With Philadelphia on pace for a record number of killings, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Wednesday that the city will be among a handful nationwide to get training, technical assistance, and new resources for crime-solving technologies from the federal government over the next three years.
But Outlaw and District Attorney Larry Krasner told City Council members that they need more help to stem what has become a shortage of police and prosecutors, and to chip away at a case backlog caused by the pandemic. Krasner asked lawmakers for $6.5 million to bolster partnerships between police and his office’s Gun Violence Task Force that have proven successful in targeted high-crime areas.
Their testimony came during a special hearing, the latest in a series led by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson to address the gun violence crisis that in 2021 is responsible for more than 1,700 shootings and most of the 431 homicides in Philadelphia, the highest year-to-date totals in its modern history.
Councilmembers didn’t pledge any new action Wednesday but were left to weigh requests for more law enforcement funding against the city’s recovery from the pandemic-related economic downturn and the reluctance of some more liberal members to fund tough-on-crime strategies over neighborhood organizations and community-based antiviolence programs.
Some factions on Council are becoming more vocal about the need for additional law enforcement resources. In a hearing on gun violence in neighborhood business corridors, Majority Leader Cherelle Parker made the case for her colleagues to support policing in which officers engage more with communities they patrol — while also pushing reform and accountability.
“Every police officer in the city of Philadelphia is not Derek Chauvin,” Parker said at last week’s hearing, referring to the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd. “You should not allow anyone to guilt or shame you because you desire to have community policing as a tool in our toolbox.”
Council this year set aside $155 million for violence prevention spending — including $68 million in new spending — in the city’s $5.27 billion budget. After the protests over Floyd’s killing and calls by some to “defund the police,” lawmakers in the city’s last two spending plans essentially kept funding level in the Police Department’s more than $729 million budget.
But they agreed to other workarounds that boosted the department without directly increasing its budget — for instance by sending $5 million to the managing director’s office for crime-scene forensics.
The federal assistance Outlaw announced puts Philadelphia among 10 cities nationwide chosen to participate in the Department of Justice’s Public Safety Partnership program, which provides assistance to local agencies and community organizations to combat violent crime at no cost to the municipality. Other cities chosen this year include Louisville, Ky., Charleston, S.C., and Phoenix.
The National Public Safety Partnership began in 2014 as a pilot program working with a handful of jurisdictions, including Camden. Federal authorities worked with the Camden County Police Department over three years on a variety of strategies, including modernizing how investigators process ballistics evidence and training officers to analyze social networks to better tailor police deployment.
Each jurisdiction’s plan is unique. For example, the partnership in 2016 provided experts to help local officials in St. Louis develop a multiagency review board for domestic violence. In 2019, it began work with police in Houston to improve forensic evidence capabilities.
Outlaw said a former law enforcement executive who has had success reducing crime elsewhere would be appointed to serve as the city’s “strategic site liaison,” among other forms of assistance.
The announcement of the new partnership comes as law enforcement leaders in Philadelphia are grappling with some of the highest rates of gun violence in decades. The vast majority of the killings this year — already more than in all of 2019 — were committed with guns.
Meanwhile, the city’s law enforcement leaders have repeatedly — and publicly — sparred over how to reduce violence. Police brass have criticized Krasner’s record on convicting people charged with illegally possessing firearms, while the reform-minded prosecutor has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to replace “the error of the War on Drugs with a War on Guns.”
Outlaw testified Wednesday that the department remains squarely focused on getting illegal guns off the streets. She said the department has seen some promising trends in combating shootings as a result of “Operation Pinpoint,” a data-driven patrol strategy that began in 2019.
Police have identified 45 areas across the city where violence has been concentrated, known as “pinpoint zones,” and officers are consistently deployed to those locations. The department says the number of shooting victims within those zones has decreased by 13% compared with last year, while citywide, the number of shooting victims is 10% higher.
But challenges remain. Outlaw said police are understaffed and struggling to recruit. She pointed to mandates for new employees that are making the job harder, including Mayor Jim Kenney’s requirement that all new hires be vaccinated against COVID-19, and a new law authored by Council President Darrell L. Clarke requiring municipal workers to have lived in Philadelphia for one year before being hired.
“We’re still attracting people, but it’s not at the numbers where we once saw,” she said.
Krasner, who testified after Outlaw, said his office is also understaffed and has seen higher-than-usual turnover. He said prosecutors are facing a backlog of cases that either stalled during the pandemic or began during it and are just now making their way through the court system.
Following months of reports of discord between his office and other law enforcement agencies, Krasner highlighted partnerships between police and prosecutors that he said led to a decrease in crime in targeted neighborhoods.
“We just need to remember the collaborations — and we do have effective collaborations — need to be funded,” he said. “I can’t keep my promises, because City Hall won’t keep its promises to my office.”
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose West Philadelphia district has experienced a disproportionate amount of gun violence, said Council should “seriously consider” Krasner’s request for additional resources to support violence response and prevention.
”You need support in order to reach the outcomes that you’re being pushed to achieve,” she said during his testimony.