The Philadelphia Police Department and District Attorney’s Office have launched a new initiative to more closely examine weekly arrests in gun-related crimes, a step both said is a bid to work more closely together to combat a historic surge in gun violence.
The goal of the effort, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told City Council members during a hearing Monday, is to be more proactive in identifying possible issues with recent arrests — such as what additional evidence might bolster a prosecution — and to spur more collaborative discussions.
“It gets to the issue of how [the Police Department] and [District Attorney’s Office] can do better together,” said District Attorney Larry Krasner.
The new initiative kicked off last week and was among a host of topics that Outlaw, Krasner, and other speakers addressed during the virtual hearing, which ran more than six hours. Citizens and council members also discussed what additional services could be offered to witnesses and gun violence survivors; what could be done to upgrade law enforcement’s forensic capacities; and why law enforcement has been struggling to arrest and convict suspected triggermen.
The hearing occurred as the number of shootings citywide has soared to more than 2,100 already this year, a 53% increase over last year’s total and on pace to nearly double the tally from 2015. And much of the violence has remained unsolved: The Inquirer reported last week that just 21% of the nearly 8,500 shootings since 2015 had led to an arrest, and a smaller share — around 9% — had reached a conviction.
Monday’s hearing, like previous sessions on the same topic, did not lead to an agenda for driving the violence down, and it renewed previous calls for urgency as the city’s annual homicide tally — already the highest in two decades — approaches 500. Several council members said their questions were designed to help shape how and where they could direct city funding as they begin weighing budgetary priorities for the next fiscal year.
“We should be action-oriented,” said Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who organized the hearing. “We should be focused on solutions.”
One key topic of discussion focused on why law enforcement struggles to secure justice in so many gun violence cases.
Isaac Gardner, who goes by Ikey Raw, and who counsels families whose loved ones have been shot, told council members that people impacted by gun violence often feel underserved by the city, especially when the attention given a shooting dissipates in the days and weeks after the incident.
“Victims want justice,” Gardner said. “They don’t care about being in the newspaper, on a TV show. … They want justice.”
A flashpoint in the ongoing debate between the city’s criminal justice stakeholders is a drop in convictions for illegal gun possession. Outlaw said arrests for that crime this year have nearly doubled compared to 2015. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have secured convictions in less than half of the cases that have been resolved this year, according to data from the DA’s Office.
Krasner said his office had reviewed 400 such cases to determine the reasons why convictions fell. The study and data supporting it have not yet been released; the DA told council members that 51% of cases failed because civilian witnesses didn’t show up to court, and another 23% were due to what he called “weak evidence.”
Krasner also said he has frequently implored city officials to boost spending on forensics, which he believes can have a measurable impact on arrest and conviction rates in many gun crimes. Outlaw said she supported any effort to enhance investigations, but had been focusing on ways to save money as the city weathers a pandemic-related budget crisis.
Tyrique Glasgow — who runs the Young Chances Foundation antiviolence group in South Philadelphia — said that for all the money spent responding to shootings and homicides, officials should focus as much on helping at-risk youth with services such as education, job training, or even getting a driver’s license — all of which can help prevent young men from becoming involved in gun violence.
Gardner said he frequently hears from mothers of homicide victims who said they were unable to get their sons help to avoid the pull of the streets.
“ ‘He had to commit a crime first,’ ” Gardner said mothers tell him. “ ‘He had to get in the system first.’ What is that?”