By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — Top police brass are concerned about escalating levels of violence this summer even as firearm arrests and crime gun recoveries swell.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the loosening of coronavirus pandemic restrictions, warmer weather and increasing numbers of residents outside may exacerbate shootings and homicides in the coming months.
In an effort to curb the violence, Outlaw said she will increase police patrols to conduct more “security checks,” including at recreation centers, business corridors and “hot spots” throughout the city, ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer.
During the city’s biweekly update on gun violence, Outlaw said she was encouraging officers to get out of their vehicles to connect with residents, and implored residents to share information with cops “on the trouble spots in your neighborhoods.”
The city’s plan to address summer violence comes as homicides (202) and the number of shooting victims (815) are up 38 percent and 39 percent, respectively, over the same time last year.
Last year, killings surged to a 30-year high. The victims of homicides and shootings are overwhelmingly African-American Philadelphians.
The department has seen more success at limiting the growing violence within the 45 areas targeted through its Operation Pinpoint, which focuses prevention tactics on a small number of violent hotspots, where homicides and the number of shooting victims were both up 2 percent compared to the same time last year.
The police department’s homicide clearance rate is 48 percent, meaning more than half of all killings go unsolved.
Police have seen a 38 percent increase in the number of crime guns recovered over the same time last year, reaching 2,428 as of Monday, of which 243 were privately made firearms, typically known as “ghost guns.”
The department has also made a 64 percent increase in arrests that have led to charges for Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA), reaching 1,184 as of Sunday. VUFA charges can range from misdemeanors to felonies for illegally possessing a firearm.
Deputy Police Commissioner Joel Dales said officers will monitor for illegal pop-up block parties and large gatherings as another violence deterrent. Tips can be submitted by calling 215-686-TIPS.
Erica Atwood, director of the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said the city’s recreation centers are safe — even though several people have been shot and killed around recreation centers this year.
As the city experiences violence “in ways that we’ve never seen before,” Atwood encouraged residents to remain cautious, vigilant and aware.
“One of the tenets of violence reduction is keeping the lights on,” Atwood said, adding: “Let’s proceed with caution but don’t not go outside. Let’s be more active and engaged. And that activity tends to be a deterrent to violence.”
Atwood said the city will also bolster the presence of its Community Crisis Intervention program in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Approximately 35 team members involved with the program, which is a violence reduction strategy that employs “credible messengers” from the neighborhood to mediate conflicts, will be out on Friday and Saturday, with up to 10 more people on standby on Sunday and Monday. The program will be active in 13 police districts and have an increased presence at recreation centers.
Deputy Police Commissioner Benjamin Naish said much of the rise in violence, especially involving children, is associated with social media disputes or “beefs.”
Naish added that the rise in gun violence involving children is on “both sides of the gun.”
“It’s not just that juveniles are getting shot by adults,” he said. “Juveniles are shooting juveniles and we see that way too often.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.