One in an occasional series, “Under Fire,” about Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence.
Nearly 500 people have been killed in Philadelphia in 2021, putting the city on pace to surpass the record for annual homicides in the coming days.
Driven largely by skyrocketing rates of gun violence, the number of killings this year will be the highest since at least 1960, which is as far back as the Police Department said it kept statistics on homicides.
With nearly six weeks remaining in the year, the number of lives lost will likely far exceed the 500 people who were killed in 1990 at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic — the previous record, and the only other time the city has seen 500 killings in a year.
And the relentless pace of homicides through Tuesday is 13% more than at the same point in 2020, when shootings swelled amid the global pandemic and the city ended the year with 499 homicide victims. The violence has struck overwhelmingly in underserved communities of color.
The wave of homicides over the last two years is historically unique. In Philadelphia, other violent crime — including rape and assaults committed without a gun, which were already at decades-long lows — have continued to decline since 2019, even as shootings and killings rose.
The grim milestone of 501 homicides will likely be reached in the coming days and amid the Thanksgiving holiday, just after a violent weekend during which six people were killed. The toll included a woman who was seven months pregnant and fatally shot in the head and stomach Saturday as she unpacked presents from her baby shower.
City officials, law enforcement, and criminologists say a variety of factors contributed to rising rates of gun violence across Philadelphia and large swaths of the country starting in the spring of last year. Many blame existing structural inequities like poverty and underemployment being exacerbated by the pandemic, plus the closure of schools and in-person support services for teenagers.
Others point out that court systems were scrambled by social-distancing mandates. The Police Department is hundreds of officers short of its targeted size because of resignations, early retirements, and recruitment challenges. And relations between police and community members — which have long been strained — were tested anew following the racial justice movement that drove a nationwide reckoning over the role of law enforcement.
“During the pandemic, so many things changed at the same time, and that means that it’s very hard to disentangle what the drivers are,” said Aaron Chalfin, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t know that we ever fully will.”
Mayor Jim Kenney declined an interview request to discuss the crisis. He is scheduled to speak on the topic during a news conference Wednesday and, in a written statement, he said there was “no greater priority for our administration than to reduce violence and create safer communities and a more just city for everyone.”
“I am heartbroken and outraged that we’ve lost nearly 500 Philadelphians — including many children and teenagers — to needless violence this year,” he said. “I never stop thinking about the victims and their families, and the incredible loss these senseless deaths leave behind.”
Gun violence has been on the rise throughout the country over the last two years, and other cities — including Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Oakland, and Las Vegas — have similarly been grappling with increasing homicide rates since 2020.
In Philadelphia, the number of killings so far this year is about 55% higher than at the same point in 2019. It is more than were killed in 2013 and 2014 combined. In an unrelenting pattern, the city has averaged nearly 11 homicides a week.
And police statistics show that through mid-November, 31 children under age 18 were fatally shot, more than in all of 2020 and triple the number in 2015.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, who took over in early 2020, said in a statement that her department is focused on strategically deploying officers to the areas of the city where violence is most likely to occur and building more cases against people accused of illegally carrying weapons. The conviction rate in such cases has fallen recently, frustrating her and some of her officers.
District Attorney Larry Krasner, meanwhile — the reform-minded prosecutor who was reelected to a second term this year — has said the courts face an unprecedented backlog of cases as a result of the pandemic. And he has repeatedly criticized the Police Department for failing to solve the vast majority of shootings.
This year’s homicide clearance rate — the proportion of cases considered solved by arrest — was about 42%, according to police.
The homicide surge has overwhelmingly hurt the city’s Black and brown communities, and the violence, as has long been the case, has been largely concentrated in the city’s most underserved neighborhoods — including Kensington, North Philadelphia, Kingsessing, and pockets of West Philadelphia.
The sheer amount of loss this year at the hands of a relatively small number of shooters has left countless families, neighborhoods, and communities scarred. More kids have lost friends and siblings this year than in generations; more parents have buried children than in decades.
Shooters “don’t understand what they do to the mothers,” said Roxanne Myers Contee, whose 37-year-old son, George Myers III, was fatally shot on Valentine’s Day in West Philadelphia. “They take a part of your heart away.”
Contee, whose son’s killing remains unsolved nine months later, said she wrestles constantly with questions of why and desperately wants witnesses to come forward to police with any information about her only child’s death.
