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December 29, 2015

Police officer calls for security cameras at Fishtown's Shissler Recreation Center

Vandals trashed the popular rec center during the Christmas holiday

Recreation Crime
Shissler_Recreation_Center John Kopp/PhillyVoice

Vandals trashed Shissler Recreation Center in Fishtown sometime over the Christmas holiday.

Shissler Recreation Center is a community asset described by Fishtown residents as a lively facility frequently used by athletic leagues, churches and other community groups. It houses a popular after-school program and its playground and outdoor basketball courts regularly draw a crowd.

So when vandals trashed Shissler over the Christmas holiday, Fishtown residents reacted with dismay. And a police sergeant renewed his call for installing a video surveillance system at Shissler, which previously witnessed a string of robberies.

"It's in constant use," said A.J. Thompson, a Fishtown resident who coaches youth soccer and hosts annual academic challenges at Shissler. "It's not one of these playgrounds that kind of opens and closes whenever it wants. For it to be vandalized, it disrupts schedules, but it impacts a lot of people."

Unknown culprits caused more than $1,000 in damage to Shissler by spraying fire extinguishers, hanging paper towels from the ceiling and throwing trash throughout the building, Philadelphia Police Sgt. John Massi said. The perpetrators also damaged a lock to a locked-room and stole cases of soda. The damage was done sometime between 4:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 5:30 p.m. on Christmas Day.

Police do not know how the culprits gained access to Shissler, Massi said, but are investigating it as a burglary. They do not know whether the building was left unlocked or someone with access returned after closing. They also suspect the culprits could have hidden in the building until after it closed.

"We have nothing to go on now," Massi said. "We have no video. Even if we got a fingerprint, that kid could say, 'I go to the rec center, that's why my prints are there.' The only thing we have to go on is if somebody gives us a tip."

Massi has urged the Department of Park and Recreation to install a security system at Shissler, saying it could both help police solve crimes and serve as a deterrent.

Police have responded to seven robberies and one theft at Shissler since 2014. Most of the incidents occurred along a narrow path that connects Shissler, located at 1800 Blair St., to the nearby Berks Street elevated train station.

For years, the path was bordered by a wall that provided cover for robbers to pick off their targets. Part of that wall has been replaced with a fence, improving visibility. Massi also has urged Shissler to keep its light on at night.

Yet, Massi remains frustrated Shissler does not yet have security cameras, despite ranking among the most crime-ridden recreation centers in the 26th Police District.

"I have other ones where there might have been a fight here and there," Massi said. "If any center needed a video system, it's Shissler. But for whatever reason it's never been given priority."

Shissler is expected to receive a surveillance system by the end of 2016, according to Susan Slawson, the city's first deputy commissioner of recreation and programs.

The city is two years into a three-year effort to outfit each of its recreation centers with security cameras, Slawson said. The city began by installing cameras its largest recreation centers and is working its way down.

"Sgt. Massi is dead on," Slawson said. "It's important to us to have these cameras throughout our system. ... When people know that the cameras are up, we don't have as much (criminal) activity in the late evenings."

Slawson said Shissler is among the busier rec centers in the city, due in part to its location. The center borders Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and sits in the shadows of a SEPTA elevated train stop.

The city runs an after-school program at Shissler that serves between 20 to 30 kids, Slawson said. Other organizations utilize Shissler for sporting events, including Fishtown Athletic Club, where Thompson coaches soccer. He also hosts a spelling bee there in October and an academic competition in March.

"The police are right," Fishtown resident Jill Better said. "They have long called for more surveillance and more resources at all of the rec centers. There's really a lot of programming that happens at Shissler. There's a lot of youth programs. There's a lot of educational enrichment programs. It's really a high-traffic and high-volume rec center."

Shissler has been cleaned and repairs have been made since it was vandalized, Massi said. But police need more information before they can identify suspects and make an arrest.

"If justice doesn't, karma will get them," Thompson said. "That's all we've got. This isn't going to stop anything that we do or the program does."