving Asian males over the last three to four months. It has not been established whether it is drug-related, territorial or retaliatory," Zaffino said, adding the casualties and instigators are mostly Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese.

According to South Detectives Capt. Joseph O’Brien, there have been far more robberies than shootings involving this ethnicity and police have made arrests in many cases.

From Jan. 1 through June 15, there have been 182 robberies in the 4th District, 29 of which had Asian victims – 16 percent – according to police statistics.

In the same time period last year, there were 158 robberies with 18 Asian victims, making for 11 percent of the tally.

South Detectives was unable to provide statistics for shootings for either year.

In conjunction with local detective bureaus, the police department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit investigates all gang-related crime.

There are two major Asian gangs in South Philly – Red Scorpions and Tiny Rascal Gang, known as the TRGs – whose members are mostly Cambodian, Criminal Intelligence Unit Capt. Charles Bloom said.

They flare up every few years. Most of the people in these shootings [victims and perpetrators] are on our radar as associated with these gangs or in these gangs," the captain said.

There are two TRG factions, one on Sixth Street near Wolf and the other around 15th and Dickinson streets. Recently, the leader of the TRG Sixth Street group got out of prison, Bloom said, declining to name the man.

Police are trying to figure out if some of the recent shootings might be linked to the released leader trying to take over the 15th Street faction – much to their chagrin, Bloom said.

"The 15th Street guys aren’t having it," he said.

ASIAN COMMUNITY LEADER Brad Baldia, director of development and outreach for United Communities Southeast Philadelphia, also believes the gun violence is gang related. "A lot of it’s been some retaliation back and forth between the two [factions]," he said.

A second-generation Filipino, Baldia was one of the founders of Asian Town Watch in 2004. The group formed in response to the escalating violence against Asians at this time – two restaurant owners in the 17th District were killed in robberies. But lack of new members and failure to secure funding from the city’s Operation Town Watch initiative forced the first ethnically focused Town Watch group in Philadelphia to fold last year.

Baldia, who is also a member of Men United For a Better Philadelphia (MUBP), thinks it’s unfortunate the Asian Town Watch disbanded, especially now, when it’s needed most.

"We want to try and bring it back because it’s exactly for these things [the recent spike in crime] that the community needs to take some ownership. I hope it’s not going to take another death for people to realize it’s important," he said.

In an attempt to reach out to the Asian community, MUBP South Philly chapter President Rennie Mayo met with David Seng, director of United Communities, June 5 in hopes of brokering peace between the warring entities.

According to Mayo, the session was held "before it gets out of hand with whatever beef they have, to squash this before innocent people wind up getting hurt."

After the meeting, Mayo and his team members returned to Mifflin Square Park, site of the most recent attack.

"We wanted to show some solidarity, to show some support," he said.

The men handed out MUBP fliers and talked to people. "We need to stop this violence that affects us all," Mayo said. "Bullets have no gender or race."

Men of any race may join MUBP.

IN DIRECT RESPONSE to the spike in violence, Zaffino established a priority corner at Seventh and Porter streets, because Sixth and Seventh streets between McKean and Ritner is a problem area, the site of multiple violent incidents, the captain said.

The designated corner will serve as a tool for police to quell violence in hard-hit spots. Fourth District officers will staff the Seventh and Porter location around the clock, the captain said, and patrols in that area have been revved up, especially on weekends.

Investigators, in general, get "very little cooperation" from victims and those in the Asian community are no exception, Zaffino said.

"We have [translators available]. I can tell you translation is not a problem," he added.

What is happening now in South Philly is nothing new, according to Zaffino. When he was a police officer in the 1980s in the 3rd District, the area experienced a wave of Asian crime. At the time, this specific population was centered around Fifth Street between Dickinson and Morris, the captain said. There was also an increase of violence two summers ago when the aforementioned Asian merchants were shot.

"[The problem] dates back to the early ’80s, but there’s not been anything like this," Zaffino said of the recent rise in his district.

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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.