Rebecca Wilson keeps the police scanner in her bedroom. She is not a cop nor an emergency medic or a reporter on the crime beat; the scanner is there for personal reasons. She lives in Chester, Pa., a city of almost 34,000 where at least 24 people were killed by gun violence in 2014 alone.
“The city is so small, you just never know if you are going to know someone,” says Wilson, who’s president of the Sweet Revenge Ladies Social Club, a group that works on anti-gun violence campaigns and raises money to help struggling local families buy clothes for Christmas and food for Thanksgiving. “Honestly if I don’t know the child, I know the parent. Lots of my friends are losing sons, losing grandsons.”
If you ask anyone who lives in Chester today about the state of their city, the first thing they talk about — before the dismal state of education, stark racial segregation, starved city services, a 17.5 percent unemployment rate — is the violence. Crime in Chester seems to leave no family untouched. Earlier this year, Mayor John Linder’s wife was carjacked (but unharmed) right outside of their house. A week later, the Mayor told the Philadelphia Inquirer that there were no suspects yet in any of the city’s 13 murders.
Crime is the issue that keeps Wilson up at night. Often literally.
“You can tell when the bars are about to close — fights over here, shots fired over there,” she says. “It be jumping off at night.”
Wilson lives in Chatham Estates, a neat complex maintained by the Chester Housing Authority (read this week’s Forefront feature, “The Housing Crisis We Don’t Talk About,” for more on the city’s troubled rental housing economy.) As Wilson talks outside her family’s home — their scrum of little white poodles surging across the lawn — the deaths spill out in terse list form: a driver for the electric utility shot while on the job; a police officer wounded in a gunfight a woman struck down by a stray bullet through her bedroom window; the boy who was killed outside his grandma’s house a block away; a party that was shot up, leaving multiple dead.
Wilson bought her scanner decades ago at a yard sale with the hope that it would help her as she pursued a job in law enforcement. Over the years, after a stint as a prison guard, she gave up that dream but continued to collect scanners. Once, she recalls, police came to her house, looking for one of her sons. Not finding him, they took a scanner instead. Thankfully, it wasn’t the good one.
Wilson used to listen to the scanner until she heard the coordinates where something was going down. Ignoring her family’s protests, she would then hop in her car and go check it out for herself. Sometimes she arrived before the police. One night, listening to the scanner, she heard police responding to a shooting and raced the cops there. She arrived to find her nephew on the pavement. She hasn’t gone to a crime scene since.
“There’s blood everywhere,” she said. “You standing there wondering did he suffer, how long did it take him to die. I will never do that again.”
The killings are felt across the city. Vigils and anti-violence rallies are regular events advertised in handbills posted on light poles. In June, Chester Eastside Ministries held a memorial service for 144 Chester residents lost to gun violence over the last five years. There were t-shirts made to honor each victim. One Chester resident who spoke at the June memorial service, Delores Banks Strand, has lost all three of her children to gun violence in the city.
Wilson still listens to her scanner, and prays. “I go to church, and I pray about it,” she says. “You just pray it isn’t someone in your family, someone you know.”
When I contacted Wilson again last month, she quickly launched into the latest list of atrocities. Her daughter’s best friend’s 18-year-old son was shot in the neck and is paralyzed from the neck down. An acquaintance went outside to bring his daughter back into the house and caught a random bullet. Two women and a man leaving a bar were raked with AK-47 fire, in a case that brought regional media attention and a promise from the Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan to work with the community and build relationships to address the rising violence.
Wilson knows the mothers of the injured women.
“That thing almost took her stomach out, she walks a little bent over, they gave that girl a colostomy bag,” says Wilson. “It’s crazy. A couple weeks it’ll be quiet and you think everything is okay, and then they start shooting again.”
Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.