A day after six people were killed in Philadelphia, pushing the city’s annual homicide tally past last year’s total with nearly three months left in 2020, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and District Attorney Larry Krasner on Tuesday each publicly decried the ongoing and intensifying surge in gun violence.
Outlaw, flanked by her deputy commissioners during a morning news conference at Police Headquarters, described this year’s staggering increase in shootings as “shameful and sickening.”
Krasner, meanwhile, gathered a host of elected officials and citizens in Nicetown in the afternoon at what felt like an antiviolence rally. Speakers discussed topics including poverty’s intersection with crime, a need to coordinate the city and community response against violence, and stalled or blocked legislative attempts to advance gun-control measures.
“Those of you who have suffered losses in your family and are dealing with the pain of loss: We hear you. We care about you,” Krasner said.
The remarks from Philadelphia’s top two law enforcement officials came as the city reached a grim milestone, surpassing the annual homicide total for every year since 2007. With at least 366 homicides and 1,615 people shot this year, the city’s gun-violence epidemic is at its highest level by far in more than a decade.
Even as the day went on, the violence continued. Police reported two new homicides Tuesday afternoon: A 33-year-old man was fatally shot in West Philadelphia at 12:20 p.m., and a 34-year-old man was fatally shot in Southwest Philadelphia at 3:25. Authorities did not identify either man and said no arrests were made.
Neither Outlaw nor Krasner offered much in the way of specifics to describe how they have adjusted to respond to the escalating gunfire or why they believe it has spiked. But they sought to reassure the public that they were dedicated to driving the violence down.
Outlaw said the Police Department, while “not above criticism,” has put in place new strategies to increase narcotics and gun arrests, leading to lower homicide rates in certain sections of the city in the last 28 days.
“It’s a short gain, but it shows that our efforts are working,” Outlaw said.
Still, her assessment did not paint a full statistical portrait. Beyond the fact that shootings and homicides have each increased by nearly 40% compared with last year, the short-term decrease in violence Outlaw touted in selective neighborhoods followed a 28-day stretch in which 48 people were killed in the city — a pace that would equate to nearly 630 murders per year.
Asked what has been driving the violence, she responded: “We don’t know, quite frankly."
She sought to emphasize that police are just one part of the criminal justice system, and pointed to factors outside her control — including the coronavirus pandemic, how suspects are prosecuted in court, and the city’s longtime gun-violence culture.
“Until mind-sets are addressed, until the culture of violence is addressed, all the things that have been going on prior to this pandemic … we’re going to end up in the same place,” Outlaw said.
Without offering specifics, Outlaw also said police were “seeing a pattern” of suspects and victims on the streets with long histories of involvement in gun violence — a thinly veiled dig at Krasner, whom she and Mayor Jim Kenney have previously accused of being too lenient on suspected gun offenders. U.S. Attorney William McSwain has leveled similar accusations against the city’s reform-oriented district attorney.
“When we make arrests, we need to ensure that the rest of the criminal justice system is aligned with our efforts and our goals,” Outlaw said.
Krasner has previously defended his office’s handling of gun cases. On Tuesday, he said prosecutors were reviewing 450 cases to determine why a growing share recently have been withdrawn by prosecutors or dismissed by a judge — statistics his office has made public on a data website.
“We’re doing this study because we need to know what’s happening," Krasner said. “If we’re doing something poorly we want to do it better. If there’s more that other stakeholders can do and we can support that, we want to do that.”
Gun violence has been spiking in cities across the country this year, even as overall violent crime in most places — including Philadelphia — has fallen in the wake of pandemic stay-at-home orders..
Some criminologists have said the pandemic’s impact on the economy deserves inquiry. Others have questioned whether a decrease in confidence in law enforcement after police killings of Black people had affected crime rates over the summer.
Kenney on Tuesday credited police officers with “patrolling our streets trying to get between combatants who are dead set against killing each other.”
He blamed the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis with limiting the city’s antiviolence and job-development efforts. “The combination of those three things is what’s caused this unbelievable rise in what we’re dealing with,” he said. "I think as we start moving out of this mess we can start getting those numbers under control.”
Outlaw said the Police Department was hiring 28 additional crime analysts and increasing its so-called pinpoint zones, crime hot spots that receive added attention from investigators and patrol officers. She also said the department has “refocused [its] efforts" to get better technology for detectives, including department-issued items as basic as cellphones, or other more advanced programs that would let investigators remotely view videos or other evidence.
At the Nicetown rally, Taj Murdock, of the mentorship group Men of Courage, said young men who might be tempted to pick up a gun needed more resources and hope from the city and community.
“Our young men need to see alternatives,” Murdock said. “They need to feel love — our young men don’t feel love. … They only know what they see — we have a spiritual culture right now where our young men are more afraid to live than they are to die.”