Skateboarders in Center City say members of the Philadelphia Police Department are using excessive force, bordering on brutality, against them.
Calls to district captains for comment were unreturned as of press time.
Klotz alleges his own skateboard-related run-ins with Philly police. He recalls a time when he was with five or six friends filming tricks outside of the Comcast Center, grinding on a ledge, when a security guard told them to leave.
“One of the kids of course was giving the dude a little bit of attitude, and the head security guy was like, ‘You guys gotta stay here now and wait till the cops come.’” Klotz and crew attempted to flee but were rushed by seven or eight cops outside of the 7-Eleven across from LOVE. Though he was the only one with a skateboard, all of them were arrested.
Though the skating ban has netted the city money in citations at $75 a pop, it has done little to deter skateboarders in Center City hotspots like LOVE Park, City Hall and the Municipal Services Building. Instead, it’s created a game of skate-run-chill, in which skaters ranging from 10 to 30 wait for officers’ shift changes to get in precious minutes of skating before they’re chased.
Captain Dennis Wilson of Philadelphia’s 9th District takes the problem of skateboarding downtown very seriously. “They’re breaking the law and they know it. We have to constantly stand guard at that park to keep them out, and we shouldn’t have to.”
Wilson discloses that since the beginning of 2009, his officers have made 12 arrests, issued 39 tickets and confiscated 10 boards for skateboarding at LOVE Park. He says he gets complaints about skateboarders riding or pulling tricks all the time. “It’s illegal for a reason,” contends Wilson. “They’ve broken those blocks [on the floor of the park] and popped them up so they can use them as ramps. They grind all that marble [sic] to shame. If they were just kids who rolled through and didn’t do any damage, that would be one thing, but they’re not.”
Wilson says that accusations of excessive force are false, and counters the claim: “We’ve had officers hit with skateboards.” Yet he concedes that though tactical in their approach, his men have to be careful when going after the kids, not to chase them into oncoming traffic.
“They’re hard to catch,” he says, “and I definitely don’t want them getting hit by a car for a $75 ticket.”
Skaters say it’s not the tickets that most kids in LOVE are afraid of, but the cops themselves.
“They’re running because they don’t want to get their asses kicked,” says Jake Hanitschak, a teacher at the University of the Arts who has been skating LOVE since 1993. He worries that skaters running into traffic trying to escape the cops is a recipe for disaster. “You’ve got kids running mach top-speed into 16th Street, into the Parkway, out front past 15th, out JFK. There will definitely be a little kid getting hit by a car any day now.”
Similar fears were realized on Sun., June 6, when skateboarder Stephan Bernard, 20, was hit by a taxicab crossing 15th Street. He was running from a bike cop after skating City Hall. Bernard’s body shattered the windshield. Bernard was taken from the scene by ambulance to Jefferson Hospital.
“After that happened I thought it was guaranteed I was gonna get into trouble, get a fine, something,” he says. “But he [the cop] just turned around and took off.” Bernard says he recognized the officer, but declined to file a complaint or share that officer’s name with PW for fear of retaliation.
Another skater, Brinton Hawk, was arrested in May after he chastised a high-ranking officer for body-slamming a kid who looked to be about 10 into the ground. “I asked him, ‘Why would you tackle a little kid like that?’”
Hawk says the cop asked him if he wanted to be arrested instead. Staying true to the original game, the 29-year-old darted across the street and made his escape. He was picked up in a paddy wagon two blocks away, after the cop put his description out over the radio. After Hawk was arrested, he says cops circled around him, mocking him. “They were all just harassing me–calling me a loser for skateboarding,” says the bearded, tattooed skater. “They were like, ‘Look at you. What are you, a loser? A 30-year-old loser?’”
Sometimes Hawk wishes he’d kept his mouth shut, but says he just couldn’t. “It’s trouble that I don’t need, but I stuck up for what I believed in. Opened my mouth a little too much maybe, said a couple things I shouldn’t have said when I was walking away from this officer.”
Hawk faces an array of charges including inciting a riot, but says, “If I cooperate I’ll look at six months probation and a $300 fine for being a first-time offender.
Recent events have the Philly skateboarding community on HaveBoard.com buzzing. Posts normally garner only a handful of responses, but the one about cops charging LOVE with drawn Tasers received 48 comments from people telling what they saw that day and about other experiences they’ve had with police downtown.
Hanitschak, a thin and lanky dude with neatly parted brown hair, was the only one to speak up about petitioning the city, putting his ideas into long posts on the site. His post got 113 comments. The 28-year-old was nominated to spearhead an organization effort. He represents between 100 and 200 local skateboarders, he says, who want to draft a proposal to the city to make skateboarding legal during certain hours when the park is not heavy with tourists or businesspeople on lunch breaks. They believe that making skateboarding legal will ease aggression on the part of police.
Sunday was supposed to be Go Skateboarding Day 2009, which offered the possibility that the skaters and the cops at Love Park would have the angry, pointless run-in to end angry pointless run-ins. Instead, the whole thing kind of fizzled out. Larry West reports on the lameness.