Fishtown hired a private security company. It’s a shame that other parts of the city can’t do that

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As someone who lived alone in an apartment in North Philly for 15 years, I always felt most vulnerable when I got home.

I lived in a large brownstone and often had my back to the sidewalk trying the tricky front door lock. I worried that someone would try to come up behind me and force entry.

A similar situation is said to have occurred around 5:22 p.m. on August 10 at a woman living in Fishtown on Frankford Avenue. When she tried to enter her home in broad daylight, a man tried to gain entry into her home. Luckily for the resident, three men patrolling the neighborhood heard her screams and came running. The suspect fled. Two of the men followed him on foot until he stopped running. They waited with him until the police arrived and arrested him.

I learned about this incident from the Business Improvement District in Fishtown Kensington Area, who hired the private security guards. The Philadelphia Police Department independently confirmed the involvement of security, who rushed to the woman’s aid. Last month I met the three men who patrol the streets of Fishtown – Griff, Justice and Barry (their security company has requested that we not provide their last names for security reasons). They are called Fishtown’s “Safety Ambassadors”. Since August, they’ve been patrolling Fishtown’s trade corridors, armed only with their cell phones and Narcan.

I was a bit suspicious at first when I heard that Fishtown had set up their own security detail. Images of vigilantes swam through my mind, brandishing baseball bats and hammers to “protect” the neighborhood and police from rioters following the 2020 death of George Floyd, but instead threatened and attacked people. In recent years, Fishtown, long a mostly white, working-class neighborhood, has evolved into one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city. I wondered if private security was a way to control who gets to roam the streets and enjoy the many amenities. Standing around uniformed guards can be intimidating – and not always in the intended way.

Recently, I followed at a discreet distance behind the unarmed, beefy trio in black to watch as they made their usual rounds past the bars and other small businesses, noting all the look-alikes that attracted their presence, as well as the many smiles and nod of agreement.

» READ MORE: Security concerns in Center City lead to more unarmed bike patrols and security guards around office buildings

When you consider how violent the streets of Philly have become in recent years, it’s clear why residents are happy to see them. The Philadelphia Police Department is grappling with a critical officer shortage. More than 500 positions are vacant and hundreds more are lost due to claims for damages. Meanwhile, the city’s gun violence crisis continues unabated, with no end in sight. The Center City District last week announced plans to significantly increase the number of uniformed bike patrols in the area.

I can’t help but think of all the areas that cannot afford private security.

The private patrols in Fishtown should be “a deterrent to people who are likely to be stealing catalytic converters and selling marijuana on corners or whatever else they’re going to do,” said David Fisher, a 29-year veteran with the Philadelphia Police Department.

“I don’t expect that [Fishtown’s private security] jump out and engage in confrontations, but I expect them to be good witnesses,” added Fisher, the president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the National Black Police Association.

The Fishtown Kensington Area Business Improvement District has hired Grayman Security to patrol the neighborhood’s business corridors, much like this upscale neighborhoods in Chicago, New York City and St. Louis, Mo. do. This level of security is not new for the wealthy, but it is something in less affluent areas. In March, I wrote about a middle-class mother of a Temple University senior who began a security patrol around her son’s off-campus housing after he witnessed an armed robbery nearby.

Fishtown’s safety ambassadors, paid by the Fishtown Kensington Area Business Improvement District, which is funded by assessments from local commercial property owners, are loosely modeled after the Center City District’s services.

“They’re really a relief force,” said Marc Collazzo, executive director of the Fishtown Kensington Area Business Improvement District. “We didn’t just go to a security company and say, ‘Give me the biggest bodies you can find to threaten the neighborhood.'”

Collazzo declined to give details of how much the company will be paid. I have been asked not to disclose the exact hours the patrol is on duty for security reasons.

I hope what Collazzo is saying is true – and that the presence of private security companies in Fishtown reassures residents and business owners.

If I lived there I’d appreciate knowing that security is making rounds, especially late at night when I’m walking home. But if private security is a good idea in Philly neighborhoods, I can’t help but think of all the neighborhoods they can’t afford. Will this be just another thing that drives gentrification in neighborhoods that can pay for extra protection while further penalizing those who can’t?

Residents across the city deserve the same kind of peace of mind — not just those lucky enough to live in a thriving, upscale neighborhood like Fishtown.

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