Philly gun violence leads to trying times for Parks & Rec Department

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Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia’s Parks & Recreation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia’s Parks & Recreation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Coming out of COVID, Philadelphia has experienced high rates of homicides and shootings in its public spaces, including those managed by the city’s Parks & Recreation Department.

P&R Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell says increased police patrols and active parks led by community involvement are key to keeping play spaces safe for children and adults, at a time when there are more guns than bicycles, more guns than children.

This August proved especially disconcerting at local rec areas. Five people were injured when nearly 100 shots were fired in West Philadelphia near Shepard Recreation Center where children were playing. Another shooting in East Mount Airy critically injured a man who was playing basketball with a group of friends.

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Mayor Kenney subsequently announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to arrests for shootings near rec centers, and city officials have vowed to add patrol officers to watch over spaces where children play.

Lovell spoke with WHYY about park safety concerns at this month’s ribbon cutting ceremony at the newly remodeled 33rd and Wallace Playground in the city’s Mantua neighborhood, where kids were enjoying popsicles and testing out the playground equipment. Lovell said her department creates joyful spaces that must remain safe.

“And as much as we want to create safe places for kids, and as much as we talk about Parks & Recreation being the Department of Fun, the Department of Joy, the truth is that we are a city in crisis right now.”

Still the commissioner remains positive. She said as the city continues to invest in public spaces, it reminds people these are places of refuge, places that should remain sacred.

“Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case, not just this year, but over the last few years,” she said. “You know, we do everything we can, working with the police, working with the great local community groups to make sure we protect our spaces. But ultimately, we need individuals to make that decision, not to let that stuff happen here.”

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Lovell said police patrolling at parks and rec centers has stepped up over the last three years in reaction to the uptick in shootings after the COVID shutdown. At a press conference following the mass shooting at Shepard Rec Center nearly two weeks ago, city officials promised to do more to increase such monitoring.

Lovell noted patrolling by police officers takes place inside and outside rec centers.

“Yeah. And also, in the case of when there’s a basketball tournament or even during the summer at our pools, they’re actually on the deck or at a basketball tournament. They’re actually posted at the site.”

When asked whether communities should rely on patrol officers or members of the community to keep watch, Lovell replied, “There’s no question that a park that is more active is safer. Parks where there are community members who are invested in that space, helping to clean it up, helping to program it, and activate it, definitely see a difference in the kind of behavior that happens at a space when those groups are intimately involved.”

Lovell said she and her department are consulted about safety and are included in the city’s weekly Roadmap for Safer Communities meetings which address gun violence reduction.

“We are consistently sharing data with the police when, God forbid, an incident happens at one of our centers,” said Lovell. You know, we get the report almost immediately from the police. We share footage with police if we have camera footage. We brainstorm about what we can do to identify the perpetrators or support the victims. We’re pretty tied in to the local police district and they’re really incredibly supportive.”

The shooting near the Shepard Rec Center was especially trying for the Parks & Recreation Department which had concerns local users of the center would not want to return to the facilities.

“The football team that plays there was really concerned about continuing their practices there,” the commissioner said. “A lot of the football programs that use our facilities practice in the early evening. We’ve had similar concerns expressed by other football coaches. But again, they’ve been working with the local police district to ensure that there is a patrol and a presence there. The last thing that we would want would be for programs to feel that they can’t continue because of the violence.”

The commissioner said youth sports, including football programs, are part of larger violence prevention efforts in Philadelphia.

“You know, they are working with some of the most vulnerable young people in our city. And football is a big part of the program, but it’s really just a vehicle to get kids engaged in a positive organization that supports them with adult mentoring and educational opportunities and scholarship opportunities. We need them now more than ever.”

Lovell shared the city’s gun violence crisis shapes her thinking.

“You know, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about how this position has changed me. You know, before I lay my head on the pillow at night, I have such a new perspective for the struggles of our city. We are an old city. We have been through a tremendous amount. And I honestly believe that, you know, we’ll get through this as well.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.

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