In 2016, Chester had one of the highest per-capita murder rates of any city in the country, and an alarming number of those killings were going unsolved. Six years later, the Delaware County city has seen a marked reduction in homicides and gun violence, and a 20-year high in the number of murders solved.
That transformation was a slow and deliberate one, city leaders said at a news conference Tuesday. And it was made possible through what they described as “an unprecedented level of collaboration and cooperation” among city leaders, county prosecutors, and lawmakers in Harrisburg.
“This good news is because of partnerships, but the goal is zero [shootings],” Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland said. “We don’t wave the flag or jump up and down because the numbers are down … but we do want to tell you that progress is being made.”
The biggest boon to Chester in recent months has been the Chester Partnerships for Safe Neighborhoods, a program run by District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer that uses the so-called focused deterrence model of targeting the small number of residents committing the bulk of the gun violence in the city. Since the program’s inception in November 2020, homicides in Chester decreased by 38%, and the police department’s murder-clearance rate is a record-setting 57%.
The announcement of those numbers Tuesday came after a roundtable discussion in Chester City Hall attended by Stollsteimer, Delaware County councilmembers, and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
“When you invest in collaboration and you invest in real accountability for the people who are wreaking havoc in our communities, that has results and makes our communities safer,” Shapiro said.
He said communities across Pennsylvania can benefit from the example set by Chester. But he and his colleagues cautioned that more work needs to be done, especially to help shore up the city’s police department, which has vacancies for 50 officers.
To that end, Shapiro said he would urge Gov. Tom Wolf and the legislature to set aside $28.5 million in emergency funds to help recruit and retain officers in underserved departments, including Chester’s.
At the county level, councilmembers are working to boost the city’s antiviolence efforts, and plan to hire four more county detectives to work exclusively on shooting investigations.
The county jail, which will return to county control in April after decades of being run by a private corporation, is working to develop more social-services programs in an attempt to curb recidivism and reduce the inmate population, according to Councilmember Kevin Madden.
“It’s a false choice to say you’re either for strong law enforcement or rehabilitative services,” Madden said. “We have a real opportunity to take a community that has been left behind and to turn it into a model for this state and this country. This really is a turning point.”