But she knows even justice won’t bring him back, so like many grieving family members, she has found ways to soldier on. She takes solace in the final conversation she had with her son, who worked in security and was planning to help his teenage daughter with buying her prom dress.
He called his mother just hours before he was gunned down.
“I said, ‘I am very proud of you,’ ” Contee recalled. “And he told me he loved me.”
Access to guns
While experts, neighborhood organizers, and law enforcement officials agree a variety of societal factors have driven the rise in killings, one ingredient has stood out over the last two years: guns.
Through the mass social upheaval, guns flew off of Pennsylvania shelves in numbers State Police — who process background checks when someone tries to purchase a firearm — haven’t seen since at least the late 1990s, when they began tracking such requests. The state has conducted more than 2.5 million background checks since the start of 2020.
Philadelphia police this year are on pace to seize about 6,000 guns — nearly double what was recovered in 2017 — and they have arrested more than 2,200 people on illegal gun possession charges, a record pace.
And in addition to the unparalleled number of homicides, more than 2,000 people have been shot, 5% more than at the same date in 2020, the previous record.
Chalfin, the criminologist, said it’s unclear whether there is a direct link between an increase in legal gun sales and a rise in homicides, as it’s not yet known how many new guns were used in shootings this year.
But many in Philadelphia carry guns regularly as a means of protection. And with so many people walking around with weapons, even run-of-the-mill disagreements can turn deadly. Authorities say that of the 265 homicides this year in which a motive is known, the most common reason, accounting for 151 deaths, was an argument.
Lawrence Martin has lived in Philadelphia for decades and said he has never seen so many young people die by guns.
A former gang member, Martin was shot three times in the 1960s and 70s, and he lived in West Philadelphia through the crack-cocaine epidemic, when drug disputes and turf wars led to some of the bloodiest years in city history.
Today, teenagers in West Philly call him “Uncle Buddy,” and he tries to steer young men toward education, faith, and work.
But it can be hard to get through to them. He said the ease of access to guns today is stunning, and the young people he mentors have experienced years of hardship. Many have lived in poverty, lost loved ones to guns, or saw parents incarcerated.
“They have no foundation to grab onto, and they’ve always been in pain,” said Martin, 71. “Then all of a sudden someone introduces them to something like a gun that they think will take the pain away. Nothing feels illegal in my community. Whatever you want, you can buy it.”
‘This is a solvable problem’
Kenney has said repeatedly that the city is hamstrung in its response to the flow of guns in the city because of a concept in state law known as preemption, which generally prohibits municipalities from passing and enforcing their own gun laws.
The city last year filed a lawsuit against the state and is seeking to overturn the rule.
And so Kenney has said in the meantime, the city is responding to the crisis through law enforcement means — by seizing more guns and strategically deploying patrol officers — plus an array of services and programs outside traditional policing.
In a deal this year with City Council, the city earmarked $155 million it says will address the rise in shootings, including funding for jobs programs, after-school activities, and neighborhood revitalization projects.
Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who chairs Council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention, said he will argue in the coming months for an additional $100 million investment in the next budget cycle. He said it’s a relatively modest amount given the city’s more than $5 billion budget.
“We have to have a long-term strategy,” he said, “and that requires us to focus on investing in those areas that we know gets to the root causes of why we’re seeing this gun violence.”
In addition to government programs, the funding this year also includes $22 million in new grants to grassroots organizations working in the most affected communities. Nearly $6.5 million has been disbursed so far.
But some say the city isn’t moving quickly enough to support the groups, many of which are serving more people than ever before and are on shoestring budgets.
S. Archye Leacock, executive director of the North Philadelphia-based Institute for the Development of African American Youth, runs a two-decade-old program called Don’t Fall Down in the Hood, which serves dozens of young people who were referred by the courts. Most were arrested for illegally carrying a gun.
Leacock said he needs resources to deliver adequate treatment and case management, and stronger support from the city would allow the group to reach more young people who may be victims of or perpetrators of violence.
But earlier this month, he said, he didn’t even have enough money in his account to pay his staff.
“We’re trying to help with virtually no support from the city,” he said. “This is a solvable problem. We have some very bright young men. But they use their creativity and brightness inappropriately because their choices are limited.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.