No matter the job Tiffany Fletcher took to support her three sons, she threw herself into the work.
Whether the position was in fast food service or cosmetology, the 41-year-old “was a hard worker, and she loved what she did,” recalled her mother, Geraldine Fletcher. That passion extended to her caretaking, too: Outside of her working hours, Tiffany, took care of Geraldine, 77, as her home health care aide.
Tiffany was just as enthused last spring when the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department hired her to be a pool maintenance employee at a center a few blocks from her family’s West Philly home.
When the summer ended, Tiffany stayed on. But Geraldine did not share her daughter’s love for the Mill Creek Park Recreation Center, because she thought it wasn’t safe. “It was just a feeling that I had,” she said.
On September 9, her fears were validated: A teenage boy wielding a home-assembled ghost gun shot and killed Tiffany during a gun battle outside the rec center.
The city was stunned by the violence of the act, that it claimed the life of a city worker on the job. Gun violence has killed nearly 1,000 people in Philadelphia over the last two years, a crisis that the city has struggled to address. Most shootings stem from arguments, drugs, and domestic disputes, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. Fletcher’s death felt different.
But she would not be the last blue-collar public servant to be shot. In recent months, for the first time in Philadelphia’s history, city workers are regularly getting ensnared in violence while on the job. The people writing parking tickets, collecting trash, and driving city buses, many perhaps used to low-level harassment from unhappy residents, are now vulnerable to a much more deadly threat.
In November, the Friday before Thanksgiving, a sanitation worker for the Streets Department named Ikeem Johnson was fatally shot while collecting trash on his route in Mayfair.
A week later, Timothy McKenzie was canvassing the streets of Frankford and writing tickets for the Philadelphia Parking Authority when a man approached him. Without warning, the man pulled a gun and shot McKenzie in the head, leaving him critically injured.
And on December 21, Cameron Ellis, an employee of the city Water Department, was shot in the leg during a drive-by in the city’s Holmesburg neighborhood.
A Troubling Trend?
While McKenzie, 37, was the first parking authority employee to be shot on the job, threats with guns against parking authority employees have increased, said Martin O’Rourke, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Parking Authority, a state-run agency.
“Incidents and threats against our employees have dramatically increased in the last three to four years” — from just one in 2019 to 24 last year, he said. “Our employees’ safety is a critical priority.”
Since the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2022, three nonpolice city employees — Johnson, Fletcher, and Ellis — have been shot while working. In the previous four fiscal years, no nonpolice city employees were shot, said city spokesperson Joy Huertas. Nationally, there has also been an uptick in intentional on-the-job fatal shootings across all industries, according to the latest available data. In 2021, 387 workers were fatally shot while on the job, up from 304 in 2020.
The heightened risk of danger for public-facing employees shares a common cause with the highly publicized spate of attacks on retail and airline workers during the height of the pandemic, said Dick Sem, a national security and workplace violence consultant. He connected the increased threats with the proliferation of guns and insufficient mental health services, as well as shortened tempers among those enduring COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions.
“Employees are essentially strangers in the neighborhood,” said Sem, who previously worked as the security director for the country’s largest garbage disposal company. “Maybe they look like big targets on a truck, and in some cases there’s resentment against the establishment. People feel they represent the city, and they don’t trust the city.”
The workers themselves sense a shift. “For anybody walking the streets out here, it’s pretty much the same danger — city workers or not,” said a 16-year parking authority employee, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. “It’s too many people out here who just don’t give a damn about anyone. Period.”
The city’s transit system, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, has also seen a rise in gun incidents involving nonpolice transit officers. Last year, guns were brandished at employees four times, while there were three incidents in which people threatened employees with guns that were not visible, SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said. In 2021, there were four brandishing incidents and one threat, he said, and the city recorded no gun incidents in 2020.
Who’s Attacking Philly Workers?
Police in Philadelphia have identified the alleged shooters in three of the workplace attacks.
