Big F for A-Plus

Neighbors demand answers about aggressive panhandlers at this local gas station/mini market. 

Have you seen the kids hanging out at the Sunoco/A-Plus mini mart on Ridge? We don’t usually get our gas there, but on a few Ben & Jerry’s runs this summer we encountered some teenagers with their hands out for spare change. “Nope,” we said, and they told us to have a nice day. Shrug.

Then Nextdoor started buzzing with comments from neighbors who’d been pressured by these kids to let them pump gas, hang up the pumps, buy them something in the store… There were reports of them stealing items from cars and even throwing things at customers. “The kid literally took the pump out of my hands and I had to ask him quite a few times to leave,” a woman wrote. Yikes.

Obviously, the logical solution is that we all stop getting our gas (or ice cream, or whatever) at this establishment, right? But turning a blind eye to petty crimes & harassment here is like putting out a big “Criminals Welcome” sign on East Falls’ front lawn. It’s like trash and graffiti – visible indicators that a neighborhood tolerates law-breaking.

Law enforcement has even identified a phenomenon  called “the broken window theory,” that demonstrates nuisance crime like this begets more serious infractions and even violence. Ignoring problem behaviors is like saying “We don’t care here” to everyone who passes through your community. It’s a fast track to turning Mayberry into Skid Row.

Fortunately, East Falls does care! And what our Town Watch lacks in man-power, it makes up for in the tenacity and cantankerousness of a few retired community council members who live for this kinda shit, god love ‘em. Thanks to council president Bill Epstein’s multiple stake outs and calls to 911, both Sunoco and the Philadelphia Police Department sent representatives to this month’s general meeting to discuss neighbor concerns and current strategies for dealing with this troubling issue.

Full house at East Falls Presbyterian Church (Vaux & Midvale) on Monday, September 11th – of about 60 neighbors, maybe ten raised their hands when asked if they’d personally encountered problems at Sunoco/APlus. “That’s pretty significant,” admitted Sunoco’s lead investigator, Steven Elliott.

He assured the audience that Sunoco realizes they have a problem – since July 13th, they’ve called the police 37 times, but whenever they show up, the kids just run away. Sunoco’s top priority is the safety of their customers and staff, which is why their policy is to call 911 rather than attempt to chase the panhandlers away themselves.

“The problem is, it’s a low-risk behavior that does get rewarded,” he explained. In fact, just the other day Steve saw a woman buying one of the teenagers $15 worth of food & drinks.

Sunoco’s tried putting signs up letting customers know not to do this, but the kids just rip them down. It’s a problem the company’s been dealing with not just in East Falls, but all over the country. “You see this in most urban areas, kids trying to make a buck,” he said, “I don’t think they’re necessarily trying to steal but if the opportunity’s there some will take it.”

An audience member asked how Sunoco has handled the problem in other areas – aye, there’s the rub. In other cities, a private property owner can ask police for what’s called a “banning notice” where a flagged individual can get thrown in jail for trespassing. Philadelphia, however, has a much different process that’s even more difficult to enforce – especially for juveniles, and especially with “victimless” crimes like panhandling, loitering, and even credit card theft.

So here’s the plan. Cops and Sunoco’s investigators have ID’d about 8 different repeat offenders that they’re now targeting. When they spot activity, they’re sending plain clothes officers to the other side of a wall the kids have been known to jump to evade police. They’ll roll a squad car up, the kids’ll run, and WHAM! They’ll nab ‘em.

“We’ll detain them, take their names, addresses, get as much information from them as possible,” said officer Bernard Spain, representative for Philly Police Department. They’ll take them to the station, and hold them until their parents can come have them released. “When these parents have to start paying $300 fines out of their own pockets, I think we’ll see things changing around here,” he said.

How soon could that be? “A few days, maybe a week,” we were told. Meanwhile, the police have asked Sunoco to put up more signs and continue warning customers not to engage with loiterers.

What about more security cameras? Or a full-time security guard? Ahhh… Funny thing about that…

“I bet a lot of you have heard already that this Sunoco will be transitioning to 7-11 soon,” Steve said, but the deal won’t be done until November, and until then there’s a freeze on expenses. When some audience members grumbled, Steve assured the room that he was also transitioning to 7-11, as is the store’s current manager. “Nothing is going to change here for a long time,” he said, “I will remain on the case.”

To underscore this, he offered us his personal phone number to call 24/7 with our reports and concerns: 610-731-5812. Also, his email: steven.elliott@suncoco.com. “I take this very seriously,” he said, and promised to return to next month’s meeting (Oct 9) with a progress report.

In Bill’s final remarks, he urged Steve to recommend more cameras and a security guard for Sunoco/7-11.

“Or maybe we should just give these kids jobs,” Steve quipped, “Then they’ll never show up.”

Follow the saga on Nextdoor and Facebook, and continue the discussion Thursday September 21st at East Falls Forward’s neighbors social & general meeting, starting 6:30pm at BuLogics (3721 Midvale).

3 Comments

  • Nicole

    I think the most important and productive comment was the last quote of this post. I am disappointed that it wasn’t a point brought up sooner. I firmly believe that staking these young kids out and calling the cops is a terrible solution. We should be providing resources to low income families and kids that lack it because they have so much potential to grow and learn. We as a community need to do better with organizing a more communal, safe, and productive environment because these kids can’t do it on their own. Slapping their already struggling families with a hefty fine isn’t going to help these kids. This form of discipline is not conducive to a diverse and supportive community striving to be better. I think what would be beneficial to them is more inclusive community events that they can participate in. Something like the beer garden, which is great, but it doesn’t serve the kids and teens that make a up a considerable part of our community. They’re at a time in their lives where they need mentors, guidance, and resources more than anyone else. I’d like to see (and help organize) some workshops with art or music or outdoor excursions that these kids can participate in instead of being bored and hungry, loitering in parking lots. Lets be better as a community and help those that need the most help.

    • Carolyn Fillmore

      Wow, what a great comment. Agree that hefty fines are an unfortunate “solution” to this problem, and I also worry about the long-term damage of giving these kids records with the police, and labeling them as petty criminals when they’re mostly just bored & hungry. Please consider coming to this week’s East Falls Forward meeting to share your views & help brainstorm (or perhaps lead) ways we as a community can better support these children & their families. Thank you, in any event, for reminding us that harassment at APlus is a symptom of bigger issues we could work on together for positive change.

    • Cheyenne

      I agree with you. I’m 19 and most of the events that I do see are just ones about drinking or ones that children or teens do not want to be a part of. If we had more events or maybe even block parties people will start noticing that they shouldn’t be doing bad for the neighborhood/community, as these kids were doing. I like the last quote though it shows that there should be more job opportunities here too, it felt sarcastic in a way for me.

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