Two months after North Philly police shooting, neighbors still feel ‘heightened anxiety all the time’
Police are trying to mend their fractured relationship with the community, but plenty of residents say their efforts feel inauthentic.
Children who live on the 3700 block of North 15th Street stayed inside for the last few weeks of summer, too scared to play on the street where they witnessed an eight-hour shootout from a drug bust gone awry on Aug. 14.
But the kids slowly trickled out over time, some holding their parents’ hands to brave the September air, and return to sidewalk chalk and bike rides and the basketball hoop on the southern edge of the block.
And on Saturday, during a block party on an unusually warm October afternoon, the kids even had new pickup game opponents: Philadelphia police officers.
The event, cosponsored and publicized by the Philadelphia Police Department and the Police Athletic League, was a stark change of pace for the neighborhood where six officers were shot. And for some residents, it was a welcome display of support from an institution they wished would recognize the impact of lying on their own floors and listening to more than 100 rounds of sporadic gunfire for the length of a workday as gunman Maurice Hill barricaded himself inside a home on their block.
But two months after the shootout and beneath the veneer of unity, other Tioga residents still remain skeptical of how police handled the incident, and believe their efforts to mend the relationship feel artificial — like a feel-good show that doesn’t account for any pain or anger that persists.
The trauma remains for many children and adults living on the block — every time there’s a loud sound, from the TV, from a firecracker, they relive the nightmare from that August day and night.
Ashley Lee, a 21-year-old who lives around the corner from where the shootout took place, said she felt “traumatized” Saturday at the mere sight of officers from the Narcotics Strike Force, the unit that plowed into a home where Hill was hunkered down with an AR-15, setting off the standoff.
“I’ve never seen the police do anything on this block,” Lee said. “So why wait until now? To cover your behind?”
For residents, the sunny afternoon festival last weekend didn’t fix the fact that the block ever since has been a place where people drive by and gawk.
It didn’t fix Kenneth Foreman’s house, still riddled with 14 bullet holes that are daily reminders of the day he dived to the back of his house, fearing a bullet might pierce him through a front window.
And while it provided a brief respite for Octavia Abney’s 4-year-old son, Dylan — who spent the morning crying at the prospect of playing outside — the festival also wouldn’t fix her need to pack up her three kids and move from the block she’s lived on for a decade. “It’s heightened anxiety all the time,” she said.
Capt. Jarreau Thomas, commanding officer of the Police Athletic League, said Saturday that he was initially nervous about how neighbors would receive dozens of cops, given the last time this many police were on their block. But considering what residents experienced that day, he said, he resolved to at least try connecting.
“They saw us with SWAT uniforms and guns drawn, and they need to see us in a different light,” he said. “Policing is more than putting handcuffs on people.”
City officials say they’re working to support residents but are dealing with what is in many ways an unprecedented situation that required cooperation among agencies including the Department of Behavioral Health, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Mayor’s Office, and police.
Representatives from city agencies have gone to the block over the last two months to provide support — offering counseling services, distributing directions for dealing with homeowner insurers, even helping Abney, a 29-year-old preschool teacher, relocate her family. Officials also cleaned up vacant lots, addressed a rodent infestation, and are working to address abandoned properties.
In the days after the shooting, representatives from the city’s Community Life Improvement Program painted the boards on the outside of the house where the shootout occurred, making it look as if they were windows with drapery and windowsill candles. They did the same to other boarded-up homes on the block.
And last week, the mayor’s administration announced that District Council 21 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades will provide free home repairs to residents like Foreman, whose residences were damaged by showers of bullets. Work is expected to begin in the next several weeks.
Block captain Cynthia Muse said that announcement took the pressure off confused homeowners, some of whom were told by police in the days after the incident that they should file an insurance claim against the shooter, a move they predicted would ultimately be fruitless.
Foreman, who lives directly across from where the shootout took place and still has bullet holes in his home’s front windows and blue shutters, said “somebody” came and measured his windows several weeks ago but hasn’t come back to fix them. Two months after the shootout, Foreman, 76, still feels shaken and afraid when he hears a loud noise.
“Sometimes I can sleep, sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I have bad dreams,” Foreman said. “It was a terrible thing, what happened.”
Next door to Foreman’s house, Pamela Gettings lives in a first-floor apartment facing the street. The outer glass pane of her front window remains shattered by a bullet.
Gettings, 65, said she was rattled by the shootout for weeks afterward, pointing to a city garbage truck, saying: “For a while, if I had heard anything like that, I would have jumped a mile. But I’m over it now.” Her husband, James Martin, said: “I just want my window fixed."
City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose district encompasses the Tioga-Nicetown section of the city, acknowledged that officials didn’t initially have answers for block residents wondering who was responsible for cleanup or when they would get back property that was seized by police as evidence.
Although those questions have largely been answered, her goal moving forward is to better facilitate communication between city agencies and the neighborhood, including addressing the relationship with police, and to better recognize the trauma that remains.
“We don’t want to characterize this as ‘back to business as usual,’” she said, “because there’s nothing usual about it. We don’t want people to feel forgotten.”
Muse, 67, has noticed those efforts. She’s lived on this block for 13 years, and she worked with police to organize last weekend’s block party. She sees the city’s involvement differently from many of her neighbors: She understands their fear and anger but is grateful city officials “responded to us when they didn’t have to.”
The future of the neighborhood is, to Muse, brighter, because they have the city’s attention. She’s talking with officials about additional recreational spaces for children and ways to clean up the commercial corridor around Broad Street and Erie Avenue, a block away.
Mistrust of the police is harder to fix, she said. A full reconciliation between residents and police may never be fully realized.
G. Lamar Stewart, a pastor at Taylor Memorial Baptist Church on Germantown Avenue, about a block from the site of the shooting, said he’s confident the block can move forward, one day at a time, so long as engagement from city officials keeps up.
“The people in Nicetown are a resilient people,” he said. “This was a good time for us as a community to come together and challenge systems to serve us in an intentional way.”