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DA Krasner’s statement that the city has no crime crisis generates a debate - and a backlash

The city reacts to DA Larry Krasner's statement that the city is not in crisis despite its record homicide rate.

District Attorney Larry Krasner talks to the media as police investigate a crime scene in the 1400 of N. 76th street where four people were shot ,one fatally, in the Overbrook Park section of the city just after 3 p.m. on March 11, 2021
District Attorney Larry Krasner talks to the media as police investigate a crime scene in the 1400 of N. 76th street where four people were shot ,one fatally, in the Overbrook Park section of the city just after 3 p.m. on March 11, 2021Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Moments before Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the city faced no crime crisis, the pastor in whose church he stood expressed a far different view.

“We are in a huge crisis mode,” Bishop J. Darrell Robinson Sr. said Monday. “For the last month, I’ve done too many funerals. It’s hurting, it’s painful, to see droves of young people coming, crying, family members crying.”

In his remarks Monday, Krasner focused on a strange phenomenon that he rightly pointed out was unfolding not only in Philadelphia but in other big cities: Even as gun homicides have soared to record numbers, crimes without firearms have been flat or falling.

His comments left many shaking their heads but also added new fuel to a vexing debate among activists, residents, and academics about the nature of gunpoint violence in the era of COVID-19.

While Krasner seemed to be seeking good news in gloom, others saw his remarks as a pointless hedging — or worse.

In an op-ed article published by The Inquirer late Tuesday, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called Krasner’s statements “some of the worst, most ignorant, and most insulting comments I have ever heard spoken by an elected official.”

Nutter added: “It takes a certain audacity of ignorance and white privilege to say that right now. … I have to wonder what kind of messed-up world of white wokeness Krasner is living in to have so little regard for human lives lost, many of them Black and brown, while he advances his own national profile as a progressive district attorney.”

Darnetta Arce, executive director of the Brewerytown and Sharswood civic association in North Philadelphia, was also critical.

“People get carjacked at the gas station,” Arce said in an interview Tuesday. “We have people getting robbed as they walk down the street. We have people getting shot. So, no, it’s not safe in our community right now.”

With sunset coming early, Arce added, some folks won’t leave their homes, within the Police 22nd District, to attend the association’s evening meetings. “Bullets don’t have names on them,” she said. “In some of these shootings, people are getting killed who are not the target person.”

Philadelphia’s current 521 homicide toll marks the deadliest year in city history, with more than three weeks still remaining. In a death count overwhelmingly driven by guns, the number of people slain already eclipses last year’s 499 homicides and the previous record of 500, registered 31 years ago.

It’s not just gun killings that are up. Police figures show that both aggravated assaults and robberies with guns are running higher than last year. Gunfire woundings are also on par with last year’s pace — a rate that was the highest since authorities began tallying those victims.

At his weekly news briefing Monday, at a church in South Philadelphia, Krasner said: ”We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime, we don’t have a crisis of violence.” He noted, correctly, that Philadelphia has witnessed some relief in other indices of crime. Compared with last year and 2019, aggravated assaults and robberies that didn’t involve a gun are down. So are rapes.

The picture is clouded by 2020′s overlapping medical, social, institutional, emotional and financial woes stemming from the pandemic and upheaval following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Commercial burglaries, for example, fell sharply this year, following a spike in 2020 amid the unrest. Household burglaries increased slightly this year but are still lower than in 2019.

How safe someone feels may also depend upon where they live. While gun assaults spiked precipitously over 2019 in all but two police districts, the news is mixed for serious assaults committed without guns. Among the city’s 21 police districts, about half showed an increase in those.

For months now, the city and the nation have been debating what has caused the explosion in gun crime. In Philadelphia, some have criticized Krasner’s leadership, pointing to a decline in convictions for illegal gun possession and lackluster conviction rates for nonfatal shootings.

Krasner, for his part, points to how the pandemic has shut schools, summer camps, sports programs, job programs, church programs, and places that employ young people.

“When the pandemic came, and you had a shutdown of all sorts of things that had value in terms of preventing young people from shooting young people, which is what we’re seeing,” he said Monday. “When all that prevention was stripped away we saw this terrible spike happening everywhere.”

Other analysts say that once violence erupts, it can increase geometrically, often fueled by social media, as young men with guns resolve vendettas with bullets.

All of this has played out against a backdrop of poverty and prejudice that go back generations.

Dan Semenza, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Camden, called the rise in gun violence and decline in non-gun violence “a strange little puzzle.” Like Krasner, he attributed the increase to a boost in gun sales and shutdown of social services during the pandemic.

“You throw in the pressure cooker all the stress and strain that the pandemic has brought, especially in disadvantaged communities where people are sicker, or people have lost jobs, or people are struggling with housing or eviction,” Semenza said. “These things are concentrated most deeply in the neighborhoods where the shootings are happening.”

Caterina Roman, a professor at Temple University and crime expert, said her research finds a link between the high numbers of shootings and heavy drug activity.

“There’s something especially disorganizing and chaotic about drug markets that’s attracting and generating violence,” she said last month during a Penn Urban Studies virtual lecture series.

“Maybe new players are coming into the market — motivated individuals who weren’t involved in criminal behavior before are joining,” she said. “There’s more competition because maybe more people are turning to drugs.”

A common thread

With so many cities seeing a surge in gun violence but not in other crimes, some analysts say they have found the common thread: a national retrenchment in police activity.

“What would cause an increase in these particular gun homicides and their cousin, gun violence, as compared to everything else?” Paul Cassell, a law professor and crime specialist at the University of Utah, asked Tuesday. “The answer has to do with proactive policing, vehicle stops, pedestrian stops. Those are activities uniquely targeted to reduce gun violence.”

Cassell, the author of an influential study on the homicide spike in Philadelphia and several other cities, and others point to the deaths in police custody of men in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., followed by the killing of Floyd, and subsequent protests. They say this all has prompted a kind of police pullback.

In Philadelphia, police statistics show, stops by police have fallen dramatically for years now, with the drop-off accelerating under COVID-19.

In 2017, for example, police stopped 98,000 pedestrians. This year they are on track to stop 14,000. Officers pulled over 280,000 cars and trucks in 2017. This year, they are on a pace to stop 134,000.

As mayor, Nutter was an advocate of stop-and-frisk policing. In his second year in office, 2009, pedestrian stops hit a peak of 253,000. However, his administration later signed an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union to curb the stops.

Lawyers said that police often lacked probable cause to frisk people, that the searches were racially biased and that the pat-downs rarely turned up guns — with some detractors saying it made police seem like an occupying army.

In addition to the factors at play as part of the ACLU agreement, the department is under strength because of resignations, early retirements, and recruitment challenges. And due to the virus, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw early last year formally ordered police to delay arrests for some nonviolent crimes, including drug offenses, theft, and prostitution.

Critics, however, are skeptical about the theory that police retrenchment is such a key factor. They point out that police in New York City radically cut back on stops yet homicides continued to fall. And in Philadelphia, even as police stops have dropped, gun arrests have climbed. They are up three-quarters from the 2017 figure.

After serving five years in prison for selling drugs, George Waters, 62, helped found a youth-mentoring group, Men Who Care of Germantown Inc., in 2011 to help repair a community that he said he once damaged.

Waters, too, said he was stumped as to why shootings are out of control while some other serious crimes are not.

“I don’t think no one can answer that,” he said. “It’s just what it is.”

His cousin Jessica Covington, 32, was shot to death last month in Crescentville shortly after returning from her baby shower in a murder that received considerable media coverage.

”More people are getting their hands on guns now because that’s the power tool,” Waters said. ”Instead of using their brains and their minds and being creative, it’s easier to just get a gun and do something to someone.”

Waters also said Krasner’s remarks seemed clueless.

“He’s in denial,” Waters said. “Him saying these words to people who have been through crime, I’m sure their opinion is totally different.”

Staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.