The day after seven people were shot during a community cookout and basketball tournament at tiny Baker Playground in Philadelphia’s Overbrook section, neighbors Sunday were questioning why police had not been assigned to what is known to be a popular annual event there.
“Normally, there’s a cop presence. But there was no one here. ... I couldn’t believe it,” said Larry, who lives next to the playground on the 5400 block of Lansdowne Avenue and did not want his last name published for security reasons.
The basketball tournament Saturday drew more than 100 people to the playground that includes a pool, basketball courts, swings and a jungle gym. Neighbors said that the younger children had already gone in by the time the shooting broke out around 9 p.m. Saturday.
Carolyn, another neighbor who would not give her full name, said that in years past, police would be present at the tournament or at least making the rounds to make sure tensions didn’t escalate.
“That’s the only time — I’ve been here since 1973 — that there were no cops out here,” she said, adding that her street had been full of cars. "You don’t know who was here or who they are. … They have it every year and nothing like this ever happens.”
Police had few answers Sunday.
“We are currently attempting to determine what, if any, communication issues may have contributed to the lack of dedicated police presence at the park,” police spokesman Capt. Sekou Kinebrew said in an email. Officers “were patrolling the general area of the park as part of their typical patrol duties. However, there was no officer specifically assigned to the event."
Meanwhile, Mayor Jim Kenney has asked the police and Parks and Recreation Department to increase police presence at all permitted events throughout the remainder of the summer, his spokeswoman, Deana Gamble, said Sunday. The basketball tournament at Baker had a permit from the Parks and Recreation Department, she said.
Saturday’s attack was the second mass shooting at a Philadelphia playground in a month. On Father’s Day weekend, a 24-year-old man was killed and five people were wounded at Finnegan Playground in Southwest Philadelphia.
According to a police database, 1,292 aggravated assaults with a gun have been reported so far this year, a 9 percent increase over the same time period last year.
Speaking at Baker Playground on Saturday night, Police Commissioner Richard Ross’s exasperation was evident.
“It just frustrates you beyond belief,” he said. "Are we at a point where we have to police a playground at night? It just makes no sense.”
Ross said that had police known about the basketball games and cookout, "we probably would have put a car here, because of where we are,” he said. “That’s a sad statement, too. That people just playing basketball have to be monitored by the police. Clearly, it’s not 99 percent of individuals — it’s just some who decide to resort to behavior like this, which, again, is just ridiculous.”
A witness told police that two young men had appeared to open fire on the crowd. One person was shot four or five times. Six others sustained wounds to the arms, legs, face or head.
Kinebrew described the police response time to the report of gunshots as "satisfactory ... given that five of the seven victims were transported to the hospital by responding patrol officers.” The injured, ranging in age from 16 to 31, were reported in stable condition Sunday. No arrests had been made.
For police staffing, events are typically evaluated “on a case-by-case basis," taking into account “size and scope of the event, a known threat of (or propensity for) violence, hostility between rival groups who may be present or in the area, etc.,” Kinebrew said.
Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder and executive director of Mothers in Charge, a violence-prevention organization based in Philadelphia, said community organizations are doing the best they can but can’t operate in silos outside of City Hall’s efforts.
“It would be good to figure out a plan with the city. I don’t know that’s happening,” she said, noting that she has not been invited to meet with city officials regarding violence prevention.
As she spoke to an Inquirer reporter early Sunday afternoon, she was driving to a Violence Prevention Solutions Forum organized by state Sen. Sharif Street and Darryl Shuler, an anti-violence activist, at the Met Philadelphia.
“The city can’t do it by themselves. The police can’t do it by themselves," Johnson-Speight said. "It has to be a combined effort of everyone who is concerned to come together. It’s that kind of massive problem. It’s not going to get fixed easily.”
At Sunday’s forum, attended by more than 300, including the police commissioner, guests whispered about Saturday’s playground shooting, shaking their heads about yet another violent incident in the city. Onstage, men spoke of turning their lives around after getting shot and imprisoned for selling drugs or shooting, even killing people. All of them called for unity in what they said is an epidemic.
Kayzar Abdul-Khabir, a community activist who has lost a son to gun violence, suggested that the city create a commercial to try to get through to a larger audience. He criticized the mayor for what he said is an unequal distribution of city funds that favors the opioid crisis over anti-violence prevention.
“We have an epidemic in our community that needs to be fought. And we cannot solve it if you give us crumbs and tell us it’s bread,” he said to the loudest applause of the program’s first hour. The event was to last four hours.
Gamble, Kenney’s spokeswoman, said in an email that the city is investing $31.5 million in new funding to support implementation of the Philadelphia Roadmap to Safer Communities anti-violence plan.
“We will continue to work with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to fight for common sense gun reform to address an underlying cause of these shootings — easy access to firearms in our country,” she said.
At Baker Playground on Sunday morning, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who represents the area, said he thinks having community peace officers might help quell disputes before they get out of hand. He also said that having police and cameras at playgrounds might be needed.
“It is the responsibility of the whole community … to make sure that playgrounds and recreation centers and places where we gather are safe and secure and are positive places for people to hang out,” he said. “We’ve got to triple down to make these communities safer. Obviously what’s going on is not working."
Staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.