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After the South Street mass shooting, residents ask police: ‘How are you going to keep me safe?’

For decades, Philadelphia police have wrestled with managing the crowds that squeeze through South Street. Some residents and merchants says the neighborhood has taken on an air of lawlessness.

Philadelphia police encourage revelers to go home as they walk along South Street in July of 2019.
Philadelphia police encourage revelers to go home as they walk along South Street in July of 2019.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

It took two seconds for the night to change. In that moment — half a moment, really — two gunmen sprinted across an intersection, and fired more than 10 shots at an unknown target, practically hopping as they squeezed their triggers. A few dozen bystanders ducked and scattered, unsure if a stray bullet would find them.

No one was wounded when gunfire erupted at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets just after 11 p.m. on June 4. The shooters escaped, and some of the terrified pedestrians headed north, toward South Street. The sidewalks there were packed.

For decades, Philadelphia police have wrestled with how best to manage the crowds that squeeze through South Street, veering between leniency and forceful control. On this night, as many as 70 police officers were nearby. Plenty of tourists were in town for two large events — the Roots Picnic and the PHL Pride Festival — and police officials had gathered intelligence about potential violence.

The Bainbridge Street shooting could have prompted police to close the corridor, and disperse hundreds of mostly young people. But that option wasn’t considered.

“I don’t believe, at this point, that there were preliminarily any discussions about shutting down South Street,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told The Inquirer. “At that time, you’re one decision away from something going really well, or not. It’s a judgment call, and hindsight is always perfect.”

At 11:33 p.m., police radios crackled with another report of gunfire — this time on South Street near Second.

“We’ve got multiple people walking up to me,” one officer said, “saying they’re shot.”

A fistfight had escalated into a chaotic shootout that left three people dead, a dozen wounded, and sent scores of pedestrians scurrying. South Street, the city’s unofficial boardwalk, was added to a growing national list of once-safe public spaces — schools, churches, supermarkets — that have been transformed into sites of mass shootings.

For some South Street business owners and residents, the shooting crystallized their belief that the neighborhood has taken on an air of lawlessness. It is a refrain Outlaw heard often this week, from people who demanded that officers crack down on quality-of-life crimes and unruly behavior. The exact opposite, in other words, of some of the progressive policies that the department has adopted during the last decade.

It will be up to Outlaw to thread the needle between the two approaches this weekend, and for the rest of the summer, and also assess decisions that commanders made last Saturday.

“It’s ranged from ‘Let them be’ to ‘We’re tired of this, you need to be more aggressive, and do more,’” she said. “We get them all. But we don’t get to operate like that. The challenge is keeping up with these sentiments, which can change overnight.”

‘Too many people in too small a space’

This isn’t the first time that South Street has been unsettled by violence, or seen a change in police tactics. In 1994, an after-party for the Greek Picnic, an annual collegian meetup, went sideways when the sound of firecrackers fueled rumors about a gunman. Hysteria spread through a crowd of 70,000, triggering a stampede. Few injuries were reported, but 900 police officers were summoned.

“It was just too many people in too small a space drinking too much alcohol,” the manager of a pizza shop said at the time. “And I think the police were ineffective. They didn’t show their numbers until things were out of hand.”

Over the years, complaints like these had led to an increased security presence, including bike patrols and the opening of a police mini station on the strip. But even with a cop effectively on every corner some nights, police were sometimes overwhelmed.

In 2001, a crowd of 40,000 college-age people raged during Fat Tuesday celebrations. Businesses were looted, and a motorist struck a half-dozen pedestrians. A wall of police officers formed to break up what became known as the Mardi Gras Riot, and 81 people were arrested.

In the late 2000s, South Street again made headlines for so-called flash mobs, a term for thousands of teens who used social media to coordinate gatherings downtown.

The crowds sometimes turned violent — a South Street service worker was sucker-punched on one occasion, a reporter’s leg broken another time — again sparking both outrage and calls for more police enforcement.

Several police commanders — who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the mass shooting — told The Inquirer that the department has drifted away from a bend-but-don’t-break formula that kept the peace, even on summer weekends that drew thousands to South Street: Handfuls of bike and patrol cops circulated continuously through the neighborhood, keeping intersections unblocked and pedestrians moving. Unruly behavior was stamped out quickly.

In the aftermath of the most recent shooting, some officers complained over the radio of being trapped in traffic.

“At a certain time of night, we had to clear the streets,” said one commander, referring to past years. “We’d start at Front Street, and use [mounted police] and bike cops, and gradually push people to Broad Street, and they went home. If someone didn’t comply, they could be arrested for disorderly conduct. Could we do that now? Is it even feasible?”

In 2016, a City Council bill and an executive order signed by Mayor Jim Kenney instructed police to issue code-notice violations for offenses that previously led to criminal charges: disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, obstructing a highway.

The change was in keeping with broader calls for badly needed criminal justice reforms, but some South Street business owners argue that a lack of consequences has led to a rise of aggressive behavior on the strip, like dirt bikes and motorcyclists riding on sidewalks, narrowly missing pedestrians.

