The police captain rarely sleeps through the night. The gun violence in Northwest Philadelphia doesn’t allow that.
Every few hours, Capt. Frank McIlhenny, commanding officer of the Northwest Detective Division, will wake to check the messages on his phone from his detectives. Most nights in the division, with more shooting victims than anywhere else in the city, a flurry of missives await him.
The start of this month was particularly violent, including a stretch of 16 shooting victims in 14 days. It began with an outburst of shootings that included back-and-forth gang violence around a city swimming pool. Police had to drain Belfield Rec’s pool in Ogontz for a few days as they worked to quell the gunfire. And they succeeded, in the immediate area at least.
It was a small victory, small enough that the captain won’t even call it one, because with no cooperating witnesses and compelling, but only circumstantial, evidence, no charges have been approved.
But then shootings erupted again nearby: this time at another rec center, with bullets flying past children on a Cedarbrook playground set. That’s the reality in a city that is stranding too many of its citizens in the middle of a gun war.
McIlhenny, 53, is a fireplug of a man with thick shoulders and a crew cut, an old-school cop out of central casting but for his thoughtful demeanor. It’s a manner that serves him well in a division that somehow — even after stints in Internal Affairs and in an intelligence unit monitoring city overdoses — manages to shock him.
“It’s brutal out there,” he said. “It’s always been bad. But right now it’s really scary.”
Consider the last few weeks.
There was the Ogontz gang violence that left a 13-year-old girl shot through both legs at a barbecue.
There was the 19-year-old, shot in the back of the head as he sat in a car, who somehow escaped with a bad concussion.
There was the random shooting on Broad Street when a 41-year-old man and a car full of young men pulled up to a food mart at the same time. Video of the incident shows the 19-year-old victim exchanging the briefest of words — if any at all — with the older man, who whips out a gun and shoots him in both legs. “I’m tired of you young punks,” the man reportedly screamed.
Then, he calmly walked into the store and made his purchase as his victim crawled to his car. When the older man was arrested, he turned out to have dozens of prior arrests and is suspected of shooting another man just minutes before he pulled up to the food mart. The victim in that first shooting is talking, in a fashion: He dispensed with the usual pleasantries and told police he was going to tell them the exact opposite of what had happened.
But it was the other victim, the one shot outside the food mart, who struck the captain: a kid not naive to the streets, who was so tough, he crawled through his own blood to escape.
He broke down when the detectives showed him a picture of the alleged shooter. “Yes,” he said, through tears. “That’s him.”
And there was the broad-daylight shooting in East Germantown on the steps of Trinity United Methodist Church. Someone walked up to a 35-year-old man sitting on the steps Monday and shot him point-blank, two times in the head and once in the chest. He died Wednesday. A working theory in that case seems to epitomize the unforgiving calculus of violence in this city: the victim and the suspect have been feuding since one — it’s not clear who — took a bullet meant for the other.
Inside the church, a pastor and some parishioners had been cleaning when the gunshots rang out. The pastor, one of a few at the church, was reluctant to give her name to me when we spoke.
Unlike the captain, she’s already past shock. “You’re always hearing on the news about gun violence and young people being murdered, and it almost makes you numb,” she said. “It just seems to be an occurrence that goes on in Philadelphia.”
On Tuesday, McIlhenny received a briefing from the detective working the church shooting and showed me video of the shooting at the Dorothy Emanuel Rec Center, when an argument over fouls in a heated basketball game erupted into a gun battle.
After rushing resources and applying pressure to the gangs near the Belfield Rec, police are now doing the same at Emanuel. In the churn of violence, this is what they do.