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February 22, 2023 Community, Family

‘It’s not getting better out here, it’s getting worse’: After an officer’s death, the community around Temple is feeling the weight of ongoing gun violence

On Saturday night, Alelisa Stephens received a call from her niece, asking if she was OK. There was a shooting on Montgomery Avenue, her niece told her, just a block away from where Stephens works as a residential aide.

Stephens told her niece that she was safe; she was at home elsewhere in North Philly when Temple Police Officer Chris Fitzgerald was killed. But that temporary safety offered her no comfort when she heard the news.

“When I come out my house, I pray.”

Alelisa Stephens

“He lost his life trying to help and this is the thanks he got. It’s pitiful,” Stephens said. From the porch of the home where she works, Stephens explained how she has no choice whether or not to feel safe in the area.

“I have to. When I come out my house, I pray. Can’t stay locked up in your house because you’re scared to go outside. I have a job.”

Elijah Ward, a Temple student, opened his phone Saturday night to see several missed calls from his mom, dad, and sister. The shooting “was quite literally outside my front door,” he said. Ward doesn’t normally walk around his neighborhood with fear, but violence coming so close to his home made him afraid.

“You always still have that thought in the back of your mind,” he said. “You always got to be vigilant.”

Stephens and Ward are just a couple of the many people living and working in the neighborhoods around Temple University. Violence and public safety are always top of mind for these community members, but especially so in the days since Fitzgerald was killed after attempting to stop a carjacking.

“It’s not getting better out here. It’s getting worse,” Stephens said. “Every day, killings. Senseless killings.”

The 19th Street location of Habitat for Humanity is just a couple of blocks from the scene of Saturday’s shooting. And while the organization’s CEO, Corinne O’Connell, is angered by the proximity of the shooting, she says it isn’t the only time something like this has happened so close to their community.

“I know these blocks, I know these neighbors … their day-to-day reality is not feeling safe in their neighborhoods. That to me is an outrage.”

Corinne O’Connell

In fact, she said shots were fired outside of their office just 30 minutes after she spoke with The Inquirer.

“The number of families that lost loved ones that were not coming home because of this violence. Because of guns. That impacts all of us,” O’Connell said. “When the news broke … I know these blocks, I know these neighbors. … Their day-to-day reality is not feeling safe in their neighborhoods. That to me is an outrage.”

On Sunday, a Habitat homeowner reached out to O’Connell to talk about the heightened number of police and helicopters in their neighborhood. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said, holding back tears.

“I don’t know what else [the police] can do,” said Lynia Lee after picking up her niece from the nearby Alliance Charter School on Tuesday afternoon. And while Lee is worried about reducing gun violence, she doesn’t think that adding more officers to the area would be helpful either.

“They can’t just have cops everywhere,” she said.

Dr. Eugenia South, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, gathered data to show that “abandoned houses that were remediated showed substantial drops in nearby weapons violations (−8.43%), gun assaults (−13.12%), and to a lesser extent shootings (−6.96%).”

O’Connell and Habitat for Humanity stand firmly with these data.

“In the fall we surpassed 1,000 homes built and repaired. … Home repair is an antiviolence strategy,” O’Connell said. “Wearing my CEO hat, [we will continue] to double down on building and home repairs so everyone has a decent place to live.”

But O’Connell knows that to really make a difference in reducing shootings, the city needs all hands on deck to figure out the best solution.

“Corinne the human … is desperate for the collective will and desire [to] throw everything at this. After each [shooting] we say enough is enough and never again. When is it enough?

“You just have to look at that heat map of where those fatal shootings and nonfatal shootings are. Every single one of those pins is a human life,” she said.

Even people outside of the immediate Temple neighborhoods have come to offer their support for Fitzgerald and the community.

Gary Jackson drove from his home in Northeast Philly to pay his respects at the makeshift memorial where Fitzgerald was shot.

“It’s painful. The society we live in where people who don’t care about human life … who is going to protect us?” he said. Jackson is a roofer, and often works on top of the high-rises in Rittenhouse Square. He identified with Fitzgerald as someone who leaves for work every day, knowing that something could happen to them on the job.

“Philly hasn’t always been like [this],” he said. “Who deserves that?”

At the vigil held for Fitzgerald next to Temple’s Bell Tower on Tuesday afternoon, students rose from the ground as Temple police officers filed into the plaza. The students stood attentive, somber and silent with Temple staff and community members. Even as the wind whipped through campus and it became hard to hear at times, those attending hardly looked away from the speakers on stage.

Assistant professor Quaiser D. Abdullah addressed the crowd first, praying for the Temple community to support Fitzgerald’s family, to support one another, and to stay safe. As the sun dropped behind the tall buildings overlooking the plaza, he prepared the Temple community for the heartbreaking words yet to come from Fitzgerald’s father and his widow.

“It is difficult to come together in times like this,” Abdullah said. “It is difficult because the pain is palpable and the emotions are real.”