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Philly’s gun-violence spending is surging, but many funded programs lack clear goals to show progress

Some key city-run anti-violence programs, years in, lack required measures and goals to determine whether they are working.

Hassan Butler (left), describing his injuries as a result of being shot 18 times. Ronald Putman and Mitchell Robinson, of Philadelphia Ceasefire, listen.
Hassan Butler (left), describing his injuries as a result of being shot 18 times. Ronald Putman and Mitchell Robinson, of Philadelphia Ceasefire, listen.Read moreMensah M. Dean

One in an occasional series about Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence.

Haason Butler entered the swelling ranks of Philadelphia’s gunshot victims in shocking fashion in May last year. While he smoked a cigarette on a South Philly corner, a stranger gave him a hard look, which led to words being exchanged and finally the man pulling a gun and opening fire.

While Butler, 20, describes himself as a “fighter” who often carried a gun for self protection, he said he was unarmed that day and didn’t provoke the gunman, who shot him 18 times. Police found him in the 800 block of Wharton Street with bullet holes in his neck, back, and elsewhere.

While recovering at Jefferson University Hospital, Butler said he seethed and thought of seeking revenge if he ever learned the identity of the shooter. The man remains at large, police said.

Butler’s mindset only began to change after a hospital mental health professional asked if he wanted to take part in a program called Philadelphia Ceasefire. He would be paired with a trained professional known as a violence interrupter — in his case, a man named Mitchell Robinson — who could help him from getting into further trouble.

“That sounds like something I’d like to do,” he recalled telling the Jefferson staffer. “And here comes Mitch, walking in the room. We became close after our first conversation. I could feel everything he was saying to me.”

Butler, the father of a young son, said his relationship with Robinson kept him from being a repeat victim of gun violence or a perpetrator of it.

“The conversations that we’ve had keep me out of any type of stuff that’s going to get me arrested,” said Butler, outside his Frankford apartment building during one of his routine conversations with Robinson. ”The things he tells me have helped me to be levelheaded.”

Philadelphia Ceasefire, which receives no direct city funding, is among a growing number of gun-violence prevention programs trying to stem the bloodshed in a city on pace to set a record number of homicides for a second straight year.

City government’s anti-violence spending, like the gun crimes themselves, is also surging, $208.5 million, up from $155 million the year before. Funding for the Police Department is up 8% to nearly $800 million.

City officials, public health professionals, law enforcers, policymakers, community leaders all say they want to curb Philadelphia’s gun violence with programs and tactics that work.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia gun violence has been concentrated in several dozen blocks, leaving behind a terrible level of fear and trauma among residents

Which raises the question: Is the city allocating taxpayer dollars in the most efficient way to slow the casualty count and help suffering communities? Despite the complexities and deep-rooted challenges of gun violence in one of the nation’s poorest big cities, are there evidence-informed solutions that have been shown to make a difference?

Interviews with dozens of experts, community members, and city officials, and a review of anti-violence programs elsewhere, show that some city efforts have shown promise, but other key city programs, years later, still lack the required measures and goals to determine whether they are working. One ambitious violence-interruption program the city announced in 2020, Philadelphia READI, has yet to launch.

‘Focus on shooters’

One program that the city could consider is Philadelphia Ceasefire, housed at Temple University’s School of Medicine. It replicates the Cure Violence public health model, developed in Chicago and used in many cities in the U.S. and abroad, with different degrees of success.

That model trains outreach workers and violence interrupters in conflict mediation. When they hear of an argument, a brewing fight, or a threatened retaliation, they reach out to the clashing parties, and try to de-escalate. A second stage includes home visits, weekly meetings, job training and education support, redirecting those at risk toward positive pursuits.

A 2017 Temple University study of the program found that over a two-year period, Philadelphia Ceasefire reduced shootings by 30% in its targeted zones in North Philadelphia, mostly in the 22nd Police District. Despite its seeming success, the program did not get its $1.5 million partnership grant with the city and the U.S. Justice Department renewed after President Barack Obama left office. The city has shown no interest in funding the program, said Marla Davis Bellamy, its project director.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency did put money behind a leaner version of the outreach program, with seven staffers like Robinson canvassing the city, she said.

“We’ve got to focus on shooters to really bring the numbers down,” said Davis Bellamy. “I tell everybody, you give me 50 people, we can stop violence in Philadelphia.”

Robinson’s caseload currently includes 20 males between the ages of 12 to 24, he said, all of whom are Black except one who is Latino. Among his duties is helping Butler get a job he can do with his physical limitations inflicted by getting shot 18 times.

“A lot of times we look at these kids like they’re seasoned vets, and they’re not,” said Robinson, 47, who survived being shot when he was 15. “They’re young Black men sitting out here trying to find their way. I tell them you need to understand the origins of your pain.”

» READ MORE: For some Black men and teens in Philly, relying on guns has become commonplace

For instance, men such as Eric Long, 22, who was arrested last year for having a gun without a permit and agreed to work with Robinson. Long described him as a friend who has helped him make better decisions in the year they’ve known each other, especially to control his hair-trigger temper.