In December, police arrested a 39-year-old man over McKenzie’s shooting. The same man has been charged with shooting a gas station attendant in the Bronx, New York, a few days earlier, reportedly wearing the same clothing and using the same weapon as in McKenzie’s shooting. Police have not disclosed the suspect’s alleged motives, but said they arrested him after he briefly barricaded himself in an abandoned West Philly house.
Also in December, police issued warrants for two suspects in the killing of Johnson, the sanitation worker. As of January 13, the suspects were still at large. Police said one of the gunmen flagged down the garbage truck that Johnson was riding in just after 10:30 a.m. on November 18, and when Johnson got out of the truck, shot him multiple times. Johnson was the intended target, police said.
“Our workers, public servants who signed up to serve our great city, deserve to feel safe, especially while doing their job,” the city’s Managing Director, Tumar Alexander, said of Johnson’s slaying. “The circumstances of this loss are unimaginable.”
The shooting of Ellis, the Water Department employee, remains unsolved. At 1 p.m. on December 21, Ellis was chatting with someone in front of a Holmesburg market when someone fired from a vehicle. Ellis was struck in the leg and the other man in the chest, police said. Ellis was able to drive himself and the other man to a nearby hospital.
Two teenage boys, now ages 15 and 17, have been arrested and charged in Fletcher’s killing. A then-14-year-old boy and his 17-year-old peer have been charged with murder, reckless endangerment, and two firearm violations. Police said they were engaged in a gun battle with other suspects — who haven’t been arrested — when they hit the parks and recreation worker in the crossfire.
At the 15-year-old’s preliminary hearing on January 11, Geraldine Fletcher testified that she saw the boy fleeing the scene holding what appeared to be a gun. Fletcher said she doesn’t want the suspects to get plea deals. She wants them tried. If convicted, she wants them to get life sentences. “Give them time where there is no end,” she said. “If you’re big enough to carry a gun and put bullets in it and shoot, you’re big enough to do the time.”
Responding to a New Type of Killing
To lessen the likelihood of violence, Sem said, employers, including municipal governments, should train supervisors and employees on spotting potentially dangerous situations and empower them to leave areas where they don’t feel safe.
Employees should also be trained on how to de-escalate conflicts, and how to be aware of their environments, he said.
“A lot of it is common sense: reading people, reading body language, being vigilant,” Sem said. “There’s never 100 percent security. Bad stuff happens even in the lowest-risk, nicest neighborhoods. But you can do things to minimize it.”
In Philadelphia, officials have convened a working group to produce recommendations and update policies related to employee safety and trauma support, Huertas said.
The city’s Streets Department has begun conversations with police and the city’s Office of Risk Management about establishing safety protocols that include coordinating police presence so that officers can monitor sanitation collections and roadway repairs in areas where there are safety concerns, Huertas said. Her department now shares collection routes in those areas with police; sanitation crew chiefs and police sergeants exchange phone numbers.
In 2020, Parks and Recreation had boosted its safety practices in response to crime. By the time Fletcher began working for the department, those updated protocols meant no staff member would work alone; the department had also increased police patrols at high-risk sites during priority times, and was sharing more information with police.
Since 2019, nearly 300 incidents of gun violence have been reported in Philadelphia parks and recreation facilities, city officials said.
In response to the increasing gun violence at playgrounds and recreation centers, in the spring of 2021, Parks and Recreation began working with the Police Department, grassroots mentoring, and anti-violence groups to expand programming for youth and young adults.
But for Fletcher’s three sons, ages 16, 10 and 9, those reforms came too late. “They’re not doing good. They look sad. They’re still going through it,” their grandmother said.
“They miss their mother. She had a beautiful heart,” Geraldine Fletcher said just before the hearing for one of her daughter’s alleged killers began. “Everybody loved her, and she loved her job.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the timeline of the Parks and Recreation Department’s update of youth programming.