Online exchanges now welcome in Philly police station lobbies

Chief Inspector Dennis Wilson holding flier promoting the Philadelphia Police Department's new program to allow Craigslist sales and other online transactions in the lobbies of neighborhood police stations.

Strangers buying and selling goods online can now conduct their transactions safely in the lobbies of police district stations across Philadelphia.

The program, announced Friday, is intended to deter crimes that can occur when people use sites such as Craigslist to meet for an exchange and one is robbed or otherwise victimized.

"There are more and more people buying things off the internet. We're just providing a safe and secure environment for these individuals to make their transactions," said Chief Inspector Dennis Wilson, who proposed that the Philadelphia Police Department join the growing list of police agencies across the country offering "safe exchange zones."

In 2013, a Craigslist meeting in Philadelphia turned deadly when Daniel Cook, a 27-year-old Gloucester County man, was fatally shot in West Oak Lane during what he thought would be an exchange for an all-terrain vehicle. Thomas Coffee, who lured Cook for a robbery, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The idea of providing a safe location for such exchanges was first raised by Officer Mike Eddinger, an analyst who works for Wilson in the department's Regional Operations Command South, which covers the southern half of the city. (On Tuesday, Wilson was expected to be promoted to deputy commissioner.)

For a while, the department had an unofficial welcome policy. Whenever the department responded publicly to a crime that had arisen from an online transaction, a police spokesperson would encourage people to conduct exchanges in police lobbies, "but we didn't have an official program," Wilson said.

Now, people can go without an appointment to any of the department's 21 districts at 19 locations (two locations are combined districts) to perform an exchange. Police officers will not get involved unless there is trouble, Wilson said.

Transactions involving firearms are prohibited. Large items will not be allowed in the lobbies and will have to be exchanged outside, Wilson said.

The rising incidence of robberies or worse inspired Boca Raton, Fla., in 2014 to establish the nation's first official safe zone.

The Conshohocken Police Department adopted the practice in October of that year. In 2015, the Upper Darby Police Department created its own "safe transaction zone." Allentown announced a "safe sale zone" in front of a police station last November.

According to the website safetradestations.com, there are versions of safe zones in at least 17 Pennsylvania municipalities, including Abington, Lansdale, Upper Southampton, Northampton, Falls Township, and the communities served by the Westtown-East Goshen Regional Police Department.

In South Jersey, similar programs are offered in Cherry Hill, Paulsboro, Bordentown, and Evesham.

To find the nearest Philadelphia police district stations, use the "Find Your District" tool at phillypolice.com.