As killings surge, Philly Mayor Jim Kenney has few solutions

By: - March 18, 2021 5:16 pm

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaks Wednesday, 3/17/21 during a biweekly update on the city’s gun violence response (Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The Kenney administration has offered no “major” policy changes to reduce violence in Philadelphia as killings continue to surge to historic levels.

Mayor Jim Kenney and city officials provided details about a handful of anti-violence programs in the city but gave no assurances that the upward trend of violence, which has left 103 people killed this year to date, would soon reverse.

“We continue to address the issues as we can … but I don’t have any major announcements on policy changes today,” Kenney said in part during the first bi-weekly virtual update on the city’s gun violence response.

The Kenney administration is expected provide updates to its two-year-old anti-violence plan, Roadmap for Safer Communities, at the next virtual update on March 31, said Erica Atwood, the city’s senior director for criminal justice and public safety.

Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has hampered the city’s anti-violence and outreach efforts, particularly among young Black men, who are the overwhelming majority of shooting and homicide victims.

“The pandemic has caused everything that was normal in the past to be different,” Outlaw said.

Officials said social distancing requirements have prevented gatherings of community members; the wearing of face masks has hindered identification efforts; and remote learning and school-building closures have led to difficulties in locating and connecting with young people, among other issues.

Officials, activists join forces to curb gun violence in Philadelphia

“We’ve been handcuffed in many ways by the requirements … related to the virus,” Kenney said. “And as things hopefully get better as we get closer to the summer, we’ll have more ability to personally interact with people.”

The city’s top cop said she will soon roll out a youth advisory commission, which she hoped to meet with quarterly. Outlaw said there was a “very strong disconnect” between the department and the young folks in the city last year, including teenagers, due to the pandemic.

“We’ve got to do better with this demographic and that’s what we’ll be doing in 2021,” Outlaw said.

Outlaw added that she has been meeting in “small, intimate group settings” with community and grassroots organizers, including young adults, about the city’s violence.

“They’ve been very candid with me, quite frankly,” she said.

Among the Kenney administration’s new efforts to reduce gun violence is what’s called the “Next Gen Task Force.” The task force will include young people at the neighborhood-level, which will allow officials to connect with and provide them resources, Atwood said.

The task force was launched two weeks ago in Police District 22 — a hotspot for shootings and homicides in North Philadelphia.

The Kenney administration is also talking to federal law enforcement agencies “to see if we can get some help from them regarding the number of guns, and where they’re coming from, and how people are getting a hold of them.”

State law prevents city officials from regulating firearms.

The city’s homicide rate is up 30 percent compared to this time last year, according to the police department’s data website. Children have accounted for 13 of the 103 killings.

The city has logged 412 shooting victims, of which 40 were children, so far this year. The current homicide clearance rate is 49 percent, meaning slightly less than half of all murders get solved.

Philadelphia is coming off a violent 2020. The homicide rate reached 499 last year, the highest since 1990 when killings hit 500. And the city logged the largest year-over-year increase in the homicide rate — 40 percent — last year since at least 1960.

Homicides and shootings disproportionately affect African-American Philadelphians. Last year, they accounted for nearly 86 percent of homicides and 84 percent of shooting victims.

The uptick in homicides is a national issue. Major U.S. cities across the country saw spikes in homicides and shootings during the last year.

With the anticipation that homicides and shootings will rise with the warmer weather, Deputy Police Commissioner Joel Dales said police patrols will increase around city recreation centers and pools this summer. Those patrols will come with a price.

“It is going to require overtime, because of the fact that we don’t have as many police officers as we’ve had in the past,” Dales said.

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

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