While acknowledging the city is in the throes of a gun-violence crisis on pace to claim a record number of lives this year, Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday firmly rejected calls from some prominent community activists to ask the state to send in the Pennsylvania National Guard.
Kenney spoke the day after a 15-year-old girl was struck by stray bullets in the face and head while playing basketball at a Tioga playground, leaving her in critical condition.
“The National Guard is not traditionally an urban police department,” Kenney said during his biweekly gun-violence news conference. “We used the National Guard in the civil unrest period to secure areas that needed to be secured from looting and burning, and it freed up the police to do other things. But to send the National Guard and a troop carrier into a neighborhood in Philadelphia, to me, is not respectful to that neighborhood, number one.
“Number two, they are not capable or trained to do urban policing, or do policing of any kind,” he continued. “They are to be a presence and secure facilities in times of civil unrest or in times of disasters. So we don’t think that would be an effective tool to bring in uniformed, camouflaged, rifle-carrying people in helmets to address this problem.”
When asked about bringing in the Guard, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said it was not among his key crime-fighting measures.
“Our priority in City Council now is getting $22 million in city funds to community-focused groups dedicated to fighting and reducing gun violence in their neighborhoods,” Clarke said. “This boots-on-the-ground approach is critically important.
“We need every stakeholder in law enforcement — police, the district attorney, the courts, state and federal agencies — working together to prevent violence, get illegal guns off our streets, and safeguard our city. That is our focus.”
Activist Stanley Crawford, cofounder of the Families of Unsolved Murder Victims Project and the Black Male Community Council of Philadelphia, on Tuesday added his voice to those advocating for intervention by the Guard, noting that 339 people have been killed in the city this year, up more than 20% over the number of people slain this time last year.
During Kenney’s meeting, city police officials said just 42% of those slayings have resulted in arrests.
“It’s the irrational emotionality that’s keeping them from seeing how the National Guard could be used in a constructive and effective way,” Crawford, who lost a son to gun violence in 2018, said Wednesday.
Crawford said the Guard should only be deployed to areas where gun violence is most prevalent. Also advocating for the Guard is Jamal Johnson, who this year staged a 26-day hunger strike to protest skyrocketing city violence and who is on a march to Washington to lobby and meet with lawmakers to talk about gun violence.
“I think the Guard should be in here because we are not aggressive and urgent enough on this issue,” he said. “Even if it’s a symbol, that shows we are doing something different.”
Suzanne Long, 84, of Mount Airy, said she was so impressed with how the National Guard operated at the Convention Center while helping administer the COVID-19 vaccination earlier this year that she called her City Council member and left a message suggesting that the Guard be used to combat city crime.
“I didn’t get a response,” said Long, a retired medical lab technologist. “It’s been spelled out so blatantly that they need help. Those poor police.”
Calls to enlist help from the National Guard come at a time when other cities are considering such a move amid rising gun violence.
For Bilal Qayyum, president and executive director of the Father’s Day Rally Committee, which for more than 30 years has championed positive Black male role models, sending the Guard to Philadelphia would fail because it’s a quick-fix remedy for a problem with deep roots.
“I’m not in favor of occupying the community with troops,” he said Wednesday. “The Black community has to take ownership of this issue for us to solve it. We can’t look to the police, the mayor, or other entities to solve our problems.
“The solution is providing the necessary resources to people on the ground who interact with young men on the corners who are most likely the ones who will end up involved in shootings,” he added.
Those young men, he said, need job training and proper guidance to steer them from trouble, not guardsmen.
The issue of turning to the National Guard is being debated in other parts of the country that are also experiencing an uptick in street violence.
In Mississippi’s capital city, the Jackson City Council is considering a resolution to bring in the National Guard to help quell what Councilman Kenneth Stokes called an epidemic of crime.
“Regardless to whether the person is poor, Black, white, Hispanic, whatever it might be, or rich, it needs to be our first priority to make the street safe,” said Stokes, who sponsored the resolution calling on Gov. Tate Reeves to deploy the Guard.
In Baltimore, Maryland’s biggest city, Gov. Larry Hogan is pushing back on calls to use the Maryland National Guard even while acknowledging many people are ready for such intervention.
In June, the city’s Fox45 television station polled 200 residents and found that 85% wanted the Guard deployed, while 15% did not.
“Well that doesn’t surprise me,” Hogan, a Republican, told the station. “The people are that frustrated … People just don’t understand the National Guard is not really built for policing a city.”