Philly Has Bigger Problems Than Flash Mobs

We can pay for an increased police presence in Center City, but those arrested might never come to trial

Blood on the asphalt. Packs of roving criminals running wild. Frightened citizens running for cover, afraid to walk the streets. It sounds like a scene in the next Batman movie, as Gotham is overrun by lawless thugs. But this is no Hollywood action flick and there’s no caped crusader around to dish out justice. Welcome to downtown Philadelphia, where from Old City to South Street to just off Rittenhouse Square, senseless assaults have become as synonymous with the summertime as heat waves.

The attacks started with the South Street flash mobs last year. They migrated to 15th and Chestnut, where packs of teens ran amok after school. Friends of a Philly Mag colleague of mine were sent to the hospital last month after a beating at 15th and Green. Last Friday, these “wilding” delinquents jumped a 36-year-old man at 4th and Walnut in broad daylight; that night, the blocks near 15th and Sansom were targeted for the second time in weeks, as four people were either roughed up, robbed or both.

On Monday, Mayor Nutter finally announced that he was formulating a plan to combat this trend of lawlessness and chaos in Center City, the full details of which he’ll reveal on Monday. There’s talk of a new program called SafeCam, to help the police use residential and business security cameras to identify teens who evade capture, and of “mentors to reach out into their communities and work with young people.” Nutter also said it’s time to “respond with the full force of the justice system.”

What we’re seeing with wilding and flash mobs is the bleeding out of a deep wound that no quick fix will heal. Credit Commissioner Ramsey and others for supplying the Band-Aid that’s kept crime somewhat in check, but the economy has ripped it off, exposing an ugly truth about this city and the festering divide between the haves and the have-nots. Mentoring, summer camps, public pools, social programs—they address the heart of the matter. But a cool swim on a hot day or arts and crafts at a rec center isn’t going to stop this behavior. Maybe in a few years, but not now.

The only way to keep Center City safe is to bring in cops by the wagonful. The increased police presence on South Street has been noticeable; I doubt it’s any coincidence that the mobs are finding new blocks to terrorize. Fifteenth Street from Chestnut to Locust is the new hunting grounds now; I live nearby and rarely see officers on foot. Of course, increasing patrols is easy for journalists and citizens to demand, but hard to achieve when the city budget has been squeezed dry. Overtime and hiring new cops requires money, and the purse strings are as tight as ever. The police also have a few other priorities that might trump the safety of downtown dwellers, tourists and alfresco diners—homicides, gang warfare, and a drug culture that continues to rot the city from inside, to name just a few.

Nutter wants these degenerates to know they’ll be punished. Meanwhile, the State Supreme Court says that the city needs to get serious about no-show criminals who ditch court—47,000 of them, according to an Inquirer report in 2009. So if you’re a teenager who feels like cracking a few skulls and stealing an iPhone on a Saturday night, what’s really stopping you? You might get caught. But when you live in Philly, home of the nation’s worst fugitive rate, chances are you won’t see your day in court. Threatening damaged kids with a broken justice system is like being slapped with a feather.

I’m looking forward to hearing Nutter’s plan in full next week. Even if the rampaging calms down for the rest of the summer, there are bigger issues here that need time, money and determination to resolve. We’ve got a lot of the latter and a severe shortage of the rest. That’s not good news for the city—downtown and far, far beyond.