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Philly’s gun violence has hit startling levels: ‘This is a real pandemic in itself’

The city recorded 275 shooting victims in August, by far the most in a single month since at least 2007, and the fourth consecutive month that the victim tally has increased to alarming heights.

Philadelphia police at S. Cleveland St. and Moore St. in Philadelphia where blood remains on the ground after four people were shot just after 8 pm on Wednesday. Two teenagers died from multiple gunshot wounds.
Philadelphia police at S. Cleveland St. and Moore St. in Philadelphia where blood remains on the ground after four people were shot just after 8 pm on Wednesday. Two teenagers died from multiple gunshot wounds.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s gun-violence crisis continued to surge in August to levels unmatched in recent city history, with the Police Department reporting that 275 people were shot — by far the highest total for a single month since at least 2007.

It was the fourth consecutive month that the victim tally has increased to heights not seen in years, according to police statistics, leaving even veteran commanders unsettled by the seemingly unending gunfire.

Two 17-year-olds were killed in a South Philadelphia drive-by that wounded two other teens. Five people were shot at a North Philadelphia block party memorializing a slain basketball star. Six people were struck in East Germantown when gunmen fired more than 30 bullets at a crowd on the street; a wayward shot flew into an apartment and struck a man sleeping in his bed. And on weekends it has become routine for dozens of people to end up killed or wounded, including women and children.

Before this spring, the city had experienced only two months over the last 13 years in which more than 180 people were shot: September 2010, when 183 people were struck by gunfire, and September 2011, when the victim tally was 188

But this May, 184 people were shot in the city, police statistics show, and the bloodshed has only intensified: 201 people were shot in June, 215 in July, and 275 in August.

North Philadelphia Pastor Carl Day of Culture Changing Christians mentors teens and young men in the city. He said some have told him recently that they don’t want to visit local basketball courts or their usual hangout spots for fear of potential shootings, while some adults have begun determining where and when they relax outside based on the likelihood of being free from gunfire — or “out of the way,” as Day said people call it.

“This is a real pandemic in itself,” he said. “It’s becoming very contagious. And I think when you put people in environments where they almost become desensitized to the violence, it’s viewed as a norm, but it’s also viewed as a survival tactic. This is what you have right now.”

The gun violence has helped fuel the city’s skyrocketing homicide tally, making it all but certain that Philadelphia this year will record at least 400 murders for the first time since 2006 — even as overall violent crime, which also includes rapes, aggravated assaults, and robberies, has continued to decline amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The trend comes as other big cities, including New York and Chicago, have also experienced upticks in violence during a summer of national unrest and anxiety, with the pandemic causing health and economic devastation, and several police shootings and killings of Black people sparking a widespread reckoning over racial inequality.

President Donald Trump, a Republican up for reelection and trailing in the polls, has sought to pin blame for the violence on Democratic local leaders, as well as protesters — whom he has called “anarchists” — demonstrating against police brutality and systemic racism.

In Philadelphia, possible explanations have varied. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and District Attorney Larry Krasner have each routinely pointed to long-standing and systemic issues that they say have worsened during this challenging year: deep poverty, widespread lack of opportunity, easy access to guns.

City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier recently sent a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney asking him to declare a state of emergency and direct “more city resources toward antiviolence programs at the neighborhood level.” She said “decades of disinvestment and neglect” in many Black neighborhoods had perpetuated conditions that lead people to resort to violence.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain, meanwhile, has echoed concerns from some rank-and-file members of the Police Department that Krasner has been too lenient on criminal defendants and that the city has too quickly reduced its jail population — accusations that Krasner has called politically motivated and unsupported by evidence.

During a virtual City Council hearing Thursday to address how accused gun offenders are handled by the criminal justice system, Outlaw and Krasner discussed issues including an uptick in illegal gun seizures, and an increasing share of accused gun criminals with previous arrests.

