What happened with the arrest at the Art Museum steps, and why tourists are so important to city leaders

Photo solicitation usually merits a ticket, but this time five police officers showed up.

The steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum are considered part of Fairmount Park

The steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum are considered part of Fairmount Park

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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Last weekend a man was apprehended by a swarm of Philadelphia police officers on the Art Museum steps, escorted into a police car and brought to the 9th Police District headquarters.

The offense? Taking photos of tourists for cash.

Officially, it’s called solicitation. The man was alleged to have asked tourists for money in return for snapping their photos near the Rocky statue. Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson Officer Tanya Little said it’s an ever-present issue that makes people uncomfortable and threatens Philly’s profitable tourism industry, which brought $600 million in tax revenue to the cash-strapped city last year.

Still, close to a half dozen officers responding to one nonviolent offense was confusing to many observers, especially with Philadelphia battling its highest homicide rates in decades.

So why was this offense a priority? And why was this man brought into the station for an offense usually punishable by ticket?

Here’s everything you need to know about solicitation — at the Art Museum steps and citywide — including how often it happens, how police respond, and why it matters to Philadelphia leadership.

What law did the man actually break?

The man was arrested on charges of solicitation — in this case, asking for money from tourists in return for taking their pictures. It’s a violation Officer Little called “an ongoing problem,” especially near the Rocky statue.

“Visitors often feel pressured by individuals soliciting money to take pictures,” Little wrote in an email. “It often results in calls for police service from the individuals being solicited and witnesses, passersby and employees of the affected attractions.”

On scene last weekend, the man denied that he had actually solicited money for photos.

What’s the penalty?

Solicitation usually results in a code violation notice from Philly police — aka a ticket.

If the penalty is just a ticket, why was this man arrested?

The man soliciting payment for photos on the Art Museum steps last weekend allegedly refused to show Philly police officers his identification, claiming he hadn’t done anything wrong.

So the officers took the man to 9th Police District headquarters, issued him a Code Violation Notice there, and then released him.

Wait, are you legally required to show ID if police ask? 

Not in Pennsylvania. If you are detained or arrested, you can choose whether you want to show ID — but that means you might be detained longer while law enforcement tries to confirm who you are. That appears to be what happened in this case.

How often does this happen at the Art Museum steps?

It’s a problem officials see across the entire city. The Art Museum steps are actually part of Fairmount Park, and Philly Parks and Recreation spokesperson Maita Soukup said park rangers and ambassadors regularly report incidents of “aggressive solicitation” at public spaces, including the LOVE statue.

“[It] creates an unsafe and unwelcoming environment for residents and tourists,” Soukup said, “and is a persistent issue not just near the Art Museum steps, but at popular park destinations across the city.”

Why is solicitation a big deal?

Officials worry regular solicitation will dissuade tourists from popular Philadelphia attractions.

Last year — even with the pandemic hampering travel to the city — visitors spent more than $3 billion in Philly. That translates to nearly $600 million in tax revenue for the cash-strapped metropolis.

What does the Art Museum think about it?

In an email to Nina Ahmad, a former candidate for statewide office, Philadelphia Police spokesperson Sergeant Eric Gripp said the department receives “frequent” solicitation complaints from Art Museum employees.

Art Museum spokesperson Norman Keyes said the institution doesn’t keep track of solicitation on its steps. It doesn’t have any policies surrounding the issues, and doesn’t ask its employees to respond when it happens.

“The museum has with some regularity over the years received complaints about individuals who have appeared to be volunteering to use a person’s phone to take the person’s picture in front of the Rocky statue and then refuse to return the phone unless the person pays,” Keyes said. “We have communicated these reports to the Parks Department and the police, who are responsible for this area, which is city property.”

Are there usually officers patrolling the Art Museum steps?

Yes. The officers who issued citations in last week’s incident are assigned to the Art Museum as part of their daily beat, per Officer Little.

Bike officers from the 9th and 22nd Police Districts are regularly assigned to the area, dividing their time between the steps, the Schuylkill River trail, and skateboard haven Paine’s Park. The officers essentially ride from one end of the district to the other looking for crime.

Why did so many cops respond to this nonviolent incident?

At first, it was just one officer — identified by his badge as Officer Donahue, according to reporter Claire Wolters, who was present.

After Donahue apprehended the man, the police department said a crowd started to form. That’s when he called for backup, and a few more officers showed up.

Why aren’t they watching out for bigger issues?

The Philadelphia Police Department says that essentially is what they’re doing.

This daily patrol of the Art Museum and surrounding public spaces is meant to deploy officers who can look for crimes that range in severity — “robberies, burglaries, rapes, aggressive panhandling, ATVs/dirt bikes/motorcycles, skateboarders, persons in the river,” Officer Little explained. “All of these crime types are constant community and business complaints.”

Over the past month, Philly police recorded about 300 total crimes in the area. Last week that included one rape, four robberies, three aggravated assaults, one burglary and 33 thefts.

Of the 299 citywide shootings recorded during the first two months of the year, two were in the 9th District, and 32 were in the 22nd District.

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