Three Steps That Could Cut Philly's Murder Rate

With homicides nearing an all-time high in Philadelphia last year, it’s no surprise that violent crime is one of the biggest topics of conversation in the city at the moment. Unfortunately, there seem to be few voices that are advocating for the type of shift in tactics and philosophy that can lead to sharp reductions in the violence.

One activist has started a hunger strike until the mayor declares “gun violence” a public health emergency. Another well-meaning local put together a  gun “buyback” that took in about 200 firearms, many of them “garbage guns”, this past weekend.

Then there’s Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong, who says it’s time to respond to the shootings in the same way the city has reacted to the COVID-19 epidemic.

We’re barely into 2021 and Philly already has upward of 30 homicide victims. At this rate, we could easily surpass last year’s 499 slayings, the highest in 30 years.

I’ve been writing about this issue for years and remain convinced that limiting the number of illegal guns would go a long way. But since that’s not happening any time soon, we need to figure out what can be done in the meantime.

We need the same all-hands-on-deck approach to gun violence that we have given to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does Armstrong envision, exactly? She never says. Instead of offering any actual solutions, she just offers criticism.

In 2018, Mayor Jim Kenney declared gun violence a public health emergency, but that didn’t go far enough. In September, Council passed a resolution introduced by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier calling for Kenney to declare a citywide emergency and develop an “unrelenting response” to it.

Retired postal worker Jamal Johnson, 63, on Monday began a daily protest in front of City Hall to draw attention to the resolution.

“I took it upon myself to do this so Mayor Kenney will see how serious I and others are about this issue,” Johnson told me.

He also declared a hunger strike on Monday.

I really wish he hadn’t stopped eating. I admire his zeal, but at the pace City Hall moves, Johnson is going to waste away to nothing.

If you’re going to call for an all-hands-on-deck approach, shouldn’t you be able to offer a couple of examples of what you have in mind?

Is Armstrong really willing to go as far as the city has gone in its attempts to limit the transmission of the coronavirus? In Philly, after being banned for much of last year indoor dining can now take place at 25% capacity; at tables with no more than four individuals, all of whom must be from the same household. Dozens of restaurants have shut down permanently, unable to afford to stay in business with the restrictions put in place. Kids have been out of school for almost an entire year.

Life has been turned upside-down, in other words. Again, is Armstrong really willing to go that far to fight the violence? What civil liberties is she willing to give up in the name of public safety? Would she embrace stop-and-frisk tactics, even though most of the time that someone is stopped no gun is found?

Or, to come at it from another angle, would be she be open-minded enough to consider that more law-abiding Philadelphians should be carrying in self-defense and for defense of others if necessary and possible? An all-hands-on-deck approach should at least reflect the reality of a surge in demand for concealed carry licenses in the city, shouldn’t it?

Although Armstrong herself never offers one single idea to reduce violence in Philadelphia, her column actually hints at what is truly needed in order for the city’s residence to start treating each other with something closer to brotherly love than callous indifference.

The young, aimless men who shoot up our city night after night need to feel the pain of the destruction they leave in their wake.

It wouldn’t stop the ceaseless carnage, but they need to at least see the tears their actions cause. I couldn’t help but think about this last week while participating in a Zoom call organized by Darin Toliver, cofounder of the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, featuring relatives of homicide victims. It was intense. The pain was as raw as if the shootings that took their loved ones had just happened. It was hard to watch.

Armstrong’s right. These young men do need to feel the pain of the destruction that they leave in their wake. But they also need to know that when they die; when their time comes to an early end, as it will for so many of them, they too are going to be mourned. They too are going to be missed. These young men and boys need to realize that their life has value before we can expect them to care much about the lives of others.

But we also have to remember that speaking in generalities and trying to apply broad brushes isn’t helpful. In most cities, including Philadelphia, a relatively small number of people are responsible for an outsized portion of the city’s violent crime. Not only are they more likely to offend (and be victims), but their violence has a ripple effect on the community that claims even more victims. In COVID-19 terms, they’re superspreaders.

Unlike with COVID, however, we actually have a pretty good idea who the superspreaders of violence are, and there are effective treatments that have been proven to be effective, like Operation Ceasefire, which I have talked about many times in the past. If you want a deep dive into the strategy and it’s effectiveness, you can also read this piece at the New Yorker, which goes into great detail about how the program works. In essence, though, it’s about modifying the behavior of these superspreaders through two complementary strategies.

