For thousands who watched live TV coverage or followed social-media updates chronicling the Aug. 14 standoff in Tioga in which six policemen were shot, it appeared alleged gunman Maurice Hill bore sole responsibility for the mayhem.
But for those who live on the 3700 block of North 15th Street — who spent nearly eight hours under siege — the reality remains far murkier. Now residents of a block-long crime scene, their battered and bullet-riddled cars still impounded for evidence, they blame the police for what happened almost as much as they do Hill.
The police are the ones who came into their neighborhood to serve a search warrant for narcotics, apparently unprepared for so violent a response. The police, in some cases, are the ones who damaged their property. But, with hundreds of police on the block, it seemed to residents as if no one went to check on them. And now, a week later, they have not heard from police about how to move forward, or who will pay for the damage.
“If you’re going to come into a community and do this,” said Eric Garrity, 38, who lives across the street from the house where Hill was, “at least clean up.”
Hill is alleged to have fired more than 100 rounds from an AR-15 and 30 officers returned fire. The shootout has cast a shadow over this tree-lined rowhouse block, anchored by a sprawling urban garden at one end and a colorfully decorated day-care center on the other. It’s the kind of place where people plant flowers in front of their homes and kids leave their bikes carelessly scattered on the sidewalk. It’s noticeably tidier and, according to police data, significantly safer than the teeming, crime-ridden commercial intersection at Broad Street and Erie Avenue nearby, where drifts of litter pile up against the curb.
Now, though, the site of the shooting is marked by three houses with boards over the windows and doors.
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Shakemah, 34, who has lived for 14 years in an apartment across the street, said that what happened changed her view of home.
“I’m just trying to figure out a way to get out of here,” she said, tears streaking her face.
Her son, 12, and daughter, 10, were trapped alone inside for eight hours until she was permitted to enter her building at 1 a.m. Her children were crying when she found them. A week later, they still don’t want to leave the house.
“This block is full of children, always,” said Shakemah, who declined to give her last name. “They play basketball, ride bikes, they eat water ice here, but they won’t come outside no more.”
She keeps thinking about how police treated her during the shooting. She said police didn’t identify themselves or make sure residents were safe. Their whole approach, she said, was wrong.
Other residents, citing a long-standing lack of faith in the police, pose questions about the legality of the search, and wonder what else they don’t know. Conspiracy theories, chewed over on front porches and sidewalks, include one that police were hiding behind children as Hill fired.
And there’s resentment over the sweep that took in not only Hill, a relative stranger, but also men who were part of the connective tissue of this community. Whatever else they were involved in, neighbors said, these men held barbecues and block parties, put out a basketball hoop on the lowest setting so even the littlest kids could play.
Pamela Gettings, 64, teared up Wednesday morning about losing “our boys.”
“I actually feel less safe now,” she said.
An unsettled feeling remains on the block, as strangers wander through to gawk and snap photos of the boarded-up crime scene. Cynthia Muse, who has lived across the street for 13 years, said the block has turned into a “tourist attraction.” She was jolted awake Tuesday night when someone drove by and screamed, “Oh, is that the house!?”
For the last week, police and other officials have streamed through, too: collecting evidence, examining cars and houses, taking up parking spaces.
“It’s like being under martial law,” Muse said.
For many in the neighborhood, though, that’s just life in North Philadelphia.
Rick Ray, 64, who sat on the steps of a boarded-up building on Erie Avenue, said the peaceful end to the standoff had “upgraded” his impression of police. But since then, things are back to normal.
“We call it Jump-out Tuesdays. It’s when [police] go around and check people for warrants,” he said, using a rag to mop away sweat from the late-afternoon sun. Today, he’d already counted 13 police cars, and watched them stop a man, arrest him, and tow his car. “It’s elevated — even for Jump-out Tuesday.”
Jamar Nesmith, 27, said police should be doing the opposite: checking to see who needs support. He feels the community’s relationship with police has “never been good, and with this type of follow-up, it never could be, either.”
To his mind, there’s shared blame for what happened: Community members and police both knew of drug dealing on the block, and allowed the situation to get this serious.
He sees a lack of respect on both sides: the community toward the police, and vice versa.
