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

Love Park in Philadelphia (Photo via Flickr Commons)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania’s largest city charted 356 homicides in 2019, up from 353 the year before, and the number of shooting victims.

The homicide rate was the highest since 2007, when the city recorded 389 homicides, according to Philadelphia Police Department data.

African-American men made up the overwhelming majority of those killed (73 percent). When Black women were included, Blacks made up 85 percent of those killed, even though they make up about 41.5 percent of the city’s population.

The 22nd and 25th Police Districts were the two most violent through Friday, accounting for 33 and 39 homicides, respectively. The districts, which neighbor each other, contain a vast swath of North Philadelphia, including the Fairhill and Strawberry Mansion neighborhoods.

As of Dec. 27, 2019,  1,445 people were shot in the city, a 2.3 percent increase over last year at that time, according to city data. Again, Black men were the main targets of the violence, accounting for 75 percent of the victims.

Philadelphia’s homicide rate far outpaced city’s with far larger populations.

New York City, with a population of more than 8.6 million compared to 1.5 million in Philadelphia, logged 290 murders through Dec. 22, according to the New York Police Department’s website. In 2018, New York City had 295 murders.

The violence occurred during the first year of a pair of new anti-violence initiatives from Mayor Jim Kenney and the Philadelphia Police Department.

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The department’s anti-crime initiative, Operation Pinpoint, had “varying degrees of success” by reducing violent crime within the targeted areas it was applied, known as grids, Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesman, said in an email.

But he added: “We are certainly not celebrating, and we realize that much work remains to be done.”

As of Dec. 8, the aggregate homicide rate and shooting victim rate within those grids was down 5% and 11%, respectively, compared to the same time last year, Kinebrew said.

Kinebrew said drug sales and domestic violence were among the driving factors contributing to this year’s overall homicide rate — both of which he expected to influence the homicide rate in 2020.

Deana Gamble, a Kenney administration spokeswoman, said in an email that gains from the mayor’s five-year plan will take more time, noting that the funding for the initiative was not appropriated until July.

“We believe we are getting the Roadmap to Safer Communities off the ground and building the necessary infrastructure and partnerships for it to be successful,” she said.

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Hans Menos, executive director of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, credited the police department with largely moving away from tough-on-crime policies to addressing violence as a public health problem and focusing on violence reduction.

Initiatives like Operation Pinpoint, Menos said, have reinvigorated the idea that violence can spread like a disease and concentrate in certain neighborhoods, so that building relationships and trust in communities were among the many ways to blunt it.

Yet Menos said Philadelphia cops suffer from setbacks, including a lack of total buy-in from officers “on the front lines” and a department that has “historically been oppressive and racist.”

“There are people in these communities, let’s just speak plainly,” he said, “who have been abused or otherwise mistreated by police officers. … It’s incumbent upon police to recognize that as well as they walk in and try to play this role as a helper or more of a guardian.”

Solomon Jones, who heads the Rally for Justice Coalition made up of civil rights groups, said the police department and Kenney administration both have yet to build enough trust in communities for their plans to make a bigger dent in the homicide rate.

Residents, Jones said, won’t fully partner and communicate with city officials and police without trust.

“It has to be a partnership between the people on the ground, between the people who are experiencing this violence every day and the government,” Jones said. “It has to be a partnership and the people.”

The city’s dual plans make use of intelligence-based and community-oriented policing, focusing on prevention, intervention, enforcement and re-entry.

Operation Pinpoint will remain an integral part of the Kenney’s anti-crime initiative and be employed in 2020 and beyond, Kinebrew said. Police officials may adjust the grids where the strategy is employed in the future based on new data.

Gamble said the city was expected to expand the Community Crisis Intervention Program into more sections of Philadelphia, which use so-called “credible messengers,” who have lived experiences with violence and issues happening in their communities, to diffuse conflicts before they escalate into shootings.

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