Gun violence has persisted even as other metrics seem to stand in contrast to it — such as relatively low levels of overall violent crime, an increase in people arrested for illegal gun possession, and a 34% uptick in cases filed involving an aggravated assault with a gun.
Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter said “there’s really not any one category driving” this year’s increase in homicides, although drugs and arguments remain the most frequent factors in most killings.
She and District Attorney Larry Krasner said the epidemic has been fueled by the ease of obtaining guns — particularly on the street — concentrated poverty, and a lack of opportunity that can lead to hopelessness.
The administration of Mayor Jim Kenney unveiled a plan at the beginning of 2018 to address those issues through what it has called a public health approach to violence reduction. As part of the strategy, city officials have said they will expand a program that places crisis-intervention teams in neighborhoods most affected by shootings and have law enforcement and city workers seek to focus on people most likely to shoot or be shot.
Kenney also has promised to name a permanent police commissioner by the end of the year, although it’s not clear how that might change the department’s crime-fighting tactics.
Vanessa Garrett Harley, the deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety, said that many initiatives in the mayor’s plan were implemented too recently to evaluate but that “more measurable results” would be noticed in 2020.
Krasner said the most effective solutions will be sustained investments in schools, neighborhoods, and economic development.
“We absolutely should pursue every opportunity we have in the short run,” he said. But he added: “Frankly, I’m sick of hearing a whole bunch of nonsense that isn’t actually a fix but is just a way for politicians and sometimes journalists ... to claim they got something shiny.”
Kenney’s call for a new approach came amid a rise in homicides that dates to 2016. The number of people killed in Philadelphia this last year was more than 40% higher than in 2013, when 246 were slain.
Last year, Krasner and then-Commissioner Richard Ross said drug-related killings amid the city’s opioid crisis seemed to be fueling the increase. But Coulter said this year that arguments outpaced drugs as the top motive among homicides.
Coulter also said about 75 killings occurred indoors this year, 15 to 20 more than last year, and that those crimes are harder for law enforcement to prevent.
In October, for example, a woman allegedly shot her husband and two young daughters inside their Tacony home hours after legally purchasing a firearm. Two weeks later, a 29-year-old man struggling with mental-health issues allegedly killed his mother, stepfather, and two brothers inside their West Philadelphia home after he legally purchased a shotgun.
City lawmakers this year have repeatedly called on state legislators to pass tighter gun restrictions — or to allow the city to enact its own gun measures, which state law currently prohibits.
Coinciding with the rise in homicides this year was a rise in nonfatal shootings. As of Thursday, the city had recorded 1,435 shooting victims, according to police statistics — the highest yearly total since 2010, when 1,471 people were shot.
“That number should be zero,” Coulter said.
Philadelphia’s stubborn level of gun violence comes as other big cities, such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, have seen a drop in homicides.
Krasner has said that comparisons to New York or the Bay Area are not particularly instructive because of the economic advantages they have over Philadelphia, the poorest among the 10 biggest U.S. cities. Homicides and shootings traditionally have been concentrated in the city’s poorest zip codes, including North Philadelphia, Fairhill, Kensington, and parts of Southwest Philadelphia.
One wrinkle in the gun violence picture in Philly is that overall violent crime — a tally of homicides, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults — remains relatively low. Although this year’s total is on pace to be about 5% higher than 2018, the total number of violent crimes is still likely to be similar to most other recent years — and violent crime levels were already historically low.
Another unusual development, Coulter said, is that police made significantly more weapons arrests this year. Officers arrested 1,584 people for violating the Uniform Firearms Act through Nov. 30, according to police statistics — 235 more than in all of 2018 and the highest total in five years.
But according to data on a website published by the District Attorney’s Office, prosecutors as of Thursday had opened 34% more cases this year for crimes classified by police as an aggravated assault involving a gun — more than in any other year since at least 2014.
At the same time, the conviction rate in that category decreased. According to the office’s website, more than half of the cases police classified as an aggravated assault with a gun that reached a resolution this year were dismissed or withdrawn and 11% more resulted in a not-guilty verdict or acquittal.
About 32% resulted in a guilty plea or verdict, the DA’s Office reported, the lowest percentage of convictions in that category in five years.
The DA’s Office said its internal metrics showed different ratios — dismissals or acquittals in about 52% of cases and convictions in about 47% — due to differences in the way cases are categorized for its public dashboard. Still, by its internal measures, the conviction rate for such cases was lower in 2019 than in the previous five years.
Krasner said some of the drop stemmed from a case this year in which eight defendants facing dozens of charges fell apart when witnesses were too intimidated to show up.
He also cited two decisions by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In one, the court altered when police are legally allowed to stop people carrying guns. In the other, an unusual change regarding how to prosecute criminal cases in conjunction with traffic citations affected about 30 gun cases, Krasner said.
Still, Krasner said, prosecutors in the past focused too intensely on securing convictions, and a willingness to drop or reevaluate cases can be evidence that prosecutors are willing to do the right thing in the face of problematic evidence.
He also touted another metric showing that violent crime prosecutions were resolved about 18% faster than last year. He and others in the court system have been working on that initiative for months. Krasner said swiftness of punishment, as opposed to long sentences, has proven an effective deterrent.
“It makes a difference whether the message gets back to the neighborhood in six months or in 18 months,” he said.
Coulter said that, metrics aside, the most frustrating part of policing is that indiscriminate gunfire affects not only those injured or killed but also entire communities that have to deal with the trauma of the violence.