Crowds gathered at Eliza Butler Kirkbride School, 1501 S. 7th St., on Monday evening to discuss a recent uptick in gun violence afflicting local neighborhoods.
The community conversation, which was hosted by state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler and Councilman Mark Squilla, was an opportunity to open lines of communication between South Philadelphia residents and city officials, including members of the Philadelphia Police Department, the Office of the District Attorney, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia and the city Office of Violence Prevention.
The meeting was called specifically in light of recent reports of violence throughout Fiedler’s and Squilla’s districts, which include the East Passyunk Crossing, Dickinson Narrows, Lower Moyamensing, Whitman and Pennsport neighborhoods.
The 3rd Police District attributes the current increase in violent crime, primarily, to longstanding conflicts between two organized groups of criminals known as the “5th Street” and “7th Street” gangs.
“These gangs have been involved in ongoing disputes,” said Capt. Brian Hartzell of the 3rd Police District. “It goes back at least 20 years if not longer.”
Throughout Fiedler’s 184th Legislative District, which spans from Broad Street to the Delaware River and Wharton Street to the Navy Yard, 23 shooting incidents have been reported from Jan. 1 to Oct. 25 of this year, according to data provided by the district attorney’s office. Three of these shootings were fatal, also according to this data.
One of these homicides occurred within the last month, according to crime statistics from the Philadelphia Police Department.
“I have lived in this neighborhood for 59 years and I have never seen it – the violence that I’m seeing today,” said local resident Maureen DelCorio-Fratantoni. “And, it’s really scary.”
While dozens of residents expressed concerns, Hartzell says the 3rd District continues to increase a police presence on foot, on bikes and in patrol cars at various “grids” where gang violence has been most prevalent. Continually tracking the gang activity, he says officers have been put on overtime to monitor specific individuals at certain times and places throughout the district.
Hartzell says that other units, including highway patrol and narcotics, have also been collaborating with the district to counter these specific crimes. Currently, the district is in the preliminary stages of potentially creating a task force that will strictly focus on the gangs.
There have been at least 80 arrests just this year related to the 5th Street and 7th Street gangs, according to Hartzell. He also says arrests for gun possession in the 3rd District have approximately doubled compared to last year.
“Without the officers going out and making these significant arrests, I couldn’t imagine,” Hartzell said. “We could be dealing with a lot more gun problems, so that’s very significant.”
But some residents think the police department’s current efforts are not enough.
“Your resources are limited,” said local resident Felicia Adams. “There is other policing that you need to do…My son cannot go outside of the house. I don’t want him to become a statistic. I don’t want to bury a son. So, he’ll never, ever go out in the city of Philadelphia.”
Residents from around the 3rd Police District, including Dickinson Narrows and Lower Moyamensing, described incidents of crime they’ve recently witnessed on their blocks, including prostitution, stabbings, drug deals and vandalism.
When fighting crime, Hartzell stressed the significance of community-police collaboration through various mechanisms, including registering home security cameras with SafeCam, which allows officers to request a copy of residents’ video footage if a crime took place in the immediate area.
Other city officials echoed Hartzell’s points.
“We’re only as good as the information that we receive,” said Assistant District Attorney Deborah Watson-Stokes. “In a lot of cases, we’re not there. We don’t know what happened, so we rely on people who care about their community to tell us either formally or informally who’s involved…This is a relationship.”
Meeting attendees expressed apprehension about the Office of the District Attorney’s ability to prosecute suspects, suggesting the department is not hard enough on crime.
Watson-Stokes says that the District Attorney’s office actively prosecutes nearly every single “gun case” and “gun-related crimes” reported throughout the city.
Watson-Stokes says the office still prosecutes as many “if not more homicides now than we’ve ever done.”
Some residents, though, think crime in this part of South Philadelphia has been an ongoing concern for several recent years and, in response, only minimum action has been taken by the city.
“A lot of what I’m hearing – I’ve heard at police community meetings that I organized in 2011, in 2009,” said South Philly resident Carol D. Tart, who has lived in the neighborhood for close to 60 years. “Same organizations, different faces. Same elected officials, different faces. But, all of a sudden, it’s rising – the gun violence rate. Also, rising – the filth in the community. I have never seen South Philly so dirty in my life.”
Along with street sanitation issues, residents raised concerns about the increase in opioid-related abuse and overdoses throughout South Philadelphia east of Broad Street.
In response, Squilla discussed the Philadelphia Resilience Project, an executive order signed by Mayor Jim Kenney in October 2018 that aims to resolve the opioid crisis through a collaboration among 35 city offices.
According to the City of Philadelphia’s website, the program’s key missions include “clearing major encampments, reducing criminal activity, reducing the number of unsheltered individuals, reducing trash and litter, reducing overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases, increasing treatment options and mobilizing community resources.”
“We believe, as a city, that we can help the community by doing street cleaning, by being out there, by letting people know that, ‘Yes, we in our communities do care,’ ” Squilla said. “So, we are looking out. I think that goes a long way to ending some of the quality-of-life issues…There are a lot of challenges all at the same time, but there are some programs that are put in place. There are some pilot programs that we’re investing and we’ll hopefully be able to make a dent in this as we move forward.”
On Wednesday, Kenney’s administration announced it submitted to City Council legislation for a mid-year budget transfer of $3.88 million to the Managing Director’s Office to help combat gun violence, which would specifically benefit new programs such as the Rapid Response Team.
This project includes “immediate structural and streetscape repairs,” “long-term blight remediation and improved street lighting” and “information on other social services and anti-violence resources.”
Though such programs are being implemented, South Philadelphians stressed the need for the city to provide more “preventive” action, specifically to obstruct the region’s youth from falling into a cycle of criminal patterns.
“I’m here tonight because I’m really concerned,” DelCorio-Fratantoni said. “I don’t want to move out of my neighborhood. I’m a South Philadelphian. I’ve been here for years, and I don’t want to move. So, we need to do something.”