As homicides surge, Philly to roll out long-awaited anti-violence strategy

(Josh Locatis/Flickr)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Ian Pernell became the latest homicide victim in the city on Sunday as killings surge this summer.

The 28-year-old from the Kingsessing neighborhood was shot three times, including once in the neck, at around 8 p.m. on Sunday in Southwest Philadelphia, according Philadelphia police.

Police rushed Pernell to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, but he was pronounced dead at 8:06 p.m., according to police. The investigation is ongoing.

Parnell’s death brought the city’s homicide total 243 as of Monday, up 31% over last year at this time, according to the department’s online crime statistics. The city is on track to surpass past last year’s total (351), which was the deadliest year since 2007.

Black men make up the overwhelming majority of homicide victims so far this year at 94.6%, according to police.

Shootings have followed suit, up 30.5% over last year at this time, hitting 1,023 as of Monday, according to the Philadelphia Shooting Victims Dashboard.

In the midst of rising gun violence, the Kenney administration intends to roll out the anti-violence strategy known as group violence intervention this weekend or next week, said Vanessa Garrett Harley, the city’s deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety.

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The strategy, in the planning phase for more than a year, is a collaborative effort between city, state and federal agencies. The launch of the strategy was delayed this year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We really had to regroup and think about how can we do this knowing that the need is real given the shooting numbers that we’re seeing,” Garrett Harley, who is leading the strategy for the administration, said on Monday.

For instance, Garrett Harley said, those at risk of gun violence (and already under supervision, like parole) are typically brought in to meet with social services providers, law enforcement, community groups and more. Those meetings will be scrapped in favor of smaller meetings.

Group violence intervention will cost the city $750,000. Funding for the strategy survived the deep budget cuts to city departments and other anti-violence programs in the recent spending plan.

Garrett Harley said the strategy was designed to specifically help Black men between 16 to 34 years old, who are often the victims and perpetrators of gun violence.

Philly homicides rose again in 2019; Blacks made up majority of the victims, data shows

“We’re hoping it will make a difference in the lives of Black men in our city,” Garrett Harley said.

Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father’s Day Rally Committee and a member of the Philadelphia Anti-Violence Coalition, said the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the social inequities plaguing Black communities, which has contributed to the increase in shootings.

“White institutional racism causes the foundation for violence, particularly in the Black community,” Qayyum said. “When you’re locked out of contract opportunities, when you’re locked out of job opportunities; when … the kids are not getting the proper education: That’s the ingredient for violence.”

Group violence intervention is based on what’s known as the focused deterrence program, which Philadelphia launched in 2013 for a two-year pilot program with a $150,000 budget. Focused deterrence, which has been used in Chicago and Oakland, was credited with reducing shootings by 35%, according to a 2017 Temple University study.

The bigger budget for group violence intervention will bolster the number of social services offered this time around and pay for the hiring of a program coordinator and two case managers, said Garrett Harley.

“We have the funding and the ability to do the social-services piece justice,” Garrett Harley said, adding, “Whatever they need, we can have them prioritize it so they can get the services they need and get them quickly.”

Asked whether the new strategy will cut the homicide rate, Philadelphia Police Capt. Sekou Kinebrew said while he didn’t have a crystal ball, the strategy was “designed to result in a decrease in the shootings” and homicides.

“Generally speaking, if the shootings go down, the homicides will go down, too,” said Kinebrew, who spoke alongside Garrett Harley.

The success of the program also will require community buy-in, Garrett Harley added.

“It’s clear we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” she said.

With the launch of the strategy days away, long-time community activist Stan Crawford has his doubts about its success.

Crawford, who heads the anti-violence group Black Male Community Council of Philadelphia and whose son was murdered in 2018, worried the Kenney administration was not involving enough local community groups and activists, like himself, who understand the rhythms of their neighborhoods.

“People are working in their silos and working in these ivory towers coming up with decisions that might not be practical on the ground,” Crawford said.

“Some of those people making those decisions won’t come down to 17th and Dauphin. They won’t come to 12th and Huntingdon. They won’t go to 16th and Wingohocking and be out there four, five hours a day to see the activities that we see.”

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