Last fall, police started noticing a shift.
There was an influx of high-school-age kids after 3 p.m., bringing their after-school activities and in some cases disputes to the intersections of 15th and Chestnut streets, one of the busiest stretches of Center City.
Where’d they come from all of a sudden? Police looked a few blocks down Market street for the answer: The Gallery. Namely, when it closed for its renovation into an upscale fashion mall. The stores and food court had doubled as an after-school hangout for many kids; when it closed, its crowds migrated west.
“The kids were looking for a new place to go,” Ninth District Police Captain Ray Convery told Billy Penn, “and evidently they decided on Chestnut Street.”
Now, 100 to 200 high school kids from all over the city descend upon Dilworth Park and the blocks around 15th and Chestnut and 15th and Market every afternoon. Police have stepped up their presence for months — including multiple video cameras. Now, after a giant melee on Wednesday that ended in 7 arrests and the assault of an off-duty police officer, there’s a new plan. Police are trying to work with the school district to find ways to stop the problems, possibly by limiting kids’ trans passes.
Wednesday brought a “perfect storm” in which good weather and lingering disputes led to about 600 students in Center City, but police have been following this trend for a while. The Gallery’s closing turned the Wendy’s near 15th and Chestnut, the Clothespin on 15th and Market and the Shops at Liberty Place into the new hot spots for high school kids.
More of them than ever are now close to Center City because of charter schools. Convery said those charter students, who come from all over the city, invite friends from their neighborhoods to hang out in the afternoon, so kids from as far away as Overbrook High School in West Philly and Washington High School in the Northeast are routinely with them. Students have a trans pass allowing them to use SEPTA from the end of their school day until 7 p.m. They have plenty of time to travel from distant areas into Center City and back.
Convery started placing a handful of officers on patrol in the area once he noticed the increased popularity in the fall. One day in mid-December, the crowd swelled to much larger, to something like 300. Convery said students that day committed three robberies and vandalized two stores. The four officers Convery had stationed on bikes couldn’t handle all of it.
“That was like our D-Day,” he said.
Since then, 10 to 20 bicycle officers have patrolled the area from about 2 to 5 every afternoon. Convery and other officers also check Twitter and rely on intel from principals and teachers to see where kids might be meeting and if a conflict might be brewing.
Officers with cameras set up at the Clothespin at 15th and Market and another at 15th and Chestnut. Convery said they’ve successfully used them to catch kids involved in fights, robberies or vandalism. The police can get a description of what a kid was wearing — usually by color of school uniform — cross-check it with an image from the camera and then show that image to school administrators and make an ID.
If there are 200 kids, it’s no problem for the officers to handle. Convery said most of them just want to enjoy Center City, and he wants them to.
“Center City,” Convery said, “is where everyone should go.”
For most of the winter, he said there had been few incidents. The problem is when hundreds more students come and disputes from school or home get taken to Center City, as happened on Wednesday.
The day after that incident, police increased the size of their patrol. Convery said nearly every bicycle officer in the city was in the area.
“It made it seem like we were under siege,” he said.
The students clearly noticed. Convery watched as many discussed the police and then immediately started typing on their phones, likely sharing the information on social media. It ended up being a below-average day.
Friday is typically busy. The police will be watching as they usually do but if the crowd swells to as large as it did Wednesday, it’s difficult for them to be prepared.
“I don’t think I have a formula,” Convery said, “for 600.”