First, help is offered to these men. “Your life has value to us,” is the message from everyone from local pastors to the U.S. Attorney. “We want to to see you live a full and fruitful life. But you have to stop shooting. Let us help you.”

Help getting a GED or applying to college; job training; mentoring.. whatever steps need to be taken in order to enter civil society and to stop shooting people. If that help is rejected, then the law comes in. Cases are referred to federal court whenever possible, in order to achieve maximum sentences with no possibility of parole.

“We will help you if you let us, but we’ll stop you if we must. We care about you enough to want to help you, but we won’t allow you to take another shot without suffering lifelong consequences.”

By specifically targeting and directing resources towards the group of superspreaders, the number of overall arrests in a community typically goes down along with the violent crime rate. In Oakland, California, for example, arrests have declined by almost 50%, the homicide rate dropped by an even larger amount, while homicide clearance rates have increased after the city implemented its version of Ceasefire, which includes a somewhat controversial stipend to those trying to turn their life around when they meet certain goals.

Philadelphia needs a robust Operation Ceasefire in place now. That’s the number one thing that could be done to reduce the homicide rate, and the truly crazy thing is that the city has implemented the program on a limited basis in a couple of neighborhoods over the past few years with genuine success, yet for some reason Mayor Jim Kenney hasn’t made a city-wide implementation of Ceasefire his top priority.

The second thing that should be done immediately to drive down the violence is to re-open schools. We know that juvenile crime rates are up across the country over the past year, while truancy and failure rates are skyrocketing. Get the kids who are committing crimes, at-risk of falling into violence, or becoming the victim of it back into a classroom and the city will be a safer place.

Mayor Kenney and the City Council have recently adopted roughly the same position, but the Philadelphia school district has shown little interest in bringing kids and teachers back into the classroom. If I were the mayor I’d start naming and shaming school board members and teachers union officials who are figuratively standing at the schoolhouse doors and refusing to let these kids in need come inside.

The third and final recommendation I’ll offer for the all-hands-on-deck approach is for the city to take the same approach towards illicit gun ownership that it’s taken towards heroin and drug overdose deaths. Philly is currently fighting to open up a safe injection site for drug addicts, where they can shoot up under the supervision of medical professionals. The city’s argument is basically that, despite all its efforts to contain the drug trade, there are record numbers of people dying from drug overdoses and this is a practical step to keep more of them alive.

Now, whether you agree with that policy or not, Philly has recognized that it can’t arrest or ban its way out of the problem, and I know that’s the case when it comes to trying to prevent gun ownership, both legal and illicit. There are a lot of people who illegally own guns in Philly, but the vast majority of them will never get arrested or commit a violent crime. The city needs to try to bring as many of those people into legal gun ownership as possible, and that requires actually recognizing the Second Amendment as a right of the people and not an imposition on anti-gun politicians. In other words, the city can’t just stop with an embrace of the right to keep. It must embrace the right of the people to bear arms in self-defense as well, and quit erecting barriers to the issuance of concealed carry licenses.

The city also must try to reach illicit gun owners as well. Work with Philly-based Black Guns Matter and its founder Maj Toure on bringing real gun safety and firearms basics to even those who might illegally possess them. Even if you don’t want them to have a gun, you should want them to be as safe and responsible with it as possible, right? Isn’t that the same attitude that the city’s adopted when it comes to opioids?

Implement Operation Ceasefire and target the superspreaders of violence. Re-open the schools and let kids find sanctuary inside. Embrace the Second Amendment as a right and quit treating it as a crime. If Mayor Jim Kenney, the city council, school board, police commissioner, and district attorney would take these three steps they could see the impact within a matter of weeks.

Empty rhetoric about the need to “do something” won’t help. These three ideas would, and they’re practical measures that don’t require any new laws to be placed on the books. Unlike COVID-19 restrictions they don’t even restrict our constitutional or civil rights.  They just have to implemented, and that’s where the problem lies. I don’t see the political will to take these steps anytime soon, so unfortunately I don’t hold out much hope for a quick turnaround in Philadelphia’s fortunes.