On March 5, days before the city went into a state-mandated lockdown to contain the coronavirus, about 25 people gathered in a North Philadelphia meeting room to discuss the scourge that had robbed them of their loved ones and their peace of mind: the city’s high unsolved murder rate.
“Nobody’s coming to our rescue, and if we allow our loved ones’ murders to be cold-cased, I believe we’re not living up to our responsibility to them,” said Stanley Crawford, a great-grandfather who has grieved, since his son William was killed at age 35 by a still at-large gunman in Rhawnhurst in 2018.
“This is the beginning of a process to give us a voice in what we need to do to get closure for the murder of our loved ones.”
Crawford, 67, was speaking at the first meeting of the Families of Unsolved Murders Project, an initiative of the Black Male Community Council of Philadelphia, a grassroots organization that uses peace marches, neighborhood cleanups, and anti-violence events to improve the quality of life in black communities.
Crawford, a retired fire inspector in the Department of Licenses and Inspections, is the driving force behind the project. He’s married and has two surviving children, 14 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
He and other organizers said the new effort will bring together relatives and friends of murder victims to investigate cold cases, to help and push city homicide detectives to work harder at bringing more killers to justice.
Philadelphia has one of the highest murder rates in the nation, and the Police Department’s clearance rate — cases closed with arrests — lags behind the national average, which has been about 60% in recent years. In Philadelphia, the clearance rate in 2019 was 51.8%, 43.9% in 2018, 42.1% in 2017, and 45.4% in 2016, according to departmental data supplied to The Inquirer.
The numbers, however, are improving due to reforms, said Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, the department’s top spokesperson. During the first three months of this year, he noted, the clearance rate is 62.7%.
Several years ago, the department implemented changes recommended by the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent research organization. They included increasing the use of technology in investigating homicides and the regularity with which detectives meet with surviving families, and adding more homicide detectives — an increase of 19 over the last two years.
Last year, the department launched its PhillyUnsolvedMurders website, which lets relatives post memorials and gives the public a place to provide tips.
Philadelphia has had 755 unsolved murders over the last five years, while 31 slayings have been solved since the website was launched, said Officer Tanya Little, a department spokesperson.
Kinebrew said the department was not yet familiar with the Families of Unsolved Murders Project.
Members of the project intend to change that: They are considering a class-action lawsuit against the city and the department due to the low homicide arrest rate, Crawford said.
“While we’re being passive, our babies are dying,” he said. “We have to take the gloves off.”
Project cofounder Keith Quick, a retired homicide detective, cautioned the members to begin their work with a healthy skepticism of police.
“We as a people aren’t good at holding the police accountable,” Quick said at the meeting. “As plain ol’ Keith, it’s hard for me to hold anyone accountable by myself. But collectively, we can hold someone accountable because the voice gets stronger.”
Passion and proposals bounced against each other at the meeting, also attended by former State Rep. Ron Waters, who spoke of his sister-in-law, Ishan Charmidah Rahman, 39, who was fatally shot in the passenger seat of a moving van in North Philadelphia last month. Her unborn baby also died.
Other speakers included Kimberly Kamara, whose son Niam K. Johnson-Tate, 23, was gunned down in an ambush in Germantown on July 4, 2017.
“It’s a never-ending emotional roller coaster,” Kamara, 51, said during an interview. “You never get over it. Each time you hear of someone losing their child to gun violence it does something to you. I’ve cried so many times over people I don’t know. … I call it the club that nobody ever wants to be in.”
Crawford gained entry into the sorrowful club when his son William Aboaje Samir Crawford, a father of five, was killed Sept. 8, 2018.
William had driven to his sister’s house in the 1900 block of Hartel Avenue for a visit before going to the gym that Saturday morning, Crawford said. Walking to the front door, he was approached by a male who shot him several times and ran away, police said.
Crawford has huddled with detectives about his son’s case, but the case remains unsolved 18 months later.
Meanwhile, the impact of each unsolved slaying has an explosive effect on those left behind, said Crawford, who estimates that includes at least 100 relatives, friends, and neighbors for each victim.
“When you start to look at it from that particular level, there’s a lot of people walking around in the same state I’m in,” he said during an interview at his Lawncrest home.
“These are families that are desperately waiting for answers that statistics and data indicate will never come. If we don’t do something, those statistics and data will not be corrected.”
Before Gov. Tom Wolf issued the coronavirus stay-at-home order, the Families of Unsolved Murders Project met for a second time, and it intends to meet regularly when possible, Crawford said.
Clearance Rate for Homicides (YTD — 1/1 to 3/24)
2020 — 62.7%
2019 — 62.8%
2018 — 56.9%
2017 — 44.9%
Source: Philadelphia Police Department