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Coronavirus, city shutdown not slowing violent crime in Philadelphia

The city's murder count is up 26% this year. Crime is not slacking off even with the city shut down.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks to reporters outside Police Headquarters during a news conference about policing during the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks to reporters outside Police Headquarters during a news conference about policing during the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Even as the coronavirus pandemic has led officials to largely shut down Philadelphia and left its streets and subways nearly empty, violent crime has continued unabated.

From Monday — when schools were closed and most public and private sector employees began working from home — through midday Friday, the city recorded three homicides, nine shootings, three stabbings, and one police-involved shooting of a man with a gun, according to the Philadelphia Police Department.

That violence follows an even deadlier three-day period from March 13 through Sunday, during which seven people were killed, including Sgt. James O’Connor IV, 46, fatally shot in Frankford while his SWAT unit was trying to arrest a man wanted for murder. That man, Hassan Elliott, 21, now also is charged with murder and other counts in the officer’s death.

As of Friday, police said, the city’s homicide total for the year stood at 86, compared with 66 at the same point last year — a 26% increase.

City officials are “extremely concerned about the level of violence that is taking place” while residents should be staying home because of the virus, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Friday.

He noted that one shooting victim Thursday night was a man hit by a stray bullet that entered his home while he was “sitting, watching TV, social distancing, just like we’ve asked everyone to do.”

In that shooting, police said, the 60-year-old man was shot in the left shoulder at 10:43 p.m. by a bullet that entered a window in his home in the 1700 block of Watkins Street in Point Breeze. He was taken to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he was listed in critical condition.

Police said the bullet entered the man’s home when three gunmen opened fire on a man and woman inside a Honda and continued to shoot at the car as it drove off, causing it to crash. The man and woman avoided being shot but suffered minor injuries in the crash, for which they were treated at two area hospitals. No arrests were made.

Dorothy Johnson Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge, a violence prevention and education organization, said Friday that she doesn’t believe criminals are concerned about the pandemic.

“I don’t think that anybody who is out there gang-banging or shooting or robbing feels one way or another about the coronavirus. In fact, they may see this as an opportune time” to commit crime, Speight said. “I don’t have the answer, I don’t think anybody else does. But there are places that have seen a reduction in homicide that seem to be working on some level, where people are working together.”

Speight mentioned Oakland, Calif., where studies have found that homicides by firearm declined 44% from 2007 to 2017. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” she said, “but we need to do some things that we know are working in other places.”

The city’s most recent killing took place at 5:14 p.m. Thursday, when a 29-year-old man was stabbed in the neck in the 7100 block of Andrews Avenue in West Oak Lane. Police took him to Einstein Medical Center, where he died. A suspect was arrested, police said.

This week’s violent crime numbers for the city are not out of line compared with the same period in each of the last four years, an Inquirer analysis of city crime data shows.

The reason that the crime rate has not plummeted during the shutdown is that the city’s entrenched criminal population is too large to be properly policed, said Terry Starks, founder and executive director of the Urban Crisis Response Center.

“There’s only 6,300 police officers in a city of 1.6 million people. There’s no way in the world a police department of that size can handle that capacity of people. So … crime is getting overlooked,” Starks said. “So now, people think they can walk up and blow somebody away as long as they get away from the scene. There’s no love. They come like wolves.”

Staff writers Nathaniel Lash and Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.