City says it will crack down on drug use, increase patrols in Rittenhouse Square

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross (center) listens to Council President Darrell L. Clarke (right) with Councilman Allan Domb during a community meeting to discuss Rittenhouse Square security one week after a shooting.

No more pot parties in Rittenhouse Square.

Police will crack down on drug use inside the park and ramp up patrols in the area, Police Commissioner Richard Ross said at a public safety meeting Monday night sparked by a shooting last week inside the square.

City officials also said they were surveying homeless people in the park to determine how they can help men and women sleeping there find permanent housing.

More than 300 people went to the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity to discuss safety, homelessness, and quality of life in the area, all brought to the forefront after the jarring violence last week in the typically peaceful square.

"This is not about saying this is Center City and therefore it deserves this [increased vigilance] over some other place," Ross said. "The reality is every place deserves that. . . . Of course we have big things to worry about - this is a big city with a lot of issues - but we do not minimize the plight of anyone's living situation because, again, everyone has a right to live undisturbed."

About 9:30 p.m. last Tuesday, police say, a 17-year-old boy and an accomplice tried to rob a 22-year-old man and an 18-year-old woman at gunpoint. When a man on a bike attempted to intervene, he was shot five times by the 17-year-old, police have said.

The 17-year-old surrendered to authorities over the weekend, and police are looking for a second suspect. The victim was in stable condition.

Ross and members of the Ninth Police District answered community members' questions along with City Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson and Allan Domb.

Johnson said this was the third time he had held a public safety meeting related to the park. He had similar meetings after a woman was raped in her Rittenhouse Square apartment in 2014, and in March after Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty was attacked near 15th and Market Streets.

"To be quite frank, you don't expect it in the middle of Rittenhouse Square," Johnson said. "You have businesses on both sides of the park, you have people sitting outside, and when you're in the middle of dining shots ring out, and you don't expect that in the middle of Center City."

During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, two residents asked whether those involved in the shooting were drug dealers.

Ross stressed that the suspect knew and targeted the two people he approached, but said the couple were not believed to be involved with drugs.

"It is still unclear what they were trying to take," Ross said. "We don't believe the individuals were drug dealers."

Ross said it appeared that the connection was through a GED program and that the suspect may have "thought they were weak and vulnerable," Ross said.

Increased police presence will continue in the park, Ross said, and officers will crack down on marijuana smoking, which had largely gone unaddressed in recent months.

"We did let it slip. I take full responsibility for that," said Chief Inspector Steve Cross of the Central Police Division. "During the summer, we let it slip. We're going to stay here and fix this park and put it back together."

The city is surveying homeless in the park - many of whom were pushed out of JFK Plaza and the Gallery, both under reconstruction. Of 270 surveyed, 88 percent indicated interest in housing and one-quarter said they were open to drug treatment.

Many residents expressed ongoing frustration with the issues they said had festered before the shooting last week.

"I walk that park. . . . I work to clean up all the benches that are constantly broken from the homeless," said Betsy Hummel, president of Friends of Rittenhouse Square. "It's just maddening, and it's maddening for me to hear on a consistent basis all the complaints."

The park has 11 cameras, Hummel said, but her volunteer organization can't manage to monitor them in real time.

Clarke said the city should have a real-time camera monitoring system but does not have the funds to put one in place.

"We need to look at other municipalities - downtown New York, you feel extremely safe because there are cameras and people watching those cameras," Clarke said. "I guarantee there are people in this room who can pull their phone out and pull up their front door, their house, and see what's going on in their house, so you cannot tell me that level of technology" can't help the Police Department.

jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506

@juliaterruso

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