One in an occasional series about Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence.
Every trip outside the house for Jackee Nichols brings a new reminder of the pain.
Nichols is from a part of South Philadelphia that has been embroiled in a shooting conflict for as long as anyone can remember. In October 2018, that violence claimed her 15-year-old grandson. Police believe he was gunned down for living on the wrong block — but, like most shootings in Philadelphia, no one has been charged in the crime.
Now Nichols faces the daily torment of living among the people she suspects killed her grandson, Rasul Benson, leaving trauma to resurface in unexpected moments.
Such as when she visited an eyeglass shop on South Broad Street one day in October and recognized the woman waiting at the counter. Nichols is convinced the woman’s son drove the getaway car in Rasul’s killing.
The encounter triggered thoughts of her own daughter’s heartbroken words as they viewed Rasul’s body on a metal table: “That’s my son, Mom. That’s my baby.”
Standing outside the store, Nichols wanted to scream at the woman inside: “Has anyone killed your son?”
Instead, Nichols, 57, a devout Muslim, raced home and cried and prayed for forgiveness, overwhelmed by the feeling that she has been ignored by police, abandoned by some in her neighborhood, and failed by a city she believes has turned an uncaring eye toward unsolved killings.
“It seems to me,” she said, her voice catching, “like you all forgot about my boy.”
Nichols’ pain is one shared by thousands of Philadelphians, because city law enforcement is failing to fulfill one of its most fundamental responsibilities: Secure justice when people are shot.
As the city’s gun violence surged this year to heights not seen in a generation, The Inquirer analyzed every shooting since 2015, using police data, court records, and interviews with dozens of victims, family members, police, prosecutors, and community advocates.
The analysis revealed the startling depths of a slow-motion systemic collapse, one where justice for gun-violence victims is the exception.
Of the nearly 8,500 shootings in which people were wounded or killed since 2015, just 21% led to charges. And less than 9% have reached a conviction — just one out of 11.
Though hundreds of incidents are winding their way through the courts, and an untold number remain under investigation, this year’s pace of gun violence means the number of people who shot and got away is much larger than years past — and continues to grow by the hour.
As of Nov. 1, just under one in six of this year’s nearly 1,900 shootings had led to a suspect in custody.
That staggering number of unsolved cases is nearly 40% higher than in all of 2015.
Since 2015, almost 2,700 young Black men were wounded in shootings, but suspected triggermen were convicted in only 6% of their cases.
White men of the same age were three times as likely to see their shooters convicted.
This failing has come as the nation has again been gripped by a reckoning over the fundamental role of policing. After officers this year killed Black people in cities including Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., and Philadelphia, protesters took to the streets, many chanting “Black Lives Matter” or “Defund the Police.” The movements led to a more widespread call for funding to be diverted from law enforcement and spent on social services, mental health treatment, and job programs instead.
To those demanding such reform, the failure to solve shootings is further evidence that generations of oppressive policing in Black communities has only built mistrust and helped foster violence, instead of stopping it.
“It’s just a reminder that what we’re doing right now is not working,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a former juvenile lifer who spent 27 years in prison for serving as a lookout in a robbery-turned-murder.
Police say they are embracing reform, developing smarter, more targeted tactics, and trying to overcome the challenge of making cases when so many witnesses don’t want to talk. Within the Philadelphia Police Department, many officers — including Commissioner Danielle Outlaw — have also grown increasingly outspoken about what they view as a criminal justice system and reform-oriented prosecutor’s office that have not cracked down hard enough on illegal guns.
“The criminal community, they’re more emboldened to go out and do more,” Outlaw said in an interview.
Conviction rates for nonfatal shootings and illegal gun possession have fallen since District Attorney Larry Krasner took office in 2018, according to data published by his office. Some police commanders also complain that repeat offenders now routinely get low bail or shorter sentences for gun crimes.
Still, Outlaw acknowledged that the Police Department is primarily responsible for building investigations to get suspected shooters off the street. And the failure to secure justice in the vast majority of gun-violence cases, she said, was “very concerning, for obvious reasons.”
“As we see our shootings and our homicides increase, we want to make sure that we’re seen as legitimate in the community’s eyes,” Outlaw said. “Meaning that we’re not only ensuring the public safety, but we’re making sure that there are consequences.”
