Cynics might say that the Fox Chase Town Watch picked the wrong year to relaunch its annual National Night Out celebration.
After all, the dubious deeds of self-proclaimed neighborhood patrollers like George Zimmerman and David Toledo (the alleged Mayfair tire slasher) are still fresh in public consciousness.
Yet, the president of the Fox Chase group, along with two state lawmakers who serve the neighborhood, argue that the timing couldn’t be better to renew the once-popular community event after a one-year hiatus. In the past, thousands of residents would gather in the Fox Chase Elementary School parking lot to meet local merchants and elected officials, along with the police and firefighters who protect their families and properties every day of the year.
Organizers are hoping for a similar turnout on Tuesday, Aug. 6, from 6 p.m. to dusk, at the same venue. The Fox Chase event will be one of many held that night around the Northeast, throughout the city and across the nation.
“I like it because it’s a community spirit day,” Steve Phillips, the Town Watch president, told the Times recently. “It gets neighbors out of the house and it’s a way to say ‘thank you’ to the people who do the real patrolling, the police and firefighters.”
Residents and police have been teaming up to combat crime in Fox Chase for almost 19 years. A killing equally as shocking as the Trayvon Martin case was the catalyst for the Town Watch group’s 1994 formation. That Nov. 11, a group of suburban teens chased and beat to death a local boy, Eddie Polec, on the front steps of St. Cecilia’s Church.
The Town Watch formed almost immediately and hosted its first, modest National Night Out event the following August.
“They did it very informally in the parking lot of Fox Chase bank,” Phillips said.
Under the direction of John Duffy, the Town Watch’s vice president, the event grew to become the biggest of its kind in the city. But due to dwindling financial support from the city and area businesses, as well as a shortage of volunteers, the Fox Chase group decided not to hold the event last August. Then last winter, Duffy had some sudden medical problems from which he’s still trying to recover. This year’s effort has been dedicated to Duffy.
State Rep. Kevin Boyle and his brother, Rep. Brendan Boyle, each represent portions of the neighborhood and stepped in with funding and logistical support. Kevin Boyle’s aide, Jeff Dempsey, has been the lawmaker’s point man on the project.
“I was upset as a Fox Chase resident that we didn’t have Night Out last year,” Kevin Boyle said. “I went to it as a teenager. It was the marquee family event in Fox Chase. I pledged last year with my staff to bring it back.”
Phillips also credited Linda Trush, an aide to City Councilman Brian O’Neill, with getting the effort off the ground. About 40 merchants and public officials have booked tables for the event and will hand out refreshments, snacks and promotional knick-knacks. The Town Watch does not allow merchants to sell anything.
Phillips is looking forward to the opportunity to educate the public about the legitimate motives of Town Watch and the stringent regulations observed by its members.
“For the average person who’s never been involved in Town Watch or doesn’t have one in their community, [the Zimmerman case] can certainly create a black eye,” Phillips said.
Town Watch members are prohibited from carrying weapons while on patrol, they are prohibited from following or pursuing suspects and they are required to follow the directions of police and police dispatchers.
“These regulations have been in place for a long, long time,” Phillips said.
Fox Chase Town Watch goes great lengths to ensure that its participants follow the rules and have the proper mindset for neighborhood patrol. At one time, the organization had 60 to 70 members on active patrol. Now, there are about 30. Individuals usually patrol one night per month. If someone wants to join, but doesn’t live in the neighborhood, that’s a red flag. If someone used to be part of another Town Watch group, that’s another possible issue. If someone wants to patrol too much, it may be a sign that the person may be a bit too gung ho.
“I try to get to know the person. It’s a volunteer thing, but I like to know what their motivations are,” Phillips said.
Kevin Boyle contends that a properly trained Town Watch is a community asset.
“We have a largely safe community and we want to keep it that way,” he said. “I’ve never seen an issue with any of the local Town Watch organizations in Northeast Philadelphia. They’re well-trained to be eyes and ears for police and not try to apprehend suspected criminals.” ••