“Without him I’d probably have a gun right now. I probably would have given up on my daughter,” said Long, who grew frustrated with lengthy custody hearings with her mother. “But he talked some sense into me.”

City shortcomings

The $208.5 million in spending that began July 1 includes efforts that range from sending trained workers to violent blocks to stop street beefs to steering the unemployed into jobs to a program aimed at ridding communities of blight and even launching of a new city gun-violence hotline — 211 — for those seeking help with myriad of safety and social service needs.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, in an August report, detailed her office’s view that the city’s anti-violence efforts had two significant shortcomings:

Only about 17% of that spending this fiscal year will be going to “intervention” programs, those that could have an immediate or short-term impact on stopping violence, such as deploying violence interrupters.

“We fund intervention work at $6,000 per shooting while New York and L.A. fund it at $24,000 per shooting,” Rhynhart said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

» READ MORE: Philly has a $208M antiviolence budget. Just a fraction addresses shootings in the short term, the controller says.

David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, said intensive intervention programs, with evidence of success, should be emphasized immediately, given the crisis. Many cities embrace strategies that don’t work at reducing gun violence such as after school tutoring, gun buybacks, midnight basketball leagues, giving grants to community groups and police departments that make more arrests a priority, he said.

“All of these buckshot and scattershot efforts are ineffective. And while this is common around the country, it is particularly true in Philadelphia,” Muhammad said.

The problem with giving grant money to community groups, he said, is that the people being serviced by the groups often are not the same people doing the shooting.

» READ MORE: A rising tide of stolen guns helps fuel Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic

The city has started some programs that fall into the “intervention” category, including the Group Violence Intervention program, which started in 2020, and several others. How successful they are is hard to determine, according to Rhynhart and others. Despite what her office described as repeated efforts, the city has not provided metrics or goals for many of the programs and organizations that get funded. She said this makes it hard to tell if a program’s methods are successful and worth the money.

“My office has not received a response for an update on any of these programs,” Rhynhart said. “ … To me, something is not working.” (A persistent critic of the Kenney administration’s anti-violence efforts, Rhynhart is expected to be a candidate for mayor in 2023.)

Academics who study anti-violence programs want the information, as well. “Our leadership in the city needs to be accountable for where the dollars go. If we give out money we should know what we are getting for that money,” said Caterina Romano, a criminal justice professor at Temple University.

Jamal Johnson, a retired U.S. Marine who protests gun violence across the city, said he believes the millions the city is doling out to anti-violence groups at the grassroots level is failing.

“It’s the new hustle,” said Johnson, 65, who annually walks to Washington to highlight the city’s crisis. “Everybody can get a grant, everybody gets paid, and nobody does anything on the street. The only way you’re going to find out what’s working is with the data, and whenever you ask Erica Atwood for the data on who they’re funding, she says, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ She’s been saying that forever.”

Atwood, senior director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice & Public Safety since the fall of 2020, confirmed that the evaluation of key crime-fighting programs is still ongoing. Those evaluations, first promised by the Kenney administration in 2017, include Group Violence Intervention, the Community Crisis Intervention Program, and two programs that give money to individuals and grassroots groups — Targeted Community Investment Grants and Community Expansion Grants.

“We’re at a stage in this where we have to continue investing in things we know are working and we have to try new things that we believe will work,” she said.

Mayor Jim Kenney and officials from his administration said they are putting city dollars where the problem is, while cautioning that money alone will not curb the flow of illegal guns into the city or the violence committed with them.

READI isn’t ready

One city intervention program, announced in 2020 to fanfare, is a version of READI, a Chicago-based program that has won praise from anti-violence experts for dramatically reducing shootings among program participants.

READI (Rapid Employment and Development Initiative) identifies those at greatest risk of shooting a gun, and relies on outreach workers, mediators and community services to change behaviors.

But the city has failed to launch the program here due to a series of delays. City officials now say it will start in early 2023.

“It’s an existing program that has been hugely successful in Illinois that needs to be replicated and modified for here. But why a year and a half later are we just getting to the request for proposals in the middle of this crisis?” said Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFire PA, a gun violence prevention advocacy group. “That is a real concern, and there are other efforts like that that have been very slow and scattershot.”

» READ MORE: In West Philly, best friends were shot over an Instagram feud they had nothing to do with

“Good intervention work should receive results within one year,” Rhynhart said, citing the research of Thomas Abt, author of Bleeding Out, who found that a well-run intervention program could reduce homicides 10% in its first year. “That’s what we should be seeing, not this chaos.”

In Philadelphia, the READI program will aim to serve 100 people considered to be the most difficult to reach and the most likely to become shooters or victims, according to Atwood. (The city’s recent budget said 200.) They will receive workforce training and behavioral health and housing services from four social service organizations that the city is in the process of hiring. Philadelphia, she said, will be the first city to replicate the READI program.

Gearing programs to target those most likely to be shooters is a promising and proven approach, said Muhammad, of the National institute of Criminal Justice Reform.

“So, what we know to work is identifying the people who are at the very highest risk of gun violence. Once those individuals have been identified, intensive intervention efforts must be focused on them.”