Krasner — who has defended his office’s handling of gun cases — was blunt about what he called a long-standing failure by law enforcement to successfully address a systemic challenge.
“Government in Philadelphia has chronically failed at efforts to bring big reductions in shootings and homicides by gun,” he said. “When you get basically mostly young men … thinking in a way that’s rather immature, with a sense of desperation, hopelessness, and the clear notion for many of them that they won’t live to be 30 — when you have that going on, in a vacuum of accountability, it is a problem.”
In that environment, it’s even more difficult for the city’s criminal justice system to help stem the violence. The root causes — deep poverty, underfunded schools, easy access to guns and drugs — have long been apparent. And decades-old neighborhood rivalries have been allowed to flourish, especially with gunmen knowing they have little risk of being caught.
What has become undeniable is that unsolved shootings lead to more shootings — especially in 2020, when gun violence has spiked so dramatically, and the coronavirus pandemic has decimated the economy, stressed neighborhoods, and restricted schools, rec centers and social services. Even stay-at-home orders have done nothing to slow the bloodshed: More than 450 homicides so far this year, up 40% over 2019. More than 2,000 people shot. And women and children increasingly among the victims.
“The street corner gangs ... generally come to feel that there’s no incentive not to shoot — that you’re not going to be arrested, and if you’re arrested, you’re not going to be convicted,” said Benjamin Lerner, a former chief public defender and Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who recently served as the mayor’s deputy managing director tasked with reducing the city’s jail population.
He added: “It’s like the pandemic: the more people who are infected, the more people are going to get infected. Once that gets into free fall, that’s very, very difficult to stop. The same goes for gun violence.”
Philadelphia is not alone in struggling to bring gunmen to justice. Tom Scott, a researcher at the think tank RTI International who has studied the issue, said nationally there is no uniform measure of how often shooters are arrested and convicted.
The crush of violence here means more people will feel the agony that Nichols faces as she holds out a faint hope for justice.
“As far as I’m concerned, my grandson’s case is cold,” she said. “And it’s just stacked with a whole bunch of other cases.”
The killing of Rasul Benson illustrates what happens when gun violence goes unchecked.
For generations in Grays Ferry, young men from 27th Street and 31st Street have been locked in deadly rivalries based on the blocks where they grew up.
The violence now flares over social media beefs and rap song slights in this South Philadelphia community long isolated from opportunity and services. And it mirrors the evolving conflicts that have become commonplace in many parts of the city.
“These kids don’t feel valuable to anyone,” said Tyrique Glasgow, who runs the Young Chances Foundation antiviolence group. “They feel like this city is waiting for them to die, but not willing to help them to live.”
Charles Reeves, 62, a lifelong Grays Ferry resident and president of the Tasker-Morris Neighborhood Association, mentors young people and in October convened a virtual meeting with a handful of boys on the basketball team he’s coached for six years.
“Which can you say affected you more, gun violence or the virus?” he asked them.
One of the teens responded: “Gun violence, because we can stay inside from the virus and keep ourselves safe — but shootings can happen anywhere.”
Rasul had tried to avoid the conflict, his grandmother said. He was working harder in his classes at Parkway West High School. He liked to tell jokes, had just started writing rap songs, and styled his hair in twists. He enjoyed taking trips to Six Flags with his cousins.
Even though his family had moved from 27th Street to nearby Point Breeze when he was 12, his social scene remained in Grays Ferry.
He was navigating childhood in a place where a bullet can find you just for where you live.
On those streets, gunmen fire with near impunity. In a half-square mile around where Rasul was killed, 54 people have been shot since 2015. Just six of those shootings have led to an arrest. And only three have reached convictions. In the larger area where the 27th and 31st Street rivalry plays out, only 16% of the shootings have led to an arrest.
That October night in 2018, Rasul and his friends were at the Gulf station on West Passyunk Avenue, pumping gas for tips to buy cheesesteaks, when a car of gunmen from 31st Street pulled up.
Police believe they were out looking for anyone from 27th Street. The shooters recognized the teens.
When a gunman jumped out and opened fire, Rasul and his friends scattered, but he stumbled. The gunman chased him through the parking lot and shot him in the back. Rasul died at the hospital.
But some children in Grays Ferry have stopped counting the dead.
“I am out of emotion,” said Ashyia Hopewell, Rasul’s 15-year-old cousin.