That history formed the backdrop for scenes that drew criticism as the standoff unfolded — people yelling and throwing objects at police, and social-media users cheering Hill with the action-movie moniker Jawn Wick. The coupling of Philly’s most beloved, catch-all noun with one of Hollywood’s most popular, well-armed hit men could offend in light of the officers’ injuries, but writer Melissa Simpson said the meme’s virality speaks to something few outside of poor, black communities can understand.
Simpson, 28, grew up at 17th and Allegheny in North Philly, a little less than a mile south of the shooting. She argues the Jawn Wick memes came from a place of defensiveness in the black community, a coping mechanism.
“This is a guy who’s doing something we’ve never seen before: He’s shooting at cops. This is taking 7½ hours, and he came out alive? ... That’s unprecedented,” she said.
She wasn’t surprised community members felt less concern for injured police: “It’s really difficult to have empathy for oppressors.”
That’s understandable, said Jareese Long, 25, who was picking up her 11-month-old nephew Tuesday night from Precious Babies, the day care at 15th and Erie that was locked down for hours.
“People didn’t look at it as seriously because it was the police who were in danger,” she said. “So many times, it’s unarmed black men being killed by police.”
A Philadelphia police spokesperson declined to comment on the state of police-community relations in the area, or what the department might be doing to mend them.
On Wednesday morning, though, a dozen officers with the National Black Police Association did their part, crowding into Precious Babies, delivering backpacks, school supplies, and a pizza lunch to three dozen ecstatic, jumping children.
“Contrary to what you hear outside these walls, all these police officers are your friends.” David Fisher, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NBPA, told the kids.
Fisher, a retired detective who grew up at 22nd and Tioga, said there’s a lack of understanding of what police actually do. He said cops can and should hold more community forums. But what officials haven’t figured out is how to better reach the people who don’t show up to those types of events.
And those people, Fisher said, have to want to mend the relationship, too.
“People say they fear the police,” he said. “But you have fear of the water before you get in. People need to give police a chance.”
That’s not so easy, though, for residents left to clean up the damage, while also coping with the trauma.
A Jamaica-born musician who asked to be identified by his stage name, Ken Unity, pointed to at least 10 bullet holes marring the blue shutters on his house, the awning, and aluminum siding.
One of those bullets almost found Unity, 76, who dived toward the back of his house for safety.
“I was praying and calling upon God," he said. "I had never been through nothing like that before.”
Unity, who was headed to his night-shift job as a security guard in Center City on Tuesday evening, admitted he was still jittery.
“Earlier today, I was out and a car ran over a bottle in the street and the noise had me shaking,” he said. He put both hands to his ears, and shook his head rapidly as if trying to force away the memory.
A few houses down, Garrity complained that his truck caught crossfire. He has been out of work since last Friday when the police towed away the red Ford F-150, to examine the bullet holes in the pickup’s rear panel for evidence.
Garrity, a contractor who can’t haul cement and other supplies without his truck, has been desperately trying to learn when he’ll get it back. He said that when he asked a couple of officers who were on the block, “they laughed. They made a joke out of it.”
It’s not funny to Garrity, who said he was homeless just seven months ago; it’s his livelihood. (Garrity supplied video of the standoff to The Inquirer, which paid him $250 to license the footage.)
As for the damage to their property, the Pennsylvania Victim Compensation Fund cannot cover it, a spokesperson said.
A woman whose windshield was shattered in the shootout said police told her they couldn’t help either.
“They told me to call my insurance, file a claim against whoever the shooter was," said the 55-year-old woman, who declined to be named. She felt like shouting back at them, “You all were the shooter!”
Some faith-based charitable organizations have come through, one setting up a tent on the corner to offer face-painting for kids, another knocking on doors to offer prayers and food vouchers.
But many residents say that in the big picture there is little help for them — least of all from the city, which they feel has divested from this neighborhood.
Annette Harrison, a resident of the 3700 block of Carlisle Street, which runs parallel to 15th, said that until the shootout, she’d never seen so many police in her life.
She said she's called police and city officials in the past about abandoned lots and short dumping in the neighborhood, to no avail.
She hoped if anything good came from the shootout, it would be that police and politicians would finally come around. “Most of the time,” she said, “it’s broken promises and lies.”