Philly officials say they're keeping up the fight against rec-center violence

"I don't feel safe" at Wister playground, Jamil Streeter said. Three men were shot there.
"I don't feel safe" at Wister playground, Jamil Streeter said. Three men were shot there. (LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ / Staff)
Posted: August 17, 2012

Fifteen hours after a 37-year-old man was shot to death at the Parkside Evans playground in West Philadelphia on Tuesday, a twisted shred of police tape on the sidewalk was the only hint that this was a crime scene.

"Someone was shot? Here?" said Chanelle Roberts, who was spending the afternoon playing tennis with her husband, Randall Skelton, on the recreation site's fine green-turf courts.

Roberts, 32, a mother of four, shook her head, disheartened. "My son has basketball practice here every Saturday and Sunday. My 5-year-old runs under the water sprinklers over there," she said.

"It's sad. Sad," Skelton said.

For those keeping score, the shooting Tuesday night at Parkside was the 222d homicide this year in the city and the second time this month that bullets were fired on a municipal basketball court. Last Thursday, a man climbed into the bleachers at the Wister playground in East Germantown, pulled out a gun, and started firing, wounding three men.

Other forms of violence, too, have infiltrated Philadelphia's recreation sites, the very places that children, teenagers and families go to cool off - figuratively and literally - from the claustrophobia and heat of urban summer.

In June, two playgrounds were set on fire. In July, a 12-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a group of teenage boys in a stairwell of the Francis Myers center, out of sight and earshot of adults participating in a line-dance program, children working on computers, and recreation staff supervising a basketball clinic.

Compared with years past, violence is down on sites owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation, said Deputy Commissioner Susan Slawson. Last summer, there were about a dozen shootings on city basketball courts, she said. This year, nearly at the end of the season, there have been half as many.

"But it's still too many," Slawson said.

In response to community concern about safety in recreation centers and playgrounds, Councilwoman Cindy Bass organized a hearing, scheduled for Thursday morning. Slawson plans to attend.

The department has been working to heighten security for years, Commissioner Mike DiBerardinis said.

"Eighteen months ago, we put in for hundreds of thousands of dollars for surveillance cameras in big centers," DiBerardinis said. "Scores of cameras" are about to be installed in about 25 recreation centers, he said.

After the alleged rape, a team was assembled to assess security concerns at two dozen of the department's large facilities. Slawson and others from Parks and Recreation worked with representatives from the police, Licenses and Inspections, and the risk management division of the Law Department to put together a report that is due out in two weeks.

The findings, Slawson said, will identify areas where more cameras are needed and where remote sections of buildings can be closed off.

"Wherever large crowds of young people gather, there's always violence of one kind or another. Fights sometimes escalate," said Jim Helman, who serves on the advisory councils of several recreation centers, including Vare in South Philadelphia.

Four years ago, after two shootings at Vare, the community decided to take the initiative. "We raised $18,000 and installed 16 cameras," Helman said. Since then, there has only been one major incident, he said, "and the camera caught it."

Preventing violence from permeating the boundaries of Parks and Recreation properties, which encompass 13 percent of the city's land, is nearly impossible, DiBerardinis said.

"We have 70 pools and six spray grounds with 1.2 million visits from mid-June to now. We have between 9,000 and 10,000 kids in 100 day camps every day. We run six specialty camps - visual arts, performing arts, golf - and 250 organized programs in neighborhood parks. Movie nights, Shakespeare, dance nights - almost every night people are gathered," he said.

"When we run programs, structured activities, when we're present at facilities and parks, they are very, very safe. It's hard to figure out a strategy of intervention when you have 150 facilities and they shut down at 9:30. People still hang out and congregate. There are real limits to our ability to control what goes on then."

The department has tightened regulations and increased supervision of basketball leagues and pools, he said. Plans are also in the works to improve lighting, cluster staff, and consolidate programs. He said the department had also invited experts from New York, Los Angeles, and other big cities to attend a meeting in October and share their ideas.

But realistically, no amount of vigilance will totally stop the crimes, he said, because the problem extends far beyond the boundaries of any city's basketball courts.

"I don't feel safe," Jamil Streeter said as he shot hoops Wednesday afternoon at Wister playground. He was on the courts last Thursday, a few hours before the three men were shot by the man in the bleachers. Streeter, 17, says he doesn't blame Parks and Recreation, however. "People be beefing. I don't know what will stop it. People will do what they want."

Slawson, a former police officer whose 14-year-old son plays basketball at Parkside, said that although it might be impossible to guarantee everyone's safety, there is no choice but to keep trying.

"We have to strategize to prevent as much violence as we possibly can. And I believe we are," she said. "We met with command staff in May before the season began to figure out what can we put in place." Her department, she said, pays police to check in and monitor pools. It has also provided police with specific information about when and where basketball leagues meet. "It's made a difference," she said, adding that given the relatively small number of incidents, it would be a shame for people to be afraid to use parks, recreation centers, and playgrounds.

"I don't have the answers. I don't understand why the violence has escalated to what it is," she said. "It's sad. It's frightening. Could everyone use additional staff? Absolutely. Does that mean some idiot isn't going to come out at night and shoot a guy who's involved in drugs?

"We're talking about people who have a disregard for life. It goes back to people who don't care whether they live or die and who they take out."


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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