For just the second time in its history, Philadelphia’s annual homicide total threatened in 2020 to reach 500, another grim marker in a year where the city has been racked by the coronavirus pandemic, economic strife, and social unrest of racial inequity.
The number of people killed last year — 499 as of late Thursday — is 40% higher than in 2019, and more than in all of 2013 and 2014 combined. The only time more people were slain in the city was in 1990, when police reported 500 homicides as violence surged alongside an intensifying crack-cocaine epidemic.
The spike in shootings was even more pronounced. More than 2,240 people were shot since Jan. 1, 40% more than police have ever recorded. Those statistics date back only to 2007, when the Police Department began keeping track of shooting victims separately from the broader category of assaults involving a gun.
As in most years, the vast majority of victims were young, Black men — many from impoverished neighborhoods lacking resources and long afflicted by gun violence. But shots also killed and wounded children playing on the street. A pregnant woman was struck by a stray bullet — forcing the early delivery of her baby. Some gunmen fired indiscriminately into block parties. A witness was shot dead near City Hall in what police believe was a targeted hit for his testimony in a murder trial.
Still, the city’s crime picture continued to show uneven and unusual signs: As homicides and shootings soared, overall violent crime — which also includes rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults — remained near decades-long lows, while overall property crime was also lower last year.
In interviews, city officials including Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and District Attorney Larry Krasner said they believed a combination of factors unique to 2020 contributed to the spike in gun violence.
They pointed to a pandemic increasing stress and desperation for people in already-struggling neighborhoods; officers being pulled away from their regular neighborhood patrols to help monitor protests and respond to pockets of social unrest; COVID exposures forcing further staffing adjustments; and a series of trust-shattering episodes by officers — including use of tear gas and rubber bullets during protests in June — that may have further eroded law enforcement legitimacy in a city that has long struggled with the issue.
Many city services that function as checks against gun violence — or at least alternatives to the street — were also significantly disrupted last year: Criminal courts were all but shut down for months; the probation and parole systems struggled to operate regularly; schools and recreation centers closed; and many jobs disappeared as programs and businesses shuttered.
“It’s been a rough year,” Kenney said.
Police also point to the proliferation of guns on the street. They logged more than 2,300 arrests for illegal firearm possession last year, double the total from 2015.
Pennsylvania State Police, meanwhile, said the state conducted nearly one million background checks through November for legal firearms purchases, 56% more than 2019′s total. It’s not clear how many were in Philadelphia; a countywide breakdown for 2020 was unavailable.
Other forms of routine policing in the city were impacted in 2020. Total arrests fell by more than a third compared to 2019, according to data from the District Attorney’s Office, with drug arrests cut nearly in half, and arrests for violent crimes down 20%.
Some of that is likely due to policy shifts Outlaw temporarily implemented, in which officers were told not to immediately apprehend suspects in minor or drug-related offenses in a bid to avoid potentially spreading the coronavirus in the community or the city’s jails.
Outlaw and Kenney denied that officers had intentionally pulled back in response to challenging circumstances, but Outlaw did say that morale has plummeted among rank-and-file officers — not only because they had to continue difficult and sometimes dangerous work in the face of a deadly disease, but also because many have perceived widespread calls for systemic reform as criticism of their service on the force.
“Those of us who are doing the job, we’re human beings too. And I think it would be foolish to even believe that that doesn’t have an impact on how motivated you are,” Outlaw said in an interview Tuesday. “We come and we do our jobs, absolutely. But is everyone going to continue to go above and beyond, knowing that we’re under so much scrutiny right now? We don’t know at what point a mistake becomes a misstep, or something that can get punished.”
A national problem
The Council on Criminal Justice, a D.C.-based research group, found that homicides in 21 American cities were up 32% between March and October compared with 2019. And some analysts believe 2020 could record the largest-ever single-year increase in murders in the United States.
Criminologists generally believe that the pandemic — which has disproportionately impacted communities of color — has intensified existing structural factors that lead to violence, such as concentrated poverty, while also disrupting law enforcement and social services designed to respond to crime.
Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, said that the national homicide spike hit its peak in June and July — after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and protesters across the country demonstrated against police brutality.
A similar and widespread homicide spike occurred after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. One theory at the time, known as “the Ferguson effect” — widely debated and controversial — was that police across the country, in the face of protests and criticism, had grown wary or even defiant about being proactive in trying to prevent crime.
Another theory, regarding residents’ confidence in police after high-profile killings, has also since garnered attention, Abt said.
“There’s good research that suggests when there’s a highly publicized killing like the one that we saw, it exacerbates mistrust in poor communities of color, which leads some to withdraw from law enforcement, even to take the law into their own hands,” Abt said.
Sustained local violence
Like other cities, Philadelphia’s violence crisis truly took off at the beginning of June — immediately following three days of widespread unrest over Floyd’s death.
Before June, the city had not recorded more than 180 shooting victims in a month in at least 13 years.
But from June through November, at least 200 people were shot every month, police statistics show — an average of nearly eight people per day.
The violence accelerated in neighborhoods that have long grappled with gun violence, such as Kensington, West Philadelphia, Nicetown, and North Philadelphia.
Krasner said summer could have been the moment when the near-total shutdown of social services and alternatives to gun violence collided with warmer weather and other traditional drivers of violence, such as long-simmering feuds — suddenly allowed to play out on streets where witnesses, like everyone else, stayed home in the pandemic lockdown.
As cases piled up, police struggled to secure arrests. Just one in six of last year’s shootings had resulted in a suspect in custody, The Inquirer reported last month.
Outlaw and Krasner have said that their agencies have rolled out new ways to work more closely together throughout the year, and the city said it is committed to continuing antiviolence strategies that involve more than law enforcement.
Bilal Qayyum, a longtime antiviolence activist in the city, said he remembers rallying against shootings when annual homicides in Philadelphia reached 500 victims 30 years ago.
Many of the issues then were the same as they are now, he said: Young Black men, living in neighborhoods with limited opportunities or hope, resort to crime or violence because they see little other choice.
Issues such as policing and law enforcement are important, Qayyum said. Still, he believes they are secondary to providing real chances — and especially jobs — to young people.
And he hopes that can be part of the discussion as the city seeks to recover from a devastating year.
“The real problem is, ‘How do we create more opportunities in the Black community?’” Qayyum said. “When you have a group of folks who’ve been excluded from opportunities in society, they’re in their own neighborhood with no hope. And the negative behavior plays out on the people closest to them.”