In a hearing Friday on the city’s runaway gun violence, councilmembers and police officials pushed for added street cameras and a corps of civilian monitors to help traumatized residents living in the city’s deadliest 57 blocks.

Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. said closed-circuit cameras are in high demand in his district. “I can’t put them up fast enough in certain areas,“ Jones said. “Everybody wants one up on their block.”

He and other officials said they were building on a first-of-its-kind analysis by The Inquirer as part of its “Under Fire” series that identified 57 blocks where 10 or more people have been shot since 2015. Three-quarters of the city’s blocks had no shootings since 2015.

People living around these blocks are forced to make choices about their safety every day, Jones said. “That’s the area you probably won’t utilize to go grocery shopping, or stand on a bus stop because you knew that was a hot area,” he said.

In 2020, with homicides spiking dramatically, The Inquirer published the first story in the series, which revealed low conviction rates for shootings, and later stories on the record numbers of gun possession arrests, and the emotional and physical toll on victims and communities.

» READ MORE: Philly blocks besieged by shootings have long endured poverty, blight, and systemic racism

The investigation that identified the 57 blocks centered on the residents, who live with unrelenting fear for themselves and their families. (The Inquirer shared the data behind its analysis at the end of the story.)

Police testifying at the hearing said their investigations must rely on technology more than ever. One problem was recently addressed by giving detectives in the newly formed nonfatal shooting unit as well as the homicide unit city-issued cell phones.

Police officials also said they want to add civilian workers to monitor Philadelphia’s extensive camera-safety network to spot and react faster to violence, and relay better information to officers near shootings. This approach is modeled after Baltimore’s “virtual patrols” program.

Chief Inspector Frank Vanore said tracking violent incidents as they happen is vital, as well as monitoring social media for signals that an online feud could become deadly.

In a Friday interview, Jones said these technologies, though essential, must balance privacy with public safety.

District Attorney Larry Krasner has also embraced the 57 blocks approach as a way to concentrate limited resources. “It will be an effort to heal, to address the trauma, to stop the hurt as best we can for the whole block, the whole area,” Krasner said in January, describing a community-focused approach.

While cameras assist police and prosecutors with real-time information and evidence, the shootings crisis is complex and the solutions must also be broad, city officials say.

“You can’t just say crime happens because of one thing,” Jones said, “It happens because of many factors. We can tow cars. We can clean and seal vacant buildings.”

On the 57 blocks, the poverty rate in the areas surrounding them is nearly twice the city’s average, and life expectancy is three years shorter than the state average. Most of the blocks are marred by blight — vacant housing is three times the city’s average — in part because of long-term disinvestment.

Nearly all of the 57 blocks share an injustice, one that stretches back 80 years. They are in areas with Black populations that were “redlined,” deemed undesirable on racist property appraisal maps that were overseen by the federal government and shared with lenders. Redlining made it harder for many Black and Latino residents to get access to loans and mortgages, and build wealth.

The largest concentration of the 57 blocks is found in a web of streets flowing out from Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, the notorious core of Philadelphia’s drug trade market. Since 2015, nearly 300 people were shot within a five-minute walk of that intersection, the news organization’s analysis found.

The urgency on the city to stem the bloodshed remains high. Since The Inquirer’s story on the blocks published last September, another 1,443 people became victims of city shootings, including 318 homicides.

According to police, Philadelphia set a record of 562 homicides last year. The vast majority of those killings were by gunfire. The 171 homicides already committed this year tops all years but 2021, based on data back to at least 2007.

» READ MORE: Lives Under Fire: The story of Philly's gun violence in 9 photos and 4 interactive charts

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Published 
May 13, 2022