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Is rec-center violence a thing of the past?

MEHKEE GATEWOOD was 18 months old when he was shot twice as he played with his twin brother at the E.R. Tustin Playground in West Philadelphia last September.

Community outreach worker Carl Burman (right) laughs with Jay-R Mills, of Southwest Philly, after a game of pool inside Myers Recreation Center.
Community outreach worker Carl Burman (right) laughs with Jay-R Mills, of Southwest Philly, after a game of pool inside Myers Recreation Center.Read more

MEHKEE GATEWOOD was 18 months old when he was shot twice as he played with his twin brother at the E.R. Tustin Playground in West Philadelphia last September.

In March of last year, Albert Hughs, 18, was gunned down after a basketball game in Dickinson Square Park in South Philadelphia. And this January, Charles Trotman, 16, was fatally shot during a crowded basketball game at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, in North Philly.

Since January 2007, 16 people have been shot, five of them fatally, at rec centers and neighborhood parks; two others have been stabbed.

With summer around the corner and hundreds of kids out of school, city officials are working hard to halt violence at the city's 163 rec centers.

In a combined effort, the city's Department of Recreation, Department of Human Services and other sponsors are launching a two-pronged initiative boosting programs and security.

The city is expected to provide summer jobs for more than 900 young people, including work at city pools, which will begin opening June 16, said the department's public-affairs coordinator Alain Joinville. Teen camps and a sports program will also operate in some of the city's high crime areas, he said.

"A big crime-fighting tool is programs," said new Recreation Department Commissioner Sue Slawson during a recent interview at a rec center .

"There is a lack of consistent structured programs."

On July 7, the department will start the summer camp for 12- to- 16-year-olds at 10 rec centers, Joinville said.

The sports program, called the "Play Ball Initiative," began last month and will run in 12 facilities in underserved neighborhoods in North, West, Southwest and Northwest Philadelphia, he said.

The department has already restored 42 baseball fields across the city, said Joinville.

The objective is to keep youth occupied, said Deputy Commissioner Leo Dignam. "You want to keep [youth] busy in order to keep the violence down," he said.

Parents and community leaders must help, too. "We're looking for neighbors, parents, everybody," Slawson said. "It's going to take all of us."

Police patrols will be beefed up outside rec centers - most of them in the nine most dangerous districts targeted by Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in his crime plan. New lighting will be installed around the centers.

Inside, rec staff will provide more surveillance, Slawson said.

A recent $1 million increase in funding for the department will be allocated for maintenance and programming, Slawson said.

Councilman Darrell Clarke is behind a proposal to merge the Rec Department and the Fairmount Park Commission. This proposed merger, he said, would increase efficiency and "make people more accountable."

To boost accountability and safety, rec-center leaders will be trained to better identify kids so that they can differentiate between kids at play and troublemakers, Slawson said.

"If you're not coming to participate at a rec center, the supervisors should pick up on that," she said.

Slawson, a former cop and police commander at the Police Athletic League, said that she will enforce the use of sign-in sheets and possibly issue identification cards.

"We want to know every person that walks in and out of rec centers, whether they're 6 or 26," Slawson said.

Police officers assigned to patrol the city's 11 targeted rec centers are also required to sign the logs, said Mayor Nutter. Patrols begin at 6 p.m. every weeknight and last for four hours. In addition to the patrols, Ramsey has ordered police officers from every district to enter rec facilities twice a shift and sign in, which is a big help, most rec staffers say.

Across the city, rec-center leaders face a juggling act. On a recent night, rec leader Wanda Darden had a brief break before the next group of young people burst through the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in North Philadelphia.

It was a Monday, normally its slowest day, but Darden had darted back and forth requesting every participant to sign in while she made sure the Brazilian martial-arts class and the baseball game ran on schedule.

As she unlocked the studio, a group of dancers entered and began their warm-up.

"This is how it usually goes," she said.

Shafeek Westbrook stretched before starting a dance routine. His sneakers squeaked on the freshly-waxed floor as he breakdanced to hip hop.

He comes to the center almost every night, Darden said.

Westbrook, 18, admits to getting into fights, but now puts that energy into hours of dance practice at MLK, he said.

"I do a lot of crazy stuff in my moves, but I could have been doing that out on the streets," he said, before jumping into another complex dance routine.

Darden attests to the commitment of Westbrook and others. So she doesn't complain when they stay at the rec center after hours.

"Even the days they're not scheduled they come in, but we open the door to them anyway," she said.

She joined the rec center, at 22nd Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue, a month after Charles Trotman was killed there nearly five months ago.

On Jan. 18, Trotman was one of dozens of people who crowded the basketball court. During a time-out in the game, Bilal Gay, 16, of North Philly, pointed a revolver at Trotman and fired several shots at him from across the court and fled, police said. He was later charged with murder.

Andrew Poole, 21, was charged in the shooting of Mehkee Gatewood, last year's youngest rec-center shooting victim, said police. Poole, of Southwest, had targeted Carl Wallace, a friend of Gatewood's father, on Sept. 24, but allegedly struck the toddler instead.

In the most recent rec-center shooting, three weeks ago, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the stomach after a basketball game at the Simons Recreation Center in West Oak Lane, police said.

The boy, who had played in the game, had gotten into an argument over it with 20-year-old Adohn McNeil, of Limekiln Pike near East Walnut Lane. McNeil allegedly pulled out a .44 caliber revolver amidst a crowd of spectators and fired one shot at the teen and then fled.

Police arrested McNeil the next day in his home and later charged him with attempted murder.

Despite those acts of violence, officials say that they are isolated incidents.

"They [recreation centers] are safe," said Dignam. "We are very focused on the safety of every participant in the rec centers." *