New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo addressed rising rates of gun violence on Tuesday by doing something Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has for months resisted: He declared a state of emergency.
Calling it a “first-in-the-nation” move, Cuomo on Tuesday signed a statewide disaster emergency declaration as part of a package of short- and long-term strategies to address gun crime from Brooklyn to Buffalo. Cuomo’s administration said in a statement that in addition to new investments in prevention programs, the emergency declaration allows the state to expedite getting money and resources to gun-violence hot spots.
And with at least 62 people shot in Philadelphia in the first week of July, some advocates and elected officials are again asking Kenney to declare gun violence a citywide emergency.
“There’s no question we are in a state of emergency. This needs to be addressed with more urgency and in a more methodical way,” said Stanley Crawford, the founder of the Black Male Community Council who lost his son, William, to gun violence in 2018. “When I look at some of these people that are nonchalant about this, it hurts me to my spirit.”
Violence-prevention activists have long called on the mayor to declare gun violence a citywide emergency, a move they say would allow departments to more seamlessly address the crisis, similar to how the city dealt with the pandemic. That emergency declaration relieved some agencies from “time-consuming procedures and formalities” in order to urgently get help to residents.
Last fall, City Council passed a resolution urging Kenney to declare gun violence an emergency.
During a virtual briefing Wednesday, Kenney questioned the legality of an emergency declaration to tackle gun violence, saying there could be “civil liberties” concerns.
“We have to define what a declaration of emergency is and how it would impact law-abiding citizens,” he said. “There’s a whole range of legal questions and practical questions.”
But City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier — who wrote the Council resolution and whose West Philadelphia district is among the most hard-hit by gun violence — said a declaration doesn’t have to mean “over-policing” or harsh enforcement.
She said an emergency declaration would make gun violence a top priority for every city agency and allow officials to more quickly target resources “to the neighborhoods that need it immediately, in a manner that’s similar to COVID.”
“Other places seem to be getting that this is an emergency and treating this with urgency,” she said, “and I’m not sure why we aren’t as a city.”
Gauthier and other elected officials have touted this year’s budget deal as investing millions more in antiviolence initiatives over the next fiscal year. That includes expanding jobs programs and directing new funding to community organizations. More than $1 million will expand the Group Violence Intervention and Community Crisis Intervention programs, which aim to stop conflicts before they lead to a shooting.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has also highlighted its statewide investments in community-based antiviolence strategies, and a spokesperson Wednesday responded to questions about whether he would consider a statewide emergency by pointing to a 2019 executive order that established an Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
Crawford said resources can’t come soon enough in neighborhoods that have been most affected by gun violence, most of which are majority-nonwhite and have experienced decades of economic disinvestment. So far this year, 286 people have been killed and more than 1,100 shot, police statistics show. As has long been the case, the victims are overwhelmingly Black men.
The push to get Kenney to declare an emergency has been led by community advocates, including Jamal Johnson, who has gone on hunger strikes to spread his message. After meeting with Johnson earlier this year, Kenney agreed to host regular briefings about gun violence but didn’t declare an emergency.
Johnson said there’s precedent, pointing to 2018, when Kenney declared a disaster in Kensington amid the opioid overdose crisis. The move established a dedicated operations center and aimed to streamline communication among agencies addressing the crisis.
Kenney said the situations are different. In 2018, he said, “the people were in direct and are in direct harm’s way when it comes to heroin injection and overdose, and it was an attempt to get people in before they actually killed themselves by overdosing.”
“But this is a citywide issue,” he said, “and [an emergency declaration] would affect many neighborhoods in the city, and we’d have to figure out what that impact was before we would move forward on anything like that.”
Managing Director Tumar Alexander said officials already coordinate on gun-violence prevention and enforcement, and stakeholders meet weekly.
But Johnson said calling the crisis an emergency would show residents the city has a “unified force” tackling the issue.
“It’s a shame a governor had to do it before our mayor, even when we have had 286 homicides so far this year,” Johnson said. “He could make it a priority. He hasn’t.”