Image: Emergency Zoom Meeting Held on Crime

Captain Matthew Gillespie. Photo: phillypolice.com

The Philadelphia Police Department’s 18th District hosted an emergency community Zoom meeting Monday afternoon to discuss a recent surge in robberies in University City.  

Capt. Matthew Gillespie said Monday that there had been 45 robberies, including several carjackings, in University City from the beginning of December up until two weeks ago. Most were carried out in groups of two or three, and all were done at gunpoint, although no severe injuries were reported. Police at this time have arrested 19 suspects.

Crime Prevention Officer Justin Harris and Community Relations Officer Shamssadeen Baukman said the robberies were occurring in the “hours of darkness” from around 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., with most happening between the 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Harris added that the robberies were largely taking place between 47th and 48th streets and between Larchwood to Osage avenues, with some sporadic robberies between 45th and 46th streets and between Ludlow and Baltimore.

The Zoom meeting was a follow-up to one police held last Friday, in which attendance was inadvertently capped at a limited number of attendees.

There have only been two robberies in University City in the past two weeks – a reduction Gillespie attributed to community awareness and the 19 arrests.

There have, however, been several recent shootings in the nearby area, and Harris encouraged residents to take precautions and work with police to reduce violence.  

“There has been a significant decline, but that’s not enough to let your guard down,” Harris said.  

Harris and Baukman urged residents to contact them about any problems with neighborhood lighting. Officers also advised residents to put the shades down, shut their doors, and generally keep their homes darker, with Gillespie alleging that some suspects admitted to scouting homes when selecting potential robbery targets.

The officers instructed drivers to not to leave their vehicles idling for too long to avoid being targeted in a carjacking. According to Harris, carjackers in University City have recently tended to target Hondas and Toyotas.  

Harris said that residents walking outside should carry only smaller sums of cash that they would be “comfortable with losing,” noting that residents with a bank account can quickly cancel their debit and credit cards. Moreover, pedestrians should try to walk in groups and travel along well-lit paths.

Baukman added that residents should makes sure to remember their passwords if they have phones, which are common targets of robberies. This may allow law enforcement to track phones down.

Overall, the officers said residents should be prepared, but should not be panicked.

“We can’t live in fear, but we have to be cautious,” Harris said.

If residents are targeted, Harris said they should not risk escalation by making any “sudden movements,” especially given how recent robberies in the area have tended to be at gunpoint. Harris said people should only attempt to retreat if they feel comfortable, are not outnumbered, are not being confronted by a person with firearm, and have an “exit strategy” with “a clear path to escape.”

“What we’ve seen in these past robberies is that it’s usually two to three people and one of those individuals is armed with a gun,” Harris said. “So if anybody is armed with a gun, just put your hands up and listen to their demands, because even if you hit this person with mace, they could blind fire and still hit you.”

Capt. Gillespie told residents that if they are victimized, they should keep their priorities in perspective.

“You have to live your life, you really do, but there is not one thing that’s materialistic that is worth your life,” Gillespie said. “So if you do carry money, just tell them where it is or hand it over.”

The officers said that while being robbed, a person should take note of any distinct clothing the perpetrator is wearing. Baukman said to take particular note of someone’s shoes, as he found that perpetrators tend to quickly change their upper layers.

Harris and Alan Garry, the University City District’s vice president for public safety and community services, said that the 18th Police District and UCD safety ambassadors would be willing to perform property and street assessments to warn residents of any problems or insecurities that might leave them vulnerable to potential theft. Harris told interested residents email them, reach out to the 18th District on social media, or call the 18th District at (215) 686-3180 and ask to leave a message for community relations about block and community assessment.

One community member at Monday’s meeting noted that there was a seeming decrease in the number of University City District safety ambassadors patrolling the neighborhood.

This observation was substantiated in part by Garry. While some of the apparent decrease was only due to patrols being more dispersed away from commercial areas, Garry said that the COVID-19 pandemic, and its public health and financial impacts, has limited the number of available ambassadors.

Garry assured residents though that UCD safety ambassadors was still capable of protecting residents with its patrols and walking-escort program.

“We do try to update and keep our deployment based on what we’re seeing on the streets crime-wise and community-concern-wise,” Garry said. “We are still out there, our walking-escort program is still out there, and we’re happy to discuss individual or certain parts of the district if you want to reach out.”  

Some residents at the meeting pushed for more people to join local town watches.

Harris and Baukman said that they encouraged any additional town watch group that does form to email them and communicate closely with police, noting that officers had at times struggled to coordinate with local town watch members.