South Street shop owners and residents have had a front-row seat to some of the fallout from that executive order, and the nationwide protests that followed when a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in the spring of 2020. Philadelphia police were universally criticized for using tear gas on demonstrators who had ventured onto I-676 during one march.

Now, Eleanor Ingersoll, the president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association, complains of seeing police officers “standing around in clusters, doing nothing.”

“Quality-of-life crimes are going unchecked. It’s like anything goes,” she said. “This set the stage for the tipping point on Saturday night.”

» READ MORE: How the South Street shooting unfolded, minute by minute

Nick Ventura, the owner of the Copabanana at Fourth and South Streets, said he believes some officers have adopted a “hands-off” approach to rowdy South Street visitors in recent years.

“They just try to keep people moving and not get involved,” he said.

Ventura, 55, now closes his restaurant at 11 p.m. or midnight, instead of 2:30 a.m., as he had for years. “It’s not worth it,” he said. “That’s when all the trouble starts. The employees don’t want to stay anymore.”

Driven in part by the pandemic, reports of crime along South Street between Broad and Front Street generally declined between 2019 and the start of this year. Like many retail corridors, thefts and robberies tend to make up the majority of the statistics. Prior to the mass shooting, there had been two shootings on South Street in 2022, while other corridors, like Kensington Avenue, have seen dozens more.

More than an hour before Saturday’s shooting, someone began setting off fireworks on South Street, which Ventura said caused a brief panic.

Outlaw said that by issuing code violations for disorderly conduct — instead of making an arrest — police have less ability to remove troublemakers from crowded events. But she stopped short of calling for that policy to be reversed.

“The climate has changed,” she said. “The acknowledgment of authority that a police officer has also has changed. We can be out there and say, ‘OK, keep it moving,’ but that might be met with an ‘Eff you,’ which just increases the likelihood of the use of force.”

‘They’re not going home.’

Police insiders and experts are torn over whether the department could have done anything to prevent Saturday’s mass shooting, especially at a time when so many Philadelphians are armed. (The Police Department issued more than 52,000 licenses to carry last year.)

One high-ranking police official said South Street “probably” should have been closed off after the 11 p.m. shooting at Fourth and Bainbridge. “But then what do you do with all of those people? They’re not going home,” the official said. “That’s a call based on tactical command.”

More than an hour after the 11:30 p.m. shooting, one officer asked over police radio: “Was there ever an answer on if we’re gonna start clearing out the whole of South Street, or what the commanders want done?”

“We reassess [decisions] with all of these incidents,” Outlaw said.

Tamara Herold, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said that unless police had intelligence that a second shooting was likely to follow the first, they wouldn’t have clear justification to clear the street.

“The question is what can we do to prevent an incident like that from happening in the future, to prevent the kind of disorder you’re seeing there,” Herold said. “That would call for a solution above and beyond just a policing response. If the police presence is not enough of a deterrent effect then there should be other interventions.”

» READ MORE: What to know about the South Street shooting: The victims, investigation, and response

One option is to manage the closing times of businesses and shows so that large crowds aren’t spilling out into the street all at once. Another, Herold said, is to encourage businesses to hire private security to reduce the number of unmanaged outdoor spaces where opportunistic violence tends to occur.

Outlaw said police had obtained intelligence earlier in the week about “groups that would come down there and settle beefs, but these shootings had nothing to do with that.”

Mike Harris, the longtime head of the South Street Headhouse District, which represents 400 businesses, noted there were more officers than usual on the streets — “and this still happened.”

“People decided to escalate an argument into gunfire and fire into an open crowd with police right there.”

Investigators who reviewed footage of the mass shooting discovered that multiple pedestrians on South Street reached for or pulled out guns when shots rang out; had they opened fire, too, even more people could have lost their lives.

Philadelphia, of course, isn’t the only American city struggling to prevent public gatherings from turning into shooting galleries. South Street presents a unique challenge, though; nearly 60 years after the Orlons first sang about meeting on “the hippest street in town,” the corridor has cycled through numerous identities but remains an almost peerless draw for teenagers and tourists alike. Too stiff of a response might deter visitors, but residents and shop owners expect some noticeable change.

South Street is expected to be blanketed by dozens of cops working overtime this weekend, and Outlaw said mounted police officers will return. The police force is contending simultaneously with a shortage of more than 1,000 positions — a combination of unfilled jobs and officers who are unavailable due to injury claims — and difficulty recruiting new hires.

Some cops, Outlaw acknowledged, are wary of confronting hostile crowds, in light of the scrutiny and criticism the policing profession has faced in the wake of high-profile scandals and shootings in recent years. “We watch the news, we hear the narratives,” she said. “As human beings, it’s difficult to turn that off.”

The recent spate of mass shootings across the country might yield federal legislation that addresses school safety, mental health funding, and red flag laws that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals. But that’s little comfort to families who lost loved ones last weekend, to the wounded who might now face lifelong disabilities, and to residents who remain on edge.

“Living here, our priority isn’t gun control,” said Ingersoll, of the Queen Village Neighbors Association. “That takes a long time. The priority is ‘How are you going to keep me safe this weekend?’”