Large crowds of mostly teenagers ransacked stores in several areas across Philadelphia on Tuesday evening while using a peaceful protest as cover, police said.
Interim Police Commissioner John Stanford told reporters at a news conference police have arrested 15 to 20 people while calling the juvenile looters “a bunch of criminal opportunists.” Two firearms were also recovered.
The looting began in City Centre, where earlier, a crowd gathered to protest a judge’s decision to dismiss murder charges against a Philadelphia police officer who shot and killed Eddie Irizarry during a traffic stop. Body-camera footage showed that the victim was seated and had his car window rolled up when he was shot.
Witnesses told NBC Philadelphia they saw crowds of 100 or more teens, and even some children, taking part in the flash-mob-style burglaries. The stores that were looted included Foot Locker, Lululemon and Apple.
Video on social media showed masked people in hoodies running out of Lululemon with merchandise and police officers grabbing several and tackling them to the sidewalk. Photos of a sporting goods store in a mall showed mannequins and sneakers scattered on the sidewalk.
After looting stores in City Centre, police say they believe the group may have used multiple vehicles to “caravan” to Port Richmond, then to northeast Philadelphia, hitting stores in those two locations as well.
Stanford, the police commissioner, emphasized in Tuesday’s press conference that the protest for Eddie Irizarry was not related to the looting. He said that officers witnessed the demonstration ending peacefully around 7:30 p.m.
At around 8 p.m., 911 calls started to flood in about stores being ransacked.
“These were not protesters. These were criminals,” Stanford said. “These were people that took advantage of an opportunity, looking to destroy our city.”
Mayor Jim Kenney echoed the commissioners sentiments and called the incident a “sickening display of opportunistic criminal activity.”
Police believe the looting was coordinated on social media.
The incident occurred the same day Target announced it will close nine stores in four states, including one in New York City’s East Harlem neighbourhood, and three in the San Francisco Bay Area, saying that theft and organized retail crime have threatened the safety of its workers and customers.
Earlier on Tuesday, Judge Wendy Pew dropped all charges against former police officer Mark Dial in the killing of Eddie Irizarry after his legal team argued Dial acted in self-defence.
Shortly after Irizarry’s death on Aug. 14, Philadelphia police claimed that Irizarry had lunged at Dial and his partner with a knife during a traffic stop. Two days later, police backtracked after they reviewed body-camera footage showing Irizarry seated inside his car when he was shot.
Surveillance video in the area showed that it took Dial only 5 seconds to shoot Irizarry after he stepped out of his police cruiser.
Protesters, including Irizarry’s sister Maria, demonstrated outside of the courthouse Tuesday questioning why the judge let Dial off.
“The evidence, everything is there,” she told WHYY. “We’re going to keep fighting for my brother.”
— With files from The Associated Press