As darkness fell Tuesday, security agents — with shotguns and rifles, tactical knives and stun guns — posted up in the Italian Market for the third consecutive night.
Dressed in all black and wearing military-style body armor, they patrolled South Ninth Street. They scanned the crevices between empty food stands and checked the alley-like residential streets that surround the iconic South Philadelphia shopping district.
If looters came, they’d be ready.
As they fanned out in the Italian Market, another set of armed security agents arrived in Manayunk’s business district for an 8 p.m.-to-3 a.m. shift.
“The big thing is, just trying to be a visual deterrent. We don’t want to incite further riot or further violence,” said Domenic Gallelli, a senior vice president with Ingage Security, the Kensington-based firm hired by merchants in Manayunk and the Italian Market.
“We want people to realize that this is just not a place to create trouble," Gallelli added. “We’re acting as additional eyes and ears for the police because they are completely overwhelmed. They are doing everything they can in a city that is just bubbling with all this intensity and anger.”
After a weekend of looting and vandalism that started in Center City on Saturday and spread to shopping districts in all corners of Philadelphia by Sunday, the leaders of some business associations — feeling largely left on their own by police — hired private, professional security agents to protect their shops.
“There is a lot of anxiety. I think everyone is very frustrated," said Gwen McCauley, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corp. (MDC).
Leaders of the MDC and the United Merchants of the South 9th Street Business Association said they want “a physical security presence” in their districts each night at least until the civil unrest ebbs and the city lifts its curfew, which has forced restaurants doing takeout and shops with curbside service to close before dark.
Unlike Center City, where looters hit many national chains, the Italian Market and Manayunk’s Main Street are both residential mom-and-pop shopping areas where some people live in apartments above stores. That created an additional layer of fear, McCauley said.
“Some of our store owners live right above their store," she said, "so it’s very frightening to think about what could happen.”
McCauley said MDC will pick up the cost for merchants already in financial tatters from the pandemic. “Frankly, we’re just trying to keep them alive,” she said. Likewise, the Italian Market’s business association will cover security costs out of its general budget.
“They made the decision to protect the streets and as a business member there, I’m grateful,” said Emilio Mignucci, owner of Di Bruno Bros. on Ninth Street.
Security agents get paid $45 to $50 an hour, with an additional $10 hour for an onsite supervisor, Gallelli said.
In Manayunk, after the wine and spirits store, a jewelry shop, and the medical marijuana dispensary were looted on Sunday and Monday, there was buzz among some residents on social media who lobbied to protect the streets themselves. McCauley said they didn’t want to have a situation like the one unfolding in Fishtown, where rogue groups of white men, with baseball bats and guns, took to the streets.
MDC president Lisa Lamprou "wrote a post on a neighborhood site saying, ‘We have active security down here. We don’t want you to come down here and try to protect the streets. We want the professionals to do their job,’” McCauley said Tuesday.
Gallelli said the security agents hired by Ingage undergo a background check and fingerprinting. They are trained and licensed to carry weapons under the state’s “Lethal Weapons Training Act,” enacted in 1974. The program is overseen by the Pennsylvania State Police.
“We’ve always provided agents but not to this volume," Gallelli said. “My phone has been ringing nonstop. I’ve had to turn some things away. We’re pretty much fully deployed right now.”
During a video conference call with the Philadelphia Department of Commerce on Monday, many business owners expressed alarm and frustration about what the police could and could not do to help. City leaders advised them to save video surveillance tapes of break-ins, document damage, and take down license plates of perpetrators. It wasn’t clear during the call, McCauley said, whether police would review the footage and track down owners of cars used in crimes when things quieted down.
“In some cases, I think the police could do something, and I do think they are taking a very cautious approach because of the situation surrounding why it’s all going on and how the police are right smack in the middle,” McCauley said.
McCauley said the lack of police resources prompted the MDC to hire five to seven security agents to patrol Manayunk at night beginning Monday. On Tuesday, she said, residents and business owners alike expressed relief.
“All day long, we’ve been hearing: ‘Are they coming back tonight? It just makes me feel so much safer. It just made me sleep better,’” McCauley said.
A couple walking their dog at about 10 p.m. Monday tentatively walked past a shotgun-toting agent as he stood talking to a resident who sat outside her home on narrow League Street, just off Ninth. The couple doubled back and asked what was going on.
The agent, who declined to provide his name, was chatty as he talked about his training and experience. He said he served five years in the National Guard and was trained and authorized by the state police to use the shotgun, handcuffs, a stun gun, tactical knife, and pepper spray, if necessary. The agent, who is black, said he’s had residents call the police on him during jobs, but he and fellow team members always let the local police district know they’re there ahead of time.
“We do a lot of stuff that our local police do and a lot of things that we do and can do, local police can’t do. You don’t see police officers walking around with shotguns,” he said. “I’m not mean. I don’t want to enforce anything if I don’t have to. ... I’ll say, ‘Listen, I’m telling you one time.’ Verbal commands are very powerful."
Morgan Hugo, 39, who lives at Ninth and Kimball Streets, said she was initially surprised Monday evening when she saw the agents. “I didn’t know who they were,” but word spread quickly among neighbors who had largely positive reactions.
“It’s sad to know that we are in a security state right now, but also, it’s like, these businesses have been here for years," Hugo said.
Scot Ziskind said he was “appalled” by the security agents hired by the Italian Market’s business association.
“I don’t have a problem with people hiring a security company to put guards in their stores — I have a problem with people walking around my neighborhood with shotguns,” Ziskind said. “It’s scary."
Ziskind, 62, who has lived near the Italian Market for 35 years, owns a handgun and a .410 pistol shotgun for “personal protection.” He said his shotgun has far less firepower than the 20-gauge shotgun being carried by some of the hired security agents, whom he characterized as “overarmed.”