Rasul is the second family member Hopewell has lost to the neighborhood feud. Another cousin, Nasir Livingston, 17, had been killed. Unlike Rasul, he had been a targeted member of the 27th Street crew. In December 2017, two gunmen from 31st Street ambushed the teen at a Chinese takeout. They shot him in the head through the glass door.
In Livingston’s shooting, something rare happened: The suspected shooters were eventually charged.
His killing shows that cases can be solved even without a single cooperating witness — but they require considerable time and effort.
Police and city and state prosecutors, working together on the collaborative Gun Violence Task Force, painstakingly built a case against eight suspected crew members over the course of a year, relying on ballistic evidence, cell phone records, social media, and surveillance footage.
According to charging documents, the groups shot at each other 43 times in just 13 months in 2017 and 2018 — killing three people and injuring 35. Bullets wounded bystanders, including a woman shot parking her car after work, and a 12-year-old boy shot walking with his grandmother.
That onslaught explains why officials dedicated an exceptional level of attention to this case. But with so many shootings citywide, few garner as many resources or time.
For a few months after the sweep of March 2019 arrests, the shootings in the neighborhood quieted.
But by late that summer, the violence had flared again. And this fall, it grew more brazen.
On the afternoon of Oct. 5, Daejour Smith, 21, was shot nine times outside the South Philadelphia Lowe’s where he worked. Police believe he was targeted by 31st Street members.
Authorities suspect rival gunmen quickly headed back toward 31st Street — looking for someone to shoot in revenge.
The challenge police were able to overcome in Livingston’s case — the lack of witnesses — stymies them in so many others.
That’s especially true in Kensington, where millions of dollars in heroin each year is sold on narrow streets just off Kensington Avenue. Dealers competing for corners there, in the 24th Police District, have led to gun violence nearly doubling from three years earlier, when the opioid crisis exploded.
Chief Inspector Michael Cram, commander of East Division, which covers Kensington, says detectives believe they know motives or gunmen in many of them. But most people, even those who have been shot, aren’t talking.
“These guys are involved in the game,” he said. “So they’re not going to talk. They’ll just be jeopardizing themselves further if they did. Plus, it prevents them from getting street retribution — because the streets never forget.”
Even in an era where cell phone records, social media, and surveillance video offer more clues than ever, investigators still rely heavily on people to tell them what happened — and testify in court, if necessary.
And reluctance has many dimensions.
Some people don’t seek justice in a courtroom — they want it on their own. In neighborhoods plagued by gunfire, some measure their worth in their willingness to shoot or be shot.
These are young people that Shuja Moore, 38, of West Philadelphia, knows well. The antiviolence activist served 12 years in prison after he killed a bystander and injured a bouncer during a fight at a Spring Garden nightclub.
Since being paroled in 2016, he has devoted himself to reaching kids who feel devalued, or may be battling substance abuse or trauma, trying to get them to understand the life-and-death consequences of squeezing a trigger.
Moore said the back-and-forth shootings between street crews have become increasingly accepted — even glamourized — in swaths of the city lacking resources, like quality schools and jobs.
One of Moore’s mentees, who asked to be identified only as Quincy, said he has been shot and wounded twice in the last four years. The 24-year-old lifted his shirt to show the scars from bullets but wouldn’t say who shot him or why.
He doesn’t see himself as a victim, he said. He’s a survivor. And he doesn’t judge those who won’t put down their guns in a city where shootings are surging.
“You better protect yourself out this joint,” Quincy said, “or you’re dead.”
Other people are just too scared to cooperate. Especially in a city where those who do speak up can be hunted for months across neighborhoods.
Khaleaf Sistrunk, 21, had testified as a witness at the 2019 trial of a teenager who shot his friend to death as they shopped on South Street. Sistrunk survived being shot at eight separate times. Then in November, he was gunned down in front of the Clothespin sculpture near City Hall. Police said he was killed as retaliation for testifying. His killing remains unsolved.
If fear of retaliation isn’t enough, in neighborhoods where Black and brown residents have long felt targeted by police, mistrust starts at a young age, said Pastor Carl Day, of North Philadelphia.
Day mentors young men who say they’ve been harassed, mistreated, and improperly jailed by law enforcement. As a result, few people ever voluntarily talk to the authorities — even those who are shot themselves.
“From 15 it’s in you: ‘The last people I’m going to is [police] if I don’t feel safe,’” Day said.