“There are several already established groups in these areas and our coordination with those groups, I’m not going to lie, has been kind of lacking and we just started to step that up,”Harris said.“A lot of the time we go to the training, we send people to the training, but we don’t get a list of groups, or a leadership, or the infrastructure of these groups.”

Yvonne Sawyer, a local committee person involved with a town watch on her block, said at the meeting that she could help interested residents organize their own.

Despite lingering concerns, law enforcement has been able to arrest large numbers of people alleged to have committed robbery and drive down reported further robberies.

Of the 19 people arrested in recent weeks, police said most were teenagers or in their early twenties. According to Gillespie, the oldest suspect arrested was 22 years old. The youngest was 13.

Harris partly attributed the increase in robberies and the young age of the robbery suspects to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and specifically the lack of in-person learning at schools.

“Schools going virtual, our rec centers being closed, mostly all events are done virtual now, and with a child’s attention span you can be easily distracted virtually,” Harris said.

That many of the suspects are teenagers has resulted in more victims and witnesses being reluctant to cooperate with police, according to Gillespie, saying that they were unsettled by giving people so young a criminal record. He said this compassion could ultimately lead to the justice system handing down teenagers and young adults even harsher sentences in the future.

“There are six robberies that happened that I know where individuals didn’t want to come to be interviewed because their exact words were they didn’t want to get a young person caught up in the criminal justice system,”Gillespie said.“And I can understand how that can be traumatizing, but sometimes the help that these young people need is through the criminal justice system.”

As is the current case in University City, law enforcement officials throughout Philadelphia have long had to contend with a lack of cooperation from victims and witnesses. And trust between the police and community has possibly only frayed further after a summer of national protests against police brutality and against police killings of Black men and women – exemplified in Philadelphia this year by the use of tear gas on 52nd and Market streets and the death of Walter Wallace Jr., whose October killing by police sparked days of citywide protests and unrest.

Community members suggested that they work to support local youth programs to better engage with young people in the neighborhood to direct them away from crime, while helping soothe angst in the community.   

Garry, the UCD vice president, said that while there were no specific University City youth job programs, that UCD did offer a specific West Philadelphia job program for people ages 18 and older.

One young person recently apprehended by law enforcement in University City was a 16-year-old male who Gillespie said is being charged with eight robberies. The police captain noted that this suspect had already pleaded guilty to an illegal gun-possession charge before allegedly committing these robberies but had been released from jail to await sentencing. Gillespie said that the teenager would now be charged as an adult and called the case one that “kind of gets back to some deeper issues.”

“Unfortunately for the community, this person was caught with a firearm, he pled guilty, and he was allowed to be out awaiting sentencing,” Gillespiesaid. “It really gets back to that point where if you see something if, God forbid, you’re a victim, we really need your statement, because if we don’t handle the case initially, it could lead to more severe crimes down the road.”

Gillespie’s criticism echoes complaints that police officers have voiced targeting District Attorney Larry Krasner and his handling of cases involving illegal gun possession. Krasner, who was elected in 2017 on a platform of reducing incarceration rates and battling racism in the criminal justice system, has been widely accused of being too passive when prosecuting people for gun-related crimes and allowing defendants to be too easily released on bail. Public officials who have either directly or indirectly criticized the office of the district attorney for failing to secure enough gun-crime convictions now include Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, former Police Commissioner Richard Ross, and Mayor Jim Kenney.

Krasner, on his part, has cast blame on city bail commissioners, whom he accuses of setting bails too low.

The District Attorney’s Office is now working to address concerns, having recently launched a joint program with the Philadelphia Police Department to collaborate more closely to build stronger cases against people accused of gun crimes. 

While city justice officials begin working more closely, instances of robbery like those in University City continue to proliferate across Philadelphia.

Earlier this month, an attempted robbery by two people in Brewerytown resulted in a 25-year-old male being shot and killed while walking his dog. Law enforcement officials said that one arrested suspect in the case had been released from prison on reduced bail for other serious criminal charges prior to the alleged homicide.

Controversies over criminal justice and the rush of robberies in University City and beyond come amidst a torrent of nearly unprecedented violence in the city. Philadelphia, mirroring a nationwide trend of increased homicide rates, recorded 499 murders on the year for 2020 – an annual total that was the second highest in the city since 1960.

Towards the beginning of the meeting, Gillespie, the 18th Police District captain, said that he believed law enforcement had been successful in getting control over the situation in University City – but emphasized the need for residents to stay engaged and work to help prevent further robbery and crime.

“The deployment and the enforcement stuff we can certainly handle,” Gillespie said. “But we really need the community’s help on this.”

Editor’s Note: For more information on weekly crime, please check our crime statistics listed by Police District.

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