And although they said their offices have been increasingly working in harmony to confront challenges, they also each made sure to highlight statistics that, at least in some manner, represented shortfalls in each other’s agencies.

Outlaw, for example, devoted a slide to showing that the District Attorney’s Office has had less success in recent years convicting people for carrying illegal guns. She said she could not tell councilmembers why that was the case without more information from Krasner’s office.

Krasner, meanwhile, presented several graphics to Council highlighting the Police Department’s flagging arrest rate in nonfatal shootings. Outlaw said the rate this year stands at just 16%, the lowest share in more than a decade. Krasner later added that the rate was just 9% for August.

Even before those facts were revealed, City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson said Philadelphia’s summer of violence had left him believing that “we are losing, as a city, on the issue.”

“I honestly feel like the bad guys are winning,” Johnson said.

August’s toll

By any measure, August’s gun-violence toll was catastrophic.

Not a single day passed without at least two people getting shot, according to an Inquirer analysis of police statistics.

Bursts of violence occurred with increasing regularity: At least 10 people were struck by gunfire in 15 of the month’s 31 days.

Officers were left scrambling on back-to-back weekends to respond to scores of street corners, public parks, and neighborhood rowhouses: More than 30 people were shot on Aug. 8 and 9, and then again Aug. 15 and 16.

And the victims continued to include children. Zamar Jones, 7, was struck in the head by a stray bullet on Aug. 1 while playing on his West Philadelphia porch. He later died. As the month progressed, a 6-year-old girl was shot while playing on the street, two 11-year-old boys were shot in different incidents on the same weekend, and a 12-year-old boy suffered a gunshot wound to the stomach.

Gunfire was so widespread, police said, that officers were under fire in at least three incidents: An officer’s patrol car was struck twice by gunfire in Northeast Philadelphia, a plainclothes officer was fired upon in Nicetown, and a man speaking to two cops on the street in Strawberry Mansion was shot five times during a drive-by. He later died.

At Thursday’s Council hearing — the second called this summer to address gun violence — Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. noted that 195 people had been shot in the three weeks between those two meetings.

“There is an urgency not just of now,” Jones said, “but an urgency of right now.”

More women are getting shot

The vast majority of shooting victims in the city have long been young Black men. But over the last several years, women have increasingly been killed or wounded by gunfire — and the trend continued in August.

Of the 275 people shot during the month, 37 were women, police statistics say.

Between 2015 and the end of 2019, the city had never before experienced a month in which more than 18 women were shot.

Beyond raw numbers, the share of female victims has been on the rise as well.

So far this year, 134 women have been shot, according to city statistics, making up 10% of the year’s victims. That’s the highest share of any year dating back to 2015, the statistics say, and the fifth consecutive year that the proportion of female victims has risen.

Reasons for the uptick were not immediately clear. The Police Department could not say if a higher proportion of this year’s shootings were considered domestic violence. And according to internal statistics, just 12 of this year’s homicides had a motive listed as domestic violence, a slight decrease compared with the same date last year.

Tending to the crisis of violence

Terry Starks, a North Philadelphia antiviolence activist, said he believed street shootings — the largest share of the violence — were being fueled by social media beefs, music and videos shared online that glamorize violence, and a city that seems fractured in its efforts to confront a long-standing issue plaguing communities that are largely poor and Black.

“Philadelphia has not tended to the crisis of violence,” he said. “It’s always the last thing on the menu.”

This summer the city rolled out a long-awaited strategy known as Group Violence Intervention, the latest in a series of initiatives under a call from Kenney to use evidence-based programming to treat shootings as a public health problem.

But Starks said on the street, it’s evident that agencies, officials, and even community groups have not been operating with a sense of unity. He said members of one antiviolence initiative had recently been bad-mouthing another at a crime scene, though he declined to identify the groups.

Without working together, Starks said, young men who believe violence is simply a way of life will have little reason to believe otherwise.

“They don’t see hope,” he said, “and we need to show them that we are the hope.”