As gun violence rages in Philadelphia, special council hearing reveals no quick solutions

(Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Legislators hauled Philadelphia’s top cop and leading prosecutor to a hearing on Tuesday to answer for the surge in gun violence that is overwhelmingly affecting African Americans.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and District Attorney Larry Krasner laid out causes both new and old for the uptick in homicides (32%), shootings (55%), and shooting victims (36%) so far this year compared to the same time in 2019.

Despite three hours of testimony, Outlaw and Krasner gave no guarantee the violence will stop.

Legislators offered only words and rehashed demands to do better. They committed no new funding for anti-violence programs following a brutal budget process that inflicted cuts to the police department, district attorney’s office, and some of the city’s gun-violence prevention efforts.

“I want the bleeding to stop now,” said Councilman Curtis Jones, co-chairman of the City Council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention.

“This situation is more than an emergency, it’s a catastrophe,” Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier said.

The city is in the midst of a multi-year trend in gun violence that is not directly driven by the novel coronavirus pandemic, said Outlaw during the hearing held via video conference.

But the pandemic has hindered the commissioner from implementing various aspects of her anti-violence plan. The police department’s anti-gun violence efforts rely heavily on community engagement, which is difficult during the pandemic when social distancing is required.

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“We need to connect, continue to connect with our young people,” Outlaw said. “And the COVID-19 pandemic really has had a serious impact on that.”

As other large cities see gun violence spiking this year, Philadelphia now ranks second in total number of homicides among U.S. cities. It falls behind Chicago (433), but outpaces larger cities like New York City (227) and Los Angeles (157).

Outlaw said the top issues driving gun violence here are:

  • Existing rivalries between gangs and groups;
  • Competition for territory to sell drugs;
  • “Beefs” between individuals; and
  • A rise in the likelihood for individuals to carry firearms.

Krasner listed poverty as a significant cause of the city’s violence, saying “Poverty equals bullets.”

The broken trust between members of the community and law enforcement authorities also prevents individuals from cooperating with authorities, Krasner said. Unlike Outlaw, Krasner believed a “significant portion” of the current gun violence in the city was pandemic-related.

The district attorney called for legislators to disinvest from the “traditional law enforcement efforts” and invest in violence prevention strategies, including funding and partnering with community-based organizations.

“We have to think about divesting in things that don’t work,” Krasner said.

Low bails given to those accused of shootings and firearm violations, contrary to his prosecutors’ high bail requests, was a “tremendous issue” contributing to the rise in violence, Krasner maintained.

The comment appeared to be a counterpunch to recent criticism Krasner came under from bail reform advocates, who say his office was requesting excessively high bail ($999,999) and was too eager to send people accused of crimes to jail during the pandemic.

“We are not getting the bails that we seek,” Krasner said.

Total homicides hit 259 on Tuesday, with Blacks accounting for 86% of the victims, according to police. This year’s homicide rate was on pace to reach a 13-year high.

The department has made arrests in 49.4% of homicides this year, known as the clearance rate, meaning police are solving less than half of all homicide cases.

The committee’s hearing came a week after the death of 7-year-old Zamar Jones, who was playing on his front porch in West Philadelphia earlier this month when a bullet from a shootout between men on the street struck him in the head.

Days later, a 6-year-old Black girl was shot in the chest while attending a family gathering in West Philadelphia.

The children were some of the 92 children who have been shot in the city to date; at least 11 of them have died.

Black children make up 92% of child shooting victims, according to police data from last week.

Blacks made up at least 76% of all shooting victims, according to last week’s police figures.

The Kenney administration and its local, state and federal partners launched the new anti-violence strategy last week, known as group violence intervention (GVI), in West Philadelphia.

GVI ditches the “heavy-handed law enforcement approach” in favor of a community-based approach focusing on a small number of individuals engaged in gun violence — either as shooters or victims — and offering social services, said Theron Pride, senior director for the violence prevention strategies and programs in the city’s Office of Criminal Justice, during the hearing.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, co-chairman of the committee, questioned why the Kenney administration had cut funding for the city’s Office of Violence Prevention and replaced a separate anti-violence program with GVI at a time when more programs were needed. Johnson is currently fighting federal corruption charges.

“We have shootings happening on a regular basis,” Johnson said. “And so, it shouldn’t have to be this or that as opposed to both [anti-violence programs] on an investment standpoint.”

While Pride was bullish on GVI and the success of other anti-violence programs, he said, “We have to just adjust to what budget we have in front of us.”

The Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention will resume the hearing at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared