Philly’s Mexican small business owners air public safety concerns at meeting

Ignacio “Nacho” Flores, the owner of Los Taquitos de Puebla on Ninth Street in South Philadelphia, stood in front of city representatives with microphone in hand, recounting how a few weeks ago he was closing the restaurant when someone entered his establishment and threatened to kill him.

Flores tried to calm him down, but the aggression escalated. When Flores called 911, the police didn’t have the same urgency — instead, the operator began to ask him if he had COVID-19.

The police response time also lacked urgency, according to Flores.

“The police took more than 10 minutes to arrive,” he said. “In two minutes, that man would have killed me.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia police response times have gotten 4 minutes longer, about 20% worse

The meeting at which Flores told his story was hosted by the Philadelphia Mexican Business Association, with the support of City Councilmember David Oh, and took place Wednesday at Alma del Mar restaurant in South Philly. In addition to Oh, Councilmember Mark Squilla, Sgt. Brian Mundrick, and Juan Ace Delgado, a police community relations officer, addressed the concerns of the largely Latino gathering.

Restaurateurs from La Taqueria Morales, Alma del Mar, Mole Poblano, Mezcal Cantina, Los Taquitos de Puebla, Los Cuatro Soles, and Philly Tacos, along with representatives from other businesses including Marco’s Fish, Mercado de Latinas, and Chocolate, were present to discuss concerns about the escalation of violence and aggression in the area.

Philadelphia police reports show 36 violent crimes taking place this year through July on the Ninth Street blocks where most of the restaurants represented at the meeting are located.

Flores, who said it was difficult to speak at a public forum about his recent experience, recounted that the man who entered his restaurant and threatened to kill him broke windows and other fixtures, doing more than $1,500 in damage that was not covered by his insurance .

Even reporting the incident was fraught.

Flores said he was grateful to Juntos, the South Philly Latino immigrant advocacy nonprofit, whose director, Erica Guadalupe Nuñez, offered help and accompanied him the day after the incident to get a restraining order against the attacker.

“I went to court with Nacho because I was sure he would not have an interpreter,” Nuñez told The Inquirer when the meeting was over. “And I was right. We arrived at 8 am and waited 4½ hours for the interpreter to arrive. And something that Nacho did not [mention is that] the first time he called 911, they hung up on him — because he did not speak the language well.”

According to Jasmine Reilly, a Police Department spokesperson contacted after the meeting, the people who staff the 911 line are public officials but not police officers.

Reilly said that “9.9 out of 10 times when someone calls 911, they’re going to [talk to] a civilian dispatcher. Sometimes people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who speak different languages ​​call, so we call a language line to help them communicate with us.”

She admitted that the experience Flores had with 911 was “100% inappropriate” and apologized on behalf of the police.

But it was clear that many at the meeting were just as dissatisfied with policing in the area as Flores is.

“We want to know what to expect from the police,” said Felipa Ventura, from La Taquería Morales. She offered Camden’s example as a model for the type of policing that she believes would be beneficial in the area.

“I have relatives there and they tell me that the Camden police constantly walk the streets, and they have generated a relationship of trust and dialogue with the residents,” Ventura said. “It is a preventive strategy.”

READ MORE: Camden didn’t defund the police. It started over.

One of the attendees caused a stir when she recounted that a group of residents on Snyder Avenue, between Sixth and Seventh Streets, had recently taken justice into their own hands and beaten up a person who they believed broke the windows of several area cars.

Delgado, the community relations officer, seemed surprised — and visibly uncomfortable — to find out from the speaker that the incident had been captured on video, and asked that it be handed over for police to examine.

“We know that immigrants are disproportionately impacted by violence because there are acts of hate, but the police are not working,” Nuñez said after the meeting.

She added that most of the cases that Juntos sees are people who were beaten or robbed and turn to the advocacy organization for help because “they know that the police are not going to help them; there are no interpreters, and the hotline operator [has] hung up on them.”

“Communicating with the police is very difficult. We have experienced this,” she added.

For Nuñez, the rising violence in the community is one of the many symptoms of poverty, as well as a devastating effect of the pandemic. “A solution, perhaps, is redirecting some of [police] funds for prevention programs,” she said. She further wondered why, despite budget increases, there is “not even enough for interpreters. … The question is what [police] are going to do to make me feel safe?”

» READ MORE: How Philly will spend nearly a billion dollars on policing and violence prevention

As the meeting drew to a close, the public officials offered few solutions but a couple of promises:

Squilla, whose district includes the Mexican business corridor in South Philadelphia, said he planned to ask the police to include it in their weekly surveillance rotation.

Oh offered to find out if there is a way for insurance companies to do a better job of covering losses from incidents such as Flores had experienced.

He also suggested that increasing lighting in the area could play an important part in increasing safety — and the perception of safety — in the community.

The latter resonated with Flores.

“What we least want is for our customers to stop coming,” he said. “We want our customers to visit the restaurants in the area to support the community and respond with solidarity in the face of crime.”

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