Other victims have simply come to believe that justice is not something that applies to them — that arresting shooters is just another false promise.
Khalida Womick, 12, was shot in the ankle this summer when a gunman opened fire at a West Philadelphia block party, where a small crowd was celebrating a girl’s fifth-grade graduation.
Khalida wasn’t able to see the face of the person who shot her, and she couldn’t identify anyone out of a photo array when she spoke to detectives a few weeks after leaving the hospital.
Her father, Willie, believes someone connected to the party must know the shooter.
But Khalida isn’t sure, and doubts her case has much chance of being solved.
“There’s just more cases of people getting shot,” Khalida said. “It makes me a little upset, but I just have to get over it.”
Hans Menos, the former executive director of the city’s Police Advisory Commission, said that many factors outside the Police Department’s control — such as a lack of willing witnesses — create legitimate challenges for detectives during investigations.
But “the onus should be on the Police Department” to find ways to address them, he said.
“Imagine for a moment this was a private industry,” said Menos, now a vice president at the Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit that advocates for police reform. “Solving murders or shootings is a principal job of the police force. Can we continue to trust police departments to fix underperforming areas?”
In 2018, the Police Department invited the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank, to analyze its homicide unit’s performance and provide recommendations for increasing its clearance rate.
The organization provided a report of 72 reforms — from requiring more training for detectives and strengthening oversight by supervisors, to investing in basic technology, such as cell phones, WiFi and laptops for detectives.
The technology upgrades remain in the works. A department spokesperson said all but one of the report’s recommendations were “completed or in the process of being completed.”
Outlaw maintains that police are committed to improving, but also said they are not the only entity involved in securing justice in shootings. And as gun violence has spiked this year, an already-simmering dispute between the Police Department and Krasner has taken on new dimensions.
Police commanders — many of whom have long accused Krasner of being too lenient — have repeatedly been pointing to gun possession cases as evidence that his office is failing to stem the violence. Police this year have nearly doubled the number of arrests for illegal gun possession compared with 2015, but have been saying publicly that they are encountering the same offenders over and over again.
Meanwhile, according to data from the DA’s Office, prosecutors have grown steadily worse at securing convictions in court.
Some officers have been waging a thinly veiled campaign of criticism of the DA on their department social media accounts. Krasner, meanwhile, said his office is studying the drop in convictions — and insists his staff and most police are continuing to work constructively together.
As the sniping plays out, people like Terry Jenkins, 51, and Karen Robinson, 55 — first cousins — are left to navigate the city’s void of justice.
Both cases remain unsolved.
Jenkins, a captain in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, said she believes the low arrest rate for shootings is helping to fuel the violence.
“They know they’re not going to get caught,” she said. “They know there’s not going to be an arrest.”
A few months after her son’s death, a young man, rumored in the neighborhood to have been the shooter, stopped Jenkins in the street and asked if they needed to have a conversation.
“It scared me,” she said. “It frightened me.”
Soon after, she moved out of the neighborhood.
For Jackee Nichols’ part, more than two years after her grandson’s killing, she feels alone in her grief. Bitter that there may never be justice for Rasul. Bitter that his killers still walk the streets. Bitter that she feels bitter.
An officer she knows from the neighborhood stops in to check on her from time to time. He has few answers.
She knows six families who lost a loved one to gunfire just since Rasul was killed.
And in October, after the shooting at Lowe’s, violence flared again.
Juawann Mason — like Rasul — had played no part in the gang conflict. The 27-year-old former Audenried basketball star, nicknamed Whomp, had done all he could to escape it.
After earning his bachelors’ degree in criminal justice in 2017 from Bloomsburg University, he stayed there to mentor kids with the Job Corps. Recently, he moved to Miami with a friend to launch a sneaker brand. Plan B was becoming a probation officer.
“He was having a prime time in his life — a joyous life,” his mother, Cindy Mason, said.
On the afternoon of Oct. 5, Juawann was back in Philadelphia to visit his grandmother and get his braces off. He had a plane ticket to return to Florida the next day.
But gunmen circled his mother’s block, near 31st Street, indiscriminately seeking retaliation for what happened at Lowe’s, police believe.
Juawann was sitting in the yard, talking on the phone to a friend.
Two men walked up and shot him in the chest.
His killing remains unsolved.
Staff writer Chris A. Williams contributed to this article.