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As Philly pledges renewed community anti-violence efforts, some advocates are asking: What took so long?

Some activists say several aspects of Mayor Jim Kenney’s plan to invest in community-based anti-violence strategies resemble initiatives that were in place as recently as 2015 but fell out of favor.

Police investigate the 1900 block of South 56th Street where a 16-year-old boy was shot multiple times.
Police investigate the 1900 block of South 56th Street where a 16-year-old boy was shot multiple times.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Better coordination among Philadelphia police, prosecutors and violence-prevention workers. Identifying potential gunmen and putting them in touch with neighborhood leaders or peers who can try to dissuade them from violence. Seeking to engage with gunshot patients in hospitals.

Those are among the recommendations city officials outlined last month as part of a new budget with funding for community-focused strategies aimed at combatting an unprecedented surge in gun violence. But some advocates say several aspects of the plan resemble initiatives that were in place as recently as 2015 but either had their funding cut, fell out of favor, or became victim to a political landscape with drastic leadership changes — including a new mayor, district attorney, and several new police commissioners.

In the years since, the city’s homicide rate climbed steadily before exploding in 2020 and 2021, and the average number of people shot per day now is nearly double what it was just six years ago. Since January 2020, nearly 800 people have been killed in homicides, and more than 3,200 have been shot, according to police statistics.

The violence has increasingly affected women and children, and, as has long been the case, it has overwhelmingly claimed the lives of young Black men.

No one factor or strategy can explain fluctuations in shootings, and gun violence has plagued Philadelphia for generations. Over the last year, other cities across the country have also experienced an alarming rise in homicides, with criminologists citing factors including an uptick in gun sales, and the economic and social devastation wrought by the pandemic.

Still, some of the people involved in past anti-violence efforts here are questioning why it seemed to take a startling amount of bloodshed for the city to pledge renewed focus and resources toward strategies outside of traditional policing that call for empowering community groups, addressing young people who might be at-risk, and seeking to engage potential gunmen or victims by offering access to social services.

“The reality is they don’t know what the hell to do,” said Reuben Jones, an activist who was involved in the previous anti-violence strategy known as Focused Deterrence, a predecessor to an approach now called Group Violence Intervention (GVI). Jones believes that the city has repeatedly failed to adequately invest in Black and brown neighborhoods, and that rivalries or even antipathy between politicians and law enforcement officials have hampered efforts to implement new approaches.

» READ MORE: Biden’s antiviolence plan calls for Philly to work with other cities fighting rising gun crimes

Movita Johnson-Harrell, a gun violence activist who also worked on Focused Deterrence, began advocating for GVI as a state representative before she resigned in 2019 and was convicted for stealing from her nonprofit. She said she was “happy that they’re going to do [GVI],” but disappointed the city didn’t launch it before last summer.

“So many mothers have had to bury their children as a result of the inability of this city to do something that was already working here,” she said.

Increased funding

City spokesperson Dave Kinchen acknowledged that some previous community-based anti-violence programs, including Focused Deterrence, “were discontinued for a period of time” early in Mayor Jim Kenney’s tenure, citing personnel turnover in the Mayor’s Office and other agencies as a leading factor.

But he said Kenney established the Office of Violence Prevention in 2017 “to identify, expand, and sustain proven strategies” that would succeed long-term. And he said GVI was among the tactics officials had been developing before violence began to peak last year.

The administration has also touted what it’s called $155 million in anti-violence spending in the next fiscal year’s budget, with money spanning a wide array of initiatives including jobs programs, parks and recreation centers, and pairing health-care providers with police officers to respond to some 911 calls.

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who chairs Council’s special committee on gun violence and who helped lead a push to increase anti-violence spending in the budget, said activists he speaks with have expressed excitement about the new direction.

“We can always talk about what didn’t happen in the past; let’s talk about what we’re going to do now,” Johnson said. “I want to be optimistic that this is a new day, and a new normal, making sure that we [address] gun violence.”

Much of the money the city is now calling anti-violence funding was already in Kenney’s initial budget proposal, and either went toward restoring pandemic-related cuts or was reclassified as anti-violence-related during ongoing negotiations with Council, which was seeking more cash to address the crisis.

» READ MORE: Philly is pouring millions into violence prevention as shootings soar. What does that money buy?

Of the $68 million in new money dedicated to combating violence, some will go toward jobs programs or libraries, while two line items stand out as the type of focused, community-based violence programming many advocates support: $20 million in grants for grassroots or neighborhood groups, and $1.3 million for an expansion of GVI and a similar strategy, known as the Community Crisis Intervention Program (CCIP).

The grants remain something of a work in progress. Johnson said he will be part of an oversight committee tasked with developing a process to determine which groups will get money, for what, and how they will be evaluated. It was not clear when the grants might be distributed.

As for GVI and CCIP, both programs are already underway, and the city said new money will help them expand.

Different names, similar tactics

The strategies have relatively similar aims: to engage young men most likely to shoot or be shot. But CCIP emphasizes violence interruption by street outreach workers and credible messengers in violence-prone neighborhoods.

GVI, meanwhile, has a more pronounced law enforcement component. Police and prosecutors help identify people considered at-risk, and officials offer them access to services such as job training, behavioral health counseling, or help with tasks such as getting an ID. They also promise swift and fair consequences for pulling the trigger.

The same theory was used in launching Focused Deterrence in South Philadelphia in 2013. But Jones, the advocate who worked on it, said it was severely underfunded for years, particularly when it came to social services. And over time, he said, it became a strategy in which police were mostly targeting, surveilling, and jailing young Black men, rather than helping them.

Caterina Roman, a Temple professor who studied Focused Deterrence, said the last “call in” — a key element of that initiative, in which young men were gathered and addressed as a group — happened in mid-2015.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia has a gun violence epidemic. What if it were treated like any other contagious disease? (from December 2019)

Over the next two years, the city had a new mayor and new police leadership, and was in the midst of a series of changes in the District Attorney’s Office. Jones said he believed the new regimes generally viewed Focused Deterrence with indifference, approaching it with an attitude of: “We’re going to throw it into neutral and coast here.”

Roman said: “Given the timeline of leadership changes that was spread out over 18 months to 24 months, that makes it very difficult to maintain or revamp a collaborative city-led violence-reduction strategy.”

At the same time, tensions began escalating between some police officers and the office of reform-oriented DA Larry Krasner. Kenney and Krasner have also been at odds at times — a challenging climate in which to run a strategy based on intense collaboration and trust.

Still, officials launched GVI last summer, and city leaders say they’re now optimistic about its future along with the growth of CCIP.

Last month, President Joe Biden’s administration said the city would be part of a new federal initiative to enhance and expand such strategies across the country. Other similar initiatives not run by the city are also likely to be a part of the mix.

Kathleen Reeves, a Temple University physician, helps oversee a program known as Cure Violence Philadelphia, and said she was recently approached by the city’s Office of Violence Prevention about ways they could work with CCIP.

Reeves said she’s optimistic about the potential collaboration.

“It would be great to have a Philadelphia summit that brings the evidence-based programs together and figures out how to use our resources evenly, to divide up the city,” she said. “Because the community gets confused if we’re all in the same spaces, and we need to work hard not to do that.”

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.