‘Maybe it’s not enough’

Philadelphia, with 1.6 million residents, had more homicides last year — 562 — than much larger New York City and Los Angeles. With a population of 8.8 million, New York saw just under 500 homicides, and just under 400 people were slain in Los Angeles, population 3.9 million.

“How high would [the murder rate] be if we didn’t spend the money?” asked Kenney, when questioned asked about the seeming disconnect between what is being spent to fight gun violence and the mounting death toll.

“We have no choice but to make the effort. People are suffering and we have the resources. Maybe it’s not enough resources, we don’t know,” Kenney said at an Aug. 10 meeting at City Hall with federal officials about coordinating their anti-gun violence efforts.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia promised $68 million in new antiviolence spending. Here’s how it’s going.

Atwood said Philadelphia’s efforts are being undermined by the unchecked flow of illegal guns into neighborhoods.

“We have to address the accessibility of guns,” she said, exasperatedly. ”I cannot program my way out of people getting duffel bags of guns. We’re on track to collect 6,000 crime guns. That’s guns that have been used to commit crimes. Those are the only guns we get!”

Atwood said the city’s antigun violence initiatives need to be given a chance to take root and yield results.

“What else can we do?” she asked. “We have to make these investments. We’re on the right track. No, it is not easy, no we don’t have an opportunity for a victory lap, but we’ve got to stay at this, we’ve got to stay focused.

» READ MORE: Nine local gun shops supplied 15,000 ‘crime guns’ in Philly, new report shows

“When we make shifts, when we pivot too fast, we will never see any results come back. We’ve got to stay the course, folks.”

One program she touted was the city’s Group Violence Intervention, which began in August 2020. The program is part of a law-enforcement strategy that uses police, probation officers, and courts to identify core members of groups involved in violent crime. Teams of police officers and case managers then reach out to these people and essentially offer them a carrot or a stick: social services such as educational and job training opportunities to leave the streets — and warnings of scrutiny and possible arrests if they don’t.

In 2020, 173 people took advantage of social services, 446 in 2021, and 112 through August, according to city numbers.

As for how successful the program was in changing behavior by applying the stick, city officials said in August they did not know the number of people who after being contacted by the Group Violence Intervention Program later ended up getting arrested.

This year, the GVI program is scheduled to expand to all police divisions across the city, city officials said.

The city is also relying on its Community Crisis Intervention Program, which began in 2018, and is similar to the Cure Violence model used by Philadelphia Ceasefire with the primary difference being that police are involved. The city contracts with the nonprofit Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network (PAAN) to train and dispatch credible community messengers to connect with and mediate the conflicts among at-risk people and then link them with social services.

Of the 17,047 people contacted by CCIP workers last fiscal year, only 1,978 received social service referrals and 552 had their disputes de-escalated with mediation, according to data provided to The Inquirer by the city.

‘We’re different’

In the meantime, despite slow progress on city anti-violence programs, some community members are willing to put in the work to help neighborhoods suffering from gun violence. They would welcome the funding, structure and any goal setting from City Hall, but are not waiting and taking action on their own.

Standing as light rain falls in a Germantown parking lot on a Friday afternoon, Nasir Shawqi speaks of how he’d like to work full time counseling younger men and boys to avoid making the type of mistakes that put him behind bars for five years.

But Shawqi, 44, doesn’t have the funding to do that, so he drives a truck for a living and works without pay running 17 With Life, the nonprofit he cofounded five years ago. Shawqi’s program derives its name from the fact that four of his lifelong friends were sentenced to life in prison without parole for murders at age 17.

After serving between 20 to 24 years of their sentences, each was freed as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. They now work with Shawqi trying to keep the peace on streets they once traumatized.

Shawqi believes his experiences and those of his friends make them the ideal messengers to connect with troubled young men in Germantown before they kill or are killed. He’s asked the city for funding to grow but has had trouble with dealing with the red tape, he said. So they fund themselves.

» READ MORE: Activists are rushing to raise money as gun violence surges. They can’t wait for City Hall anymore. | Helen Ubiñas

“We got to do what we do with what we got,” said Shawqi, who was convicted of gun possession and drug dealing and paroled in 2006. “They say they’re putting all this money into the murders and gun violence, but we don’t see it.”

As the city spends millions on anti-gun violence programs, Shawqi said he senses that those people funded to reach the shooters — to connect with the 1% whom studies and police say are most responsible for gun violence — are too old and out of touch with the streets to do so.

“We’re different, he said. “We committed the murders. We did it. We lived it. We know how it feels to take a man’s life.”

That Friday, he and 17th With Life members and supporters began their weekly “boots on the ground” walk through Germantown. First, near a rec center, he spotted three teenage boys across the street and called them over. “It brings joy to my heart to see y’all smiling and not carrying guns,” he told the teens, two aged 15, the other 18.

» READ MORE: A slow-motion systemic collapse, where justice for gun-violence victims is the exception

“Y’all ever hold a gun before?” he asked.

They nodded yes.

“I held my first gun when I was 13,” he said. “If we can prevent y’all from going that route, that’s all that matters to me.” He hugged each of them.

“They need us more than they need police officers and firemen,” Shawqi said, as the boys departed. “That’s why we have to do this full time.”

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