Cianni Harris, 14, was catching her breath after a game of tag, laughing as younger girls played Double Dutch a block from her Southwest Philadelphia home, when she heard crackling explosions she thought were firecrackers.
Then she felt a burn in her back — a stray bullet.
Cianni, or Cece to her friends along Robinson Street, managed to run home and has physically recovered from the May 7 shooting, which remains unsolved. But the rising ninth grader has scars the size of cigar tips on her lower back, and her carefree childhood has been clouded by worry and fear.
She is another victim of a public health catastrophe in Philadelphia: a sharp and startling rise in the number of children wounded or killed by gunfire.
Nearly 100 kids have been shot in the city already this year, according to police statistics — a tally soon to surpass the number shot in all of last year, and more young people than were shot in all of 2017.
It’s not just that more children are being shot; they also represent a growing share of the victims. People under age 18 have made up nearly one in 10 of the city’s shooting victims this year, more than any year since at least 2015.
And the tragedies have almost exclusively devastated minority families: All but a few of the child victims this year were Black.
Last week, public outrage swelled as violence claimed the life of 7-year-old Zamar Jones, who was playing on his West Philadelphia porch when a bullet from a shootout between men on the street struck him in the head.
On Wednesday night, hours after a community vigil for Zamar, a 6-year-old girl was shot in 900 block of North 42nd Street in West Philadelphia, struck by a stray bullet as she played on the sidewalk in front of her home. Police found 13 spent shell casings about 500 feet north of where the child was shot. She was hospitalized in stable condition, police said.
The crisis has been compounded by a startling lack of closure for victims and their families. The Inquirer asked the Police Department for possible motives in this year’s juvenile shootings, but in nearly half of the 95 cases it examined the motive was listed as “unknown.”
In a statement, Outlaw — who recently rolled out a new violence reduction plan — said part of the department’s approach would include more outreach to young people to “mitigate the potential lure of the streets.”
“Our children are our future,” she said, “and we are all charged with the duty to keep them safe from harm.”
Philadelphia’s surge comes as the city experiences its highest level of gun violence in more than a decade. Through Wednesday, the city had recorded 1,119 shooting victims, a 36% increase over the same date last year.
And with 256 homicides through Thurday, the city is on pace to record 427 murders this year — more than any year since 1995.
Those increases come even as overall violent crime — which includes rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults — has continued to decrease amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to police statistics.
Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson this week said he would hold special hearings on the escalating violence, and officials including Outlaw and District Attorney Larry Krasner have recently participated in public discussions about violence prevention. They also have urged the city to address long-standing causes they say have worsened during the pandemic, such as entrenched poverty, lack of opportunity, and easy access to guns.
The Rev. Robert Collier, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, said all stakeholders in the city — law enforcement, elected officials, faith leaders, citizens — need to be part of an urgent and coordinated effort to reduce violence.
“Individually we have not been able to reduce crime,” Collier said. “Collectively, we have to do something. We cannot allow the violence to keep escalating as it is.”
The data provided by the Police Department offer a harrowing glimpse at how indiscriminate the violence against young people can be.
Of the 95 shootings of children for which it reported possible motives, 11 were classified as unintended — a child shot while playing on the street, or at a block party, or by a family member who accidentally pulled the trigger.
Cece was an unintended victim.
After an unidentified gunman fired the stray bullet that ripped through her back on the 2500 block of South Dewey Street, Cece was taken to Penn Presbyterian Hospital, treated, and released the same night.
But the trauma has lingered, and can be measured in the distance she is willing to stray from her front porch.
She wouldn’t go outside at all in the days after the shooting. She declined to ride her bike a few blocks to Elmwood Park to play basketball as she had in the past. Gradually, she began venturing out with friends to play tag, but always within running distance of her house.
“She’s still Cianni,” said her mother, Bridget Caraway. “But little things work her nerves.”
In North Philadelphia in April, a 13-year-old girl was shot while sitting on the couch inside her house on York Street when a stray bullet flew inside.
Roxanne Furman, who lives around the corner, said she hears gunshots or fireworks in the area several times a week. She often lies on the floor to avoid shots that might come through her window.
“I come out that door, I don’t know if bullets are going to be flying,” she said. “It’s a risk, to be honest with you.”
Furman has experienced loss from gun violence firsthand. In 2007, her daughter, Tamika Howzell, was fatally shot at age 27 just a few blocks away, on the 2200 block of North Cleveland Street.
Furman is now raising Howzell’s grandson; she still wears T-shirts commemorating her daughter’s death.
“It’s why I think I’m so afraid,” Furman said, her shirt reading, “In Loving Memory of Tamika.”
The shooting of the teenage girl on York Street, like 43 other shootings of young people this year, was given an “unknown” motive by the Police Department. Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesperson, said some cases are labeled “unknown” if detectives are investigating several possible theories.
The case also was one of 77 that remained unsolved, according to an Inquirer analysis of police data. (The analysis does not account for any cases that led to charges in juvenile court; records in those instances are not readily available to the public.)
Police say street violence tends to present the biggest challenges for investigators. Victims often don’t get a good look at the person who shot them, particularly when gunmen fire at crowds from a distance. Some witnesses, or even victims, decline to cooperate with police, either out of fear of retaliation, mistrust of police, or a blend of both.
Nearly 90 cases occurred outdoors, police said, and just 14% of them resulted in an arrest, according to The Inquirer’s analysis.
Some officials and community activists say teens believe getting shot is simply part of their reality, a sort of hopelessness that comes from living in neighborhoods subject to years of neglect and disinvestment.
“Them getting shot, [teens believe] it’s not a matter of when, it’s going to be a matter of who,” said Chantay Love, of the EMIR Healing Center, an antiviolence nonprofit. “And the fact that we have our young people feeling that, believing that, living that — that’s the responsibility of adults to make that environment different.”
Unsolved shootings have resulted from seemingly trivial beefs and ongoing feuds.
In January, two teens — ages 13 and 15 — were shot on the 2300 block of North 30th Street. Police sources believe they got into some kind of verbal dispute with a group of people walking by, and at least one responded by opening fire.
In two incidents just weeks apart this summer, four Kensington teens were shot on the same street — a spat of retaliatory gun violence over drug corners, police believe.
Still, investigative work — and, sometimes, a pinch of luck — can pay off and help detectives close a case quickly.
Detectives were then able to identify two other men they say were involved in the gun battle, thanks to surveillance video and witness identifications. On Tuesday, police issued arrest warrants for both men — Damar Bashier Jones, 27, of Southwest Philadelphia, and Michael Banks, 30, of Darby.
The young victims who survive such shootings are left with physical and emotional scars that change over time.
These days, Cece said, she is almost in disbelief that she was ever shot.
But right after the shooting, her mother said, the 14-year-old felt the gravity of what happened.
“I could have died,” she said, then posed a simple question: