This story isn’t about the crime, but about what happened afterward, after the theft and the chase, when the kid and the cop were face to face on a narrow South Philly street. And what happened later that autumn night when the kid sat in the back of a cop car while some of those closest to him pronounced judgment on his future.
It happened during a “ridealong” with members of the 17th Police District, a couple of journalists riding in the squad car as a couple of cops made their rounds. It was a Wednesday night.
Pursued by the cops after running away from a corner store, the kid picked the wrong vacant lot to duck into. Walls of houses rose up on two sides, a tall wooden picket fence blocked his escape in the back. When the cop car pulled up, he was pinned in.
He was 14 years old, short hair, black hoodie. The flashing lights from the police SUV pulsed across his startled features. He was panting.
Philadelphia Police Officer James O’Neill called for the kid to take his hands out of his pockets, asked what he was doing. Taking a piss? No.
The kid had tossed the gun he’d brought with him. It was buried amid debris dumped in the lot.
The cops told the kid to spread his hands on a car.
“Talk … talk … talk!” O’Neill commanded.
The kid mumbled, barely audible. He said he was up from North Carolina with his mom because his grandmother was in the hospital. He said he’d been with a friend who stole something from the nearby bodega.
As O’Neill pressed him, the kid clammed up. Bystanders observed the scene calmly — a woman with little kids walking by, a guy smoking on his front steps.
The officer dug and dug through the debris, sweeping his flashlight in the dark. Behind one of those big weeds destined someday to become a lanky tree, O’Neill pulled out the gun.
Only it wasn’t a real gun. It was a toy with a little orange nub on the end. The price tag read $3.50.
A grave warning
O’Neill continued pressing the kid for answers. In a quiet voice, devoid of bravado, the kid admitted he’d stolen the toy from the corner store they saw him leaving earlier
The cop pointed to a black-and-white scarf he’d retrieved from the kid’s pocket. “Maybe you were going to do some gunpoint robberies?” he asked.
“I wasn’t going to rob nobody.”
O’Neill stared at the kid. “What if I pulled up on you and you opened that gun up in front of me and it was even just pointing in my direction?” he asked. “All I would have saw was the barrel of that gun, and I would have shot and possibly killed you. That’s all it took. You didn’t know we were following you, did you? You had no idea that I was tailing you?”
“I would have pulled up and you would have opened that in front of me,” he continued. “I would have drew my weapon, because I would have thought that you were trying to shoot me. It was really stupid.”
The kid protested, “I would never point a gun at a cop.”
He said he understood the cop’s reaction — “because life is in danger for you” — but the kid insisted the cops should have known the gun was a toy: “You wouldn’t even look to see the orange piece?”
Later that night, O’Neill would shake his head at the kid’s notion. Sure, in the heat of the moment, a police officer would zero in on a small orange spot on the end of a realistic-looking weapon.
For now, O’Neill kept lobbing questions: “What else did you take? What else did you take? That was all?”
The kid nodded.
O’Neill continued, “Have you ever been arrested before? Never? So what are you going to do with this?”
O’Neill turned to this reporter and laid it out: “A scarf. He just stole a gun, a fake gun. What’s it look like? He’s obviously up to no good. He’s probably going to rob somebody. … So at least we prevented that tonight, with this kid anyway.”
O’Neill’s partner left to talk to the store owner and view the surveillance footage. O’Neill stayed with the kid.
The kid sat on the stoop of one of the houses that had trapped him inside the vacant lot. His head hung down toward the sidewalk. The block was silent except for the raspy police radio.
Too late to make good?
O’Neill came to law enforcement late — in his 30s — after working as a salesman and a bartender. He has friends and family in the police, and he knew what the work entailed. He gave it a shot. Seven years in, he says he’s pretty sure he’s good at the job.
The kid looked at O’Neill and asked him, in apparent sincerity, what it’s like to be a cop.
Tiring. Fun. Every possible emotion. It was worthwhile, O’Neill said, “as long as I help somebody.”
After a long pause, the kid said he might like to be a cop some day. But after tonight, he said, his chances were probably shot, right?
O’Neill replied in a softer tone. It wasn’t too late, he said, if this was his only — and last — misstep with the law. “You should do it, man. They might make an exception if this is the only time you ever get in trouble.”
Despite O’Neill’s encouragement, the kid’s night wasn’t going to get any better. Another cop arrived to transport him. O’Neill and his partner followed to a South Philly block full of two-story brick rowhouses, with front stoops a few steps back from the curb.
It was where the kid said his family lived.
No luck at home
O’Neill mounted a stoop and knocked. A few women came to the door.
They asked who was in the car. They didn’t seem surprised at his answer. The cop explained that the kid had admitted to taking the toy gun from the store. He was on his way to the station for booking. In a few hours the family would get a call saying they could come pick him up.
“Do we have to come pick him up?” one of the women asked.
“Yeah,” O’Neill said. “I suggest you do.”
The kid was sitting in the cop car just a few feet away.
“Well, suppose we don’t,” said the woman. “What’s going to happen?”
The boy will be sent “to the youth study center if no one comes to get him,” O’Neill explained, calm. “So, you just want to abandon him?”
“He abandoned us! He does what he wants. Is he high?”
O’Neill said the kid admitted he smokes weed.
“He’s a problem child,” the woman said. “They just up here cause my mom is in the hospital.”
This reporter asked the woman, “You might not go pick him up?”
The woman looked at this reporter and said, “We might not, because either he gonna get killed or ….”
O’Neill prepared to leave. “They’ll call you within six hours to come get him,” he said.
From inside the house the woman said, “We might not answer the phone.”