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Philly planned to roll out a new anti-violence strategy in the spring. With summer underway, questions remain.

Group violence intervention is still being tweaked to function safely in the midst of a public health crisis, and to respond to a moment in which citizens are asking fundamental questions about the role of law enforcement in society, city officials say.

Police investigators are on the scene of a shooting on April 23 that left one man injured near 42nd and Westminster Streets.
Police investigators are on the scene of a shooting on April 23 that left one man injured near 42nd and Westminster Streets.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

As Philadelphia has grappled in recent months with the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread national unrest over police brutality, officials have been forced to delay and adjust a key strategy designed to confront another of the city’s most vexing challenges: gun violence.

Group violence intervention, as it is generally known, had been slated to begin in April, but now is likely to debut in mid-July at the earliest, city officials said.

The strategy — which relies in part on face-to-face interactions among police, city employees, community residents, and people deemed at risk of shooting someone or being shot — is still being tweaked to function safely in the midst of the public health crisis, and to respond to a moment in which citizens are asking fundamental questions about the role of law enforcement in society.

Vanessa Garrett Harley, the city’s deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety, said key details — such as who will be dubbed “at risk” and how, and exact methods for how they will be approached and urged to put down their guns — remain under discussion. But she is optimistic about the initiative’s prospects, and said it remains an important part of the city’s overall plan to increasingly treat gun violence as a public health issue.

The need could not be more apparent: At least 841 people have been shot in the city this year, according to police statistics — a 26% increase compared with the same time last year, and the highest pace since at least 2007. The city also has recorded 202 homicides so far in 2020, putting the tally on pace to eclipse 400 victims annually for just the second time in the last 23 years.

“This is a strategy that is very much focused on trying to stop shootings and stop the spread of shootings,” said Garrett Harley. In general, the approach calls for officials to continuously meet with the at-risk individuals, offering access to social services while promising swift justice if they are suspected of shooting someone.

The fledgling approach has been called into question as its debut has grown closer.

On June 15, the Police Advisory Commission, a citizen oversight board, released a 60-page report offering suggestions to help the strategy provide due process and civil liberties protections for those who might be considered at risk. It also highlighted how other jurisdictions deploying similar programs had erred in creating and maintaining flawed databases of suspected gang members.

“We saw this as a unique opportunity to provide guidance,” said the commission’s executive director, Hans Menos.

In addition, Caterina Roman, a Temple University criminal justice professor who has spoken to the strategy’s stakeholders during planning, sent a letter to city officials last month expressing misgivings about the approach’s “potential for harm” if the focus drifts even unintentionally into punishing targeted suspects, rather than on enhancing community-focused resources and reducing the footprint of law enforcement.

“If GVI is not implemented carefully and with adequate resources, it will perpetuate injustices and structural racism,” Roman wrote. “Discrimination may not necessarily be conscious or intentional, but it is built into the institutional practices that buoy many of the levers of this strategy and the criminal justice system as a whole.”

In many ways, the concerns feel rooted at least partially in the city’s experience with a similar violence prevention approach in 2013. Focused Deterrence coincided with a reduction in shootings in South Philadelphia as police and prosecutors staged meetings with suspected offenders — many on probation for other crimes — and urged them to stop the violence.

Access to social services was a component. But even some advocates of the program, which received limited funding and fizzled over time, now say it centered too much on punishing suspects and their associates, the vast majority of whom were young Black men.

Devren Washington, senior policy organizer at the Movement Alliance Project, an advocacy organization, said the Police Department’s history can’t be ignored as it is tapped again to help develop another iteration of a program.

“There’s no way this isn’t going to turn into an effort to massively surveil Black people and lock them up,” he said.

Garrett Harley and others insist that is not how group violence intervention will be run.

She and Theron Pride, the city’s senior director of violence prevention strategies and programs, said the new version will rely on intelligence from the Police Department to help identify possible groups suspected of being involved in ongoing violence. The intelligence police gather now is far more sophisticated than it was seven years ago, officials say.

Prominent anti-violence experts — including David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who is working with Philadelphia officials on the new strategy — have long said that evidence shows a small percentage of people drive a vast majority of gun violence, and that violence can be reduced by focusing on them.

The method of focus this time around, Garrett Harley said, will be to try to approach them through what she called a “custom notification” — some form of phone call or home visit small enough to avoid health risks in the pandemic — then offer access to services such as job training, behavioral health counseling, anger management, substance abuse treatment, or help with something as seemingly simple as getting an ID.

The strategy will have a $750,000 budget, Garrett Harley said, a portion of which will also be earmarked as an “emergency fund” for unforeseen expenses such as work uniforms, train tickets, or GED tests for those who express a specific need. Money will also be set aside for evaluating the initiative, she said.

Arrest and prosecution is an unavoidable aspect for people who pull the trigger, Garrett Harley said. But she emphasized that enforcement would be “fair and equitable.”

Residents of many poor and minority neighborhoods have long been wary of how police have responded to violence, with community members traditionally jailed at high rates for nonviolent crimes, even as many homicides and shootings remained unsolved. Pride said the new strategy aims to address that imbalance by demonstrating a commitment to focusing on violence and incentivizing those who might pick up a gun to change their behavior, rather than rushing to lock people up.

“We’re not trying to put people under a whole big net of surveillance,” Pride said. “It’s about a small number of active members in [a] group, and that’s something that we hope — because of the investigative work that’s happening — that it’ll be very nuanced and very focused.”

Even as officials work to iron out some details, they say the uncertainty of 2020 will continue to be a factor. Budget cuts due to the pandemic have decimated a host of city services that the strategy is likely to need, and Garrett Harley acknowledged that it will be harder to help people find work in the current economy. A potential $2 million transitional jobs program in Mayor Jim Kenney’s initial budget proposal was eliminated due to the cutbacks, officials said.

The Office of Violence Prevention is staring down a 25% funding reduction of its own. And Menos, of the Police Advisory Commission, said some anti-violence programs had been slashed, while services that can offer more tangential relief — such as pools and recreation centers — were also facing cutbacks.

“There’s a lot of people home with less to do than they did last summer,” he said.

Roman, the Temple professor, said decisions about how to run the strategy are left solely up to the city and its planning team. Her aim in writing to stakeholders, she said, was to urge them to think through how to remain committed to emphasizing nonenforcement aspects of the approach, given all of the external challenges.

“Is the city ready with the basics, so they can put their money where their mouth is?” she asked.

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.