Philadelphia law enforcement officials believe that a surge in drug-related killings this year has contributed to the city’s annual homicide total reaching its highest level in more than a decade.
As of Dec. 16, investigators had listed drugs as the primary motive in 120 of the city’s 335 killings, according to police statistics — almost double the 62 drug-related homicides recorded through the same date last year.
Police often caution that statistics about motives can fluctuate as investigations progress. Still, 120 drug-related homicides would significantly outpace any year since 2007, according to police. Between then and 2017, the statistics show, drugs were listed as a primary motive in an average of about 42 homicides per year.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross said in an interview this week that although illegal drug markets are not new, the city has attracted national attention during the opioid crisis for the availability and potency of drugs on the street. Dealers therefore may have more reason to turn to violence as they compete over control of lucrative territory, he said.
“Clearly if you just look at motive alone, you’re going to see that drugs is the number one driver,” Ross said.
District Attorney Larry Krasner echoed that theory, telling WHYY on Tuesday that drug-related killings seemed to be “the one real outlier” in this year’s homicide total, currently 10 percent higher than at the same point last year, and the highest in any year since 2007, when 391 people were killed.
“When there’s a lot of money to be had, and people are fighting over turf, and they obviously can’t go to court because it’s an illegal market, this is what one tends to see,” Krasner said. “So it’s going to be a crucial part of the efforts that the city makes, and that we make, to try to see how we can bring these numbers down.”
The spike in homicides in Philadelphia comes as the murder rate in the nation’s 30 largest cities was expected to decline, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice. The analysis credited large declines in Chicago and San Francisco with bringing the overall rate down. Other cities — including Washington, D.C., and Houston — were expected to have increases greater than Philadelphia’s, the analysis said.
Mayor Kenney in September declared the city’s ongoing violence a public health crisis and demanded a report for solutions within 100 days. The report is expected to be released in early January.
Still, what is unusual about the uptick in killings, and a similar increase in nonfatal shootings, Ross and Krasner said, is that those escalations have come during a year in which the city’s overall violent crime tally — which counts homicides, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults — is poised to decline. If the decrease holds by year’s end, 2018 will mark the third consecutive year that overall violent crime has gone down — and the total level of violent crime is already at levels not seen since the 1970s.
Ross acknowledges that discussions of statistics can — and should — feel unimportant to those who have lost loved ones or been injured by gunfire or other crimes.
“It’s like we went over 300 [homicides] and now seemingly everyone is waking up,” Ross said. “When in reality we should stay awake on this because the bottom line is, this is alarming.”
The share of drug-related homicides in the city has risen since 2013, when drugs were listed as a primary motive in about 12 percent of the city’s 246 homicides, according to police statistics. That ratio increased to about 16 percent in 2014, the statistics say, and 21 percent in 2015.
This year, about 35 percent of all homicides were considered drug-related, according to police.
Krasner, speaking briefly on the matter after a news conference Wednesday, said such an increase “seems to me to be logical. ... We are still dealing with one of the worst opioid crises in the United States.”
Ross said the numbers painted a picture with “no mystery ... when you ask what’s driving the increase.”
Drugs were an apparent motive in last month’s execution-style quadruple homicide in West Philadelphia, with police saying that two men and two women were shot dead in the basement of a rowhouse in a drug deal gone bad. Four men have since been charged in the crime.
A triple slaying in Frankford this month was also fueled by drugs, police said. A 31-year-old man fatally shot two men during an attempted drug robbery inside a rowhouse, then died from gunshot wounds he suffered during the shootout.
Geography offers other clues, if not definitive answers.
Police statistics show an increase in homicides this year in Southwest and Northwest Philadelphia — away from the city’s most notorious drug markets in Kensington.
The Southwest Detective Division — which encompasses most of West and Southwest Philadelphia — was poised to record a 15 percent increase in homicides this year compared to 2017, the statistics say, and a 20 percent increase in nonfatal shootings.
And the Northwest Detective Division — which includes Germantown, East Oak Lane, and Olney — was likely to experience a 14 percent increase in homicides and a 19 percent uptick in nonfatal shootings, the statistics show.
Ross said the violence in Southwest Philadelphia seemed to be driven by feuds or arguments. Drugs, however — particularly marijuana — were contributing to the spike in the Northwest, he said.
“We’ve had homicides and shootings where we know they connect back to the sale of marijuana,” said Ross.
The commissioner said that beyond adding detectives to the Homicide Division, he has transferred 20 more officers into the Narcotics Strike Force. And he said the department’s crime-fighting approach has continued to evolve with the addition of an intelligence bureau and a real-time crime center, among other initiatives.
Still, he, Kenney, and Krasner all say that police should not be the only answer to violence reduction.
At the news conference with Krasner on Wednesday, the mayor said he wants his anti-violence report to be viewed as a public health document, and he has asked for solutions that relate not just to law enforcement, but also to economic development and social services.
“We must get away from the mindset that policing is the only answer,” Kenney said. “We can’t lock ourselves up out of this.”