BENTON TOWNSHIP — The early Tuesday morning looting of a Benton Township gas station by 20 to 30 teens and young adults has area law enforcement officials and pastors frustrated and concerned.

“We have had calls that we’ve responded to in the last few weeks where we have larger crowds gathering at some of our convenience stores and gas stations in the early morning hours and had to disperse crowds,” Benton Township Chief of Police Brian Smit said. “But this is the first of this sort where any damage or theft has occurred.”

Cell phone video of the incident, which happened shortly before 3 a.m., was shared widely on Facebook before it was taken down.

The video shows a party-like atmosphere in which people are walking around outside the store, showing the snacks and drinks they took from the Phillips 66 on Pipestone Road, near M-139. The store is open 24 hours. Some people can be seen tearing open snack bags and throwing the contents.

In the police report about the incident, Benton Township Patrolman Connor Korenchuk said he observed a large crowd of up to 200 people and about 100 vehicles in the Phillips 66 parking lot at 2:51 a.m., with 20 to 30 people inside the store throwing and damaging merchandise.

He said that within 30 seconds of his activating his emergency lights, everyone scattered.

Two store employees working at the time reported that store shelving was damaged when candy and bags of chips were stolen. They also reported that they saw several people steal large boxes of potato chips.

Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety Director Dan McGinnis said that the behavior he saw in the video is similar to what has been happening late at night in the city. He said crowds of young people have been driving between the city’s four 24-hour convenience stores, playing loud music, drag racing and dancing in the streets.

However, up until now there has not been any looting or crimes of this nature.

Last week McGinnis told members of the city’s Public Safety Committee that the owners of the 24-hour convenience stores have agreed to voluntarily close between 2-5 a.m. to help break up the crowds. McGinnis has also asked local pastors to help.

Pastor Carlton Lynch of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Township said he is very concerned about what he saw in the video.

“It is difficult for us to continue to fight, march, protest for the Black body when we see what transpired (early Tuesday morning),” he said. “This is a call for pastors, for parents and politicians and the police to bring this to a halt.”

There have been numerous local and nationwide protests against police brutality and for social justice since George Floyd died while in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis.

Lynch said he’s against police brutality, but not against police. And he said the people at the gas station who were stealing snacks and damaging property need to be arrested, if possible.

Pastor Maurice McAfee of New Bethel Baptist Church in Benton Township agrees.

“That behavior cannot be acceptable,” he said. “It’s a big concern to me. We’re on the cusp of fighting for great things and to get a call (Tuesday) morning with that video on my phone was very disturbing to me.”

McAfee said he’s meeting with several pastors today to talk about what they can do to help young people behave themselves.

“This behavior is not OK,” he said. “This is not how we bring about change.”

Pastor Taurus Montgomery from Harbor of Hope in Benton Harbor said the actions shown in the video are “wrong, disheartening and unacceptable.”

“They do not reflect the general attitudes and behavior of the vast majority of Benton Harbor young people,” he said. “They do reflect the need for the concerned members of our city – faith leaders, officials, and citizens – to provide more opportunities that will engage, employ and empower our youth in ways that will strengthen our community and hopefully prevent events like this from happening in the future.”

Benton Township Police Chief Smit said officers are still investigating the incident.

Anyone with information regarding the incident should call township police at 925-1135, or Crimestoppers at 800-342-STOP, or 574-288-STOP.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege