When Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order came down on March 23, almost every facet of city life ground to a halt.
Except Philadelphia’s most unrelenting epidemic: gun violence.
Since Mayor Jim Kenney closed schools, shuttered nonessential businesses, and told residents to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, at least 135 people have been shot — an average of more than four per day — often in neighborhoods long plagued by gun violence.
A mechanic on Erie Avenue was shot in the arm after a confrontation with an angry customer, who warned him that the next bullet would kill him.
A homeless Kensington man was shot in the head on the El by a gunman who fired through the train’s closing doors, leaving the body to travel one more stop.
And a toddler in North Philadelphia was shot along with his mother and three others at a memorial for a man who had been killed just days earlier.
Amid the violence, The Inquirer obtained more than 100 department reports that provide a rare accounting of a month of city shootings, including suspected motives, initial investigative steps, and possible connections to other crimes.
The reports — and interviews with police and city officials — show that even as overall violent crime has fallen by nearly 20% during the pandemic, gun violence is thriving. While crimes like rapes, thefts, and home burglaries have all plummeted, police statistics show that shootings are up — even more than the same time last year.
The reports make clear that the entrenched issues that have long fueled violence — poverty, drugs, easy access to guns — don’t simply go away when the city shuts down. Indeed, in many reports, the only time the coronavirus intrudes is when a detective is unable to interview a victim in the hospital because of a lack of protective gear needed to get in.
The violence in Philadelphia has reignited a simmering tension between the police and District Attorney Larry Krasner. Last month, Kenney and Commissioner Danielle Outlaw faulted Krasner’s office for not aggressively prosecuting suspected gun offenders — a charge Krasner has called inaccurate and unnecessarily divisive.
In an interview with The Inquirer, Outlaw and her deputy in charge of patrol, Melvin Singleton, said they’re deploying more cops to beat posts during the pandemic, strengthening collaborative efforts with state and federal law enforcement, and forming a citywide task force to investigate robberies and shootings.
Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, said officials are “doing everything we can" to stem the violence. “We haven’t laid down despite the pandemic,” he said.
But even if the coronavirus isn’t driving the violence, it now plays out on streets with fewer witnesses and easier targets.
Gun violence, said Singleton, “isn’t going to stop because of a pandemic.”
For years, the Haines Street Hustlers and the Brickyard Mafia have terrorized a pocket of streets off Germantown Avenue in the tiny Penn-Knox neighborhood. Ping-pong shootings erupted between the two neighborhood crews, at least a dozen since February 2019.
Now, the pandemic has added another layer of fear. The lockdown keeps everyone on the blocks. But the shootings continue.
In recent weeks, Brickyard Mafia members have even begun shooting each other. In March, police say, a leader of the group shot an associate of his own crew to protect his son.
That sparked more violence — and members, even the wounded, preferred to settle scores without help from the police, as they always have.
One victim, shot in the arm April 5 on Old York Road, told police he was driving a car (not his) down a street (he couldn’t remember which) when someone he did not see shot him. A woman drove him to the hospital, he said, but he did not know who she was.
Even if police could catch the trigger man, the police report said, the victim “told the assigned [detective] he did not want the offender to be arrested.”
The violence linked to Brickyard members spread across the city, even as residents have been ordered to stay home.
At a memorial in North Philadelphia for a Brickyard victim who was killed — held outside a relative’s house three miles from the site of the murder — two men fired 21 bullets into the crowd. When police arrived, they found a mother holding her toddler. Both had been shot, the woman struck in the back and her baby boy in the buttocks. Three others were also wounded.
Across the city, other gangs are still shooting, too.
In East Falls, 28-year-old Khalil Ali Simmons was shot to death last month in what investigators believe was retaliation for a South Philadelphia gang murder.
Police say there is no evidence that Simmons was responsible for the South Philly killing. But he was easy to find. Released from prison on March 12, he was paroled with an ankle monitor to live at his father’s house.
In lockdown, the gangs target those they can.
They found Simmons outside the house. When the first volley of shots didn’t kill him, one of the gunmen stepped out of his getaway car, stood over Simmons, and fired the fatal shot.
Fear of violence endures
Singleton, the police commander, said gangs weren’t the only driver of the violence. Petty arguments, robberies, streets awash with guns — all continue during the pandemic.
The department’s new shooting task force is “making gains," said Singleton, pointing to increased arrests in gun assaults.
Still, the reports capture the disorientating tide of violence:
A fistfight on Cecil B. Moore Avenue settled with a handgun. A robbery-turned-shootout on Front Street that wounds a woman waiting for a SEPTA bus. A Frankford gas station clerk who shoots himself in the stomach while looking for a prowler by the air pumps. A Hartranft woman who shoots her niece’s abusive boyfriend. A block-long blood trail in Germantown that leads to a collapsed man in a Sunoco parking lot. A 29-year-old man with a bullet in his head on a Strawberry Mansion street corner and a handgun in his waistband that he didn’t have time to reach for. The shouts of a man shot in the early-morning hours on a deserted North Philly street corner: “I got hit. I just got shot.”
Just the fear of violence can escalate arguments in tense times. Like in the Erie Avenue garage where a 26-year-old mechanic felt threatened by a customer and picked up a stick.
The customer returned with a gun, dared the mechanic to wave the stick again, and then fired a bullet at the ground. But bullets take their own routes, and this one ricocheted into the mechanic’s arm. The next one, the gunman assured him, would be aimed at his head.
Other shootings seem almost impulsive.
Like the one near 23rd and Sedgley in North Philadelphia, just before midnight on March 28, when two men pulled guns on a man and a woman walking home with a fast-food order.
The couple handed over $100 and the man’s sneakers.
The robbers began to walk away. Then without provocation, one suddenly turned and fired a bullet into the man’s stomach.
For some, no place is fully safe.
On Rorer Street in Feltonville, an 18-year-old playing video games in the family basement on March 23 jumped at the crack of a gunshot, then turned to see his 16-year old brother on a nearby bed, bleeding from a wound to the head. He hadn’t noticed his brother fiddling with the revolver their mother kept for safety.
In a lockdown meant to save lives, young people in Philadelphia are still dying on the streets.
Derrick Saunders was 22 when he was gunned down in East Germantown on March 29 for reasons that remain unclear.
Like everyone else in the city, the residents of Locust Avenue had been told to stay inside. That their lives depended on it. But they did what people do when a dead man is lying in the street.
They gathered around his body.