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‘I’m sick of teddy bear memorials’: Philly officials search for reasons, solutions to the spike in shootings

The virtual proceedings provided little to explain the uptick in shootings. But the hearing did provide clarity in the scale of the problems, as well as expressions of outrage and exhaustion.

Philadelphia City Council's Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention held an emergency hearing on Aug. 11, 2020, to address a spike in shootings in the city. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw (top left) and Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton (top center) were among the officials to testify.
Philadelphia City Council's Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention held an emergency hearing on Aug. 11, 2020, to address a spike in shootings in the city. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw (top left) and Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton (top center) were among the officials to testify.Read moreScreenshot

Longstanding rivalries between competing groups. Social media beefs that end with gunshots. Accused gunmen unafraid of possible consequences. Systemic inequities made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. Hitmen hired for as little as $500.

Each was mentioned Tuesday morning at an emergency virtual hearing held by Philadelphia City Council, as officials including District Attorney Larry Krasner, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and councilmembers tried to understand and possibly inch toward new strategies to combat the city’s alarming spike in gun violence.

The virtual meeting ran for three hours and covered a sprawling set of topics and questions, but provided little in the way of definitive explanations behind the uptick, which was reinforced over the weekend with at least 25 people shot.

Organized by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, the hearing did provide clarity on the scale of the problems the city faces, as well as expressions of outrage and exhaustion about the violence that has wounded or killed 102 children this year.

“I’m sick of teddy bear memorials,” said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.

“I’m tired of hearing the same ‘thoughts and prayers’ and ‘this needs to stop’ after every shooting,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. “I’d like to see us do more than say, ‘Gun violence is a priority for us.‘”

Outlaw presented stark facts about the shooting epidemic, saying the 259 homicides this year, most of which were committed with a gun, were more than in any city in the country other than Chicago. She also said officers here have continued to recover hundreds of illegal guns per month — even while the pandemic has led to a dramatic cut in pedestrian stops.

The commissioner also said the arrest rate in nonfatal shootings was “exceptionally low,” an issue she and her command staff acknowledged could help fuel violence because it means gunmen remain on the streets. As part of her plan for combating violence, Outlaw has set a goal of solving 30% of the city’s nonfatal shootings by the end of next year.

This year’s arrest rate in homicides — traditionally higher than in nonfatal shootings — is about 50%, said Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Naish.

Krasner, too, said the low rates in identifying and arresting the people behind the violence were a major issue. He said he recently assigned prosecutors to work at least partially out of police detective bureaus in part to help boost those numbers.

The city has also sought to roll out a strategy known as group violence intervention to identify possible gunmen, urge them to put down their weapons, offer them services if they do, and promise consequences if they don’t.

Krasner also blamed longstanding issues such as residents’ mistrust of police, investments in traditional law enforcement agencies — including his office — that he said have not decreased gun violence, and generations of poverty that can lead potential triggermen to resort to violence out of hopelessness or indifference.

“Simply put, poverty equals bullets,” Krasner said, repeating a line he has used before.

Many aspects of the hearing were equally familiar, with officials pointing toward issues that have underpinned the city’s violence for many years, including arguments involving firearms, narcotics, and the free flow of illegal guns.

Still, some of the discussion was new. Krasner, for example — who has touted bail reform as one of his signature achievements during three years in office — said some bail magistrates during the pandemic have been too forgiving when setting bail for defendants whom prosecutors consider dangerous.

He also cited a disruption to probation during the coronavirus as negatively impacting the fight against violence, and suggested it could be useful for law enforcement to preemptively monitor social media for activity that might identify where violence is brewing. Both positions seemed to conflict with philosophies Krasner has previously expressed about law enforcement’s overreliance on supervision.

Outlaw several times said she was hoping to receive analysis from the District Attorney’s Office about why and how some gun-related prosecutions have been unsuccessful — whether charges were dropped for lack of evidence, problematic testimony, or other reasons. Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney earlier this year faulted Krasner as not being aggressive enough in prosecuting gun suspects, a claim the district attorney has dismissed as incorrect and political.

Johnson and Jones each said such information and data, including about court cases, would be critical in providing a path toward possible solutions.

In another data-related example, Jones expressed frustration that the West Philadelphia block where 7-year-old Zamar Jones was fatally shot this month had been the site of dozens of crimes over the last five years, something he suggested should have been recognized or acted upon before tragedy struck. “The data was slapping us in the face about Simpson Street,” Jones said.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Wednesday morning, with members of the public invited to voice their views on the issue.