Philly City Controller calls for faster, less expensive approach to addressing gun violence

(Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By John N. Mitchell

PHILADELPHIA — City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart believes the city can do more to reduce gun violence — and for less money than what it currently spends.

She released a report Thursday that shows the city is spending a total of approximately $15 million on the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, the Community Crisis Intervention Program, blight remediation and street light upgrades, gunshot detection cameras, payroll for employees of the Office of Violence Prevention, and other grants and programs.

“The majority of this is not being spent on the type of laser-focused programs that are shown to work,” Rhynhart said. “This is why we thought that transparency was needed.”

She said a combination of three programs has worked to reduce gun violence in Chicago, New Orleans and Oakland, and implementing those same programs here in Philadelphia would cost approximately $11 million in the first year and less in subsequent years.

Rhynhart realizes her role is typically regarded as one focused on accounting, and that her proposal differs from the mayor’s “Roadmap to Safer Communities.”

“Anyone can get mad at me for being in the wrong lane, but you know what? I don’t care,” she said. “People are dying. I’ve stood on the sidelines for two years on this issue while people kept dying and dying. So you know what? I’m going to lean in and do what I can do. And if the mayor gets upset, I can’t control that.”

She noted that the homicide rate in the city reached a 10-year high in 2018 and a new high in 2019, and that there have already been 31 homicides in the city as of 11:59 p.m. on the 21st day of 2020.

Mayor Jim Kenney has committed to slashing the homicide rate by 30% each year and shootings by 25%.

His plan proposes to address gun violence by addressing poverty, and calls for improved workforce development initiatives, reentry programs, prevention and intervention programs, and a public health campaign. The plan also calls focuses on blight remediation efforts.

Fiscal Year 2020 Gun Violence Reduction Spending

Rhynhart agreed that many of the things in Kenney’s plan are important, but said they “are not strategies endorsed by national experts on urban violence, many of whom believe strategies that work best to reduce homicides focus specifically on those most likely to shoot or be shot.”

Chicago, New Orleans and Oakland have seen significant reductions in gun violence by implementing a combination of focused deterrence, violence intervention and cognitive behavioral therapy programs for young people likely to engage in violent activities.

New Orleans’ program has been credited with a 17% reduction in homicides between 2012 and 2014, and Oakland’s program has been credited with a 32% reduction in gun homicides in the last five years.

“We have to focus on the violence,” Rhynhart said.

Rhynhart said the city’s homicide rate and poverty rate are rooted in systemic — and even codified — racism.

The sections of the city where most of the shootings occurred in 2019 were in areas that were redlined more than 80 years ago — Northwest, North and Southwest Philadelphia.

Location of homicides overlaid with redlining map

The federal Homeowners’ Loan Corporation designated those historically Black neighborhoods in the city as “undesirable” areas to lend money for mortgages and business loans, and “set the stage for a lack of investment” in those neighborhoods, Rhynhart said.

“These redlining boundaries are correlated with present-day disadvantage. They basically starved wealth creation from African-American neighborhoods.”

That lack of wealth, particularly contrasted with other parts of the city, depressed poverty values, which led to violence, which depressed property values even further, which led to more violence, and so on.

Society collectively created the problem, Rhynhart said, and “we have a collective responsibility to fix it.”

John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.