Are Philly cops are doing enough to stop gun violence in communities of color?

Local activists, the majority of them women of color, met with members of Philadelphia City Council on Wednesday, 2/12/20, to discuss police response to gun violence in the city (Philadelphia Tribune photo by Michael D'Onofrio.)

By Michael D’Onofrio

Activists, some members of City Council are questioning the department’s commitment as 2020 gets off to a bloody start.

PHILADELPHIA — Anti-gun violence activists and two freshman City Council members are questioning how committed the Philadelphia Police Department is to fighting crime and gun violence in the city, particularly as it affects people of color.

“There’s a significant level of concern as to how serious are folks taking these investigations when it comes to poor people and people of color,” said at-large Councilman Isaiah Thomas, a Democrat, during a roundtable discussion organized by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.

At-large Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, a member of the Working Families Party, said the “lack of respect to victims and survivors from the police department is horrific.”

“They don’t have that level of respect for Black children,” Brooks said, contrasting Philadelphia police officers with the law enforcement officers who investigated the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting. Twenty-six people, including 20 children, were killed in the 2012 shooting; the majority of them were white.

Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder and executive director of Mothers in Charge, suggested the city would invest more in anti-gun violence initiatives if Black men weren’t the primary targets.

Homicide, Johnson-Speight said, “is the leading cause of death among African American males 14 to 34. … I know that if that was happening in other communities, we would have a better response.”

With 44 homicides as of Tuesday in Philadelphia, the rate was up 26% compared to the same time last year. The Philadelphia Police Department’s homicide clearance rate was 60%, meaning 40% of all homicides go unsolved, according to a department spokesperson.

Johnson, who represents District 2, held the meeting to hear feedback from local groups about how to reduce gun violence in the city. Johnson, a Democrat, is currently facing federal corruption charges.

Johnson proposed establishing a new city fund to support anti-gun violence organizations and survivor groups.

“You need your own lane specifically to be supported from a funding standpoint, to be supported from a policy standpoint, and that’s a one-stop-shop,” Johnson told the group.

Community group leaders and officials who attended a hearing about gun violence on Tuesday night had called on the city to provide more funding for their efforts.

And city officials and advocates believe that will help.

But they said police also need to show more respect to victims, who are primarily people of color. The lack of respect, they said, contributes to delays in investigations and support services.

Brooks called for forming a rapid-response program to immediately address issues in communities affected by gun violence and working with the police department on sensitivity training.

Kira Bellolio-Murillo, interim director of family wellness for the nonprofit Congreso de Latinos Unidos, said police were not following protocol by immediately informing victim service organizations, like hers, after a gun violence incident, delaying assistance for weeks.

“We are all doing the best job that we can to respond even way before those 48 hours [after an incident] but we don’t get that notification,” she said.

Crystal Arthur, whose son’s 2017 murder remains unsolved, said police have been unresponsive.

“We need a lot of help because people don’t know how we feel, they don’t know what we go through,” she said. “When you reach out to law enforcement who are supposed to be helping you, it’s like you’re just getting pushed to the side.”

“You feel like you have to solve your own case,” said Sharon Smith, while grasping a poster-sized photo of the 25-year-old son she lost to gun violence in August 2017.

Smith, 48, said her son’s murder remains unsolved. A member of Moms Bonded By Grief support group, she said Philadelphia police have been unresponsive and insensitive in the years since.

“I don’t see any action,” she said.

City Council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention, which Johnson heads, will hold a hearing at 1 p.m. on Feb. 20 in the City Council Chambers inside City Hall.

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