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Philly’s homicide crisis in 2021 featured more guns, more retaliatory shootings, and a decline in arrests and convictions

The reasons behind the city's record-setting homicide total this year could take years to sort out, experts say. But data can help explain some aspects of what happened.

Philadelphia police investigate a double shooting on the 1500 South Cleveland St., in Philadelphia, Friday, September 3, 2021. Gun violence spiked in 2020 and 2021, contributing to Philadelphia recording more homicides this year than ever before.
Philadelphia police investigate a double shooting on the 1500 South Cleveland St., in Philadelphia, Friday, September 3, 2021. Gun violence spiked in 2020 and 2021, contributing to Philadelphia recording more homicides this year than ever before.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

In 2014, after Philadelphia had recorded fewer than 250 homicides for the second consecutive year, then-Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey made a bold prediction.

“I don’t believe we’re as low as we can go,” he said, adding that the city might soon see fewer than 200 annual homicides.

Instead, seven years later, Philadelphia has recorded more killings than ever. The number of people slain this year — 557 as of Wednesday — has already doubled the 2014 total.

The reasons behind the surge — a spike in gun violence that began hitting historic levels last year and has also been seen in other cities — could take years to sort out, criminologists, police, and other experts say. There have been several once-in-a-lifetime events occurring simultaneously, each of which can cause the type of mass anxiety and distress behind a widespread rise in gun crime: a pandemic, economic upheaval, a nationwide reckoning over racial inequity, and social and political unrest.

The increase here has been intensely concentrated in communities of color where residents have long endured higher violence levels alongside other systemic issues, such as more poverty and lower life expectancy. The spike has also occurred, unusually, while other crimes in which no firearm is used — such as rapes and assaults — have declined, police statistics show.

Mayor Jim Kenney said this month that he believed 2022 “will be a better year,” but acknowledged: “There are a lot of tough times we’ve gone through, and I wish I had magic answers to everything. I would’ve employed them by now.”

Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said in an interview that her goals for 2022 are centered squarely on reducing gun violence. The department plans to roll out a new unit in February dedicated specifically to investigating nonfatal shootings — cases that are currently handled by detectives who also investigate robberies, aggravated assaults, and other crimes.

The idea is to assign about 30 people to the unit, she said, and have them focus squarely on increasing the share of shooting investigations that end with an arrest. The clearance rate for shootings has long hovered below 20%, creating a vast void of justice.

“Why would we not continue to put everything we have, or at least continue to prioritize our resources around illegal crime guns, when we know that is one of, if not the only, common denominator around the gun violence that we’re seeing?” she said.

Comprehensive answers to the gun-violence crisis may be elusive, but data can help explain some aspects of what occurred in Philadelphia’s most violent year. Among them: an increase in guns, an increase in retaliatory killings, and a decline in total arrests and convictions.

More gun killings

The vast majority of Philadelphia homicides have long been committed with firearms. But the proportion of slayings by gun in 2021 remained at an alarming level, with gunshots the cause of death in 89% of all killings.

That’s 15% higher than the national norm; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about three-quarters of all 2019 homicides involved a gun. And it’s nearly equal to last year’s share of homicides by firearm in Philadelphia — 89.6%, the highest percentage in a quarter century.

Chief Inspector Frank Vanore said guns seem “more available than ever before.” He noted that police this year have arrested a record number of people for illegally carrying firearms, recovered a record number of guns connected to crimes, and seized a record number of homemade firearms, often called ghost guns. The number of guns reported stolen also hit a record high.

Other metrics bolster the point: Legal handgun sales in the city doubled from 2019 to 2020. About 1.25 million background checks for firearms purchases were conducted in Pennsylvania over nine months in 2020 and 2021 — a record pace. And gun sales across the country have soared since last year, with experts attributing the spike to social and political unrest and the unease caused by the pandemic.

“More people are utilizing firearms,” Vanore said. “It’s a major problem for us.”

More retaliatory killings

Another spike in 2021 came from the number of killings that police considered retaliatory.

As of Monday, investigators believed that 111 of this year’s homicides were motivated by revenge against someone for a past assault or insult, or an attack against a rival group over a perceived beef.

An additional 166 killings were fueled by arguments, police said, and 110 were over drugs. Both are traditional drivers of the city’s gun violence.

Still, the number of retaliatory slayings this year represented a 145% jump compared with last year, police statistics show.

Vanore attributed the spike to a number of factors, including ongoing feuds exacerbated by posts on social media. He said the department is increasingly using “intelligence-led policing” to determine if shootings are linked to established conflicts between rival neighborhood groups.

One significant caveat: Police so far have secured arrests in fewer than half of this year’s killings, so some preliminary motive designations might not hold up.

Still, Vanore said retribution was clearly playing a major role in the violence: “We [often] have one incident, then we have two more in retaliation for that.”

More women killed

As the number of victims has surged, so has the number of women slain.

Through Monday, police said, 70 women were killed in homicides in 2021, an 84% increase over last year and by far the highest annual total since at least 2007.

At the same time, the number of homicides classified as domestic violence has more than doubled — from 18 such killings in 2020 to 42 in 2021, police figures show.

Last month, two women were killed in one weekend in unrelated murders: Sykea Patton, 24, was fatally shot by her ex-boyfriend on a Friday afternoon as she walked with her 5-year-old twin sons, police said. The next day, Jessica Covington, 32 — who was seven months pregnant — was killed, along with her unborn child, while unloading gifts from her baby shower. No one has been charged in that case.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, advocates have warned of the potential for more domestic violence, with more people at home and COVID-19 upending some aspects of how courts handle domestic violence or custody issues.

Fewer arrests, fewer convictions

As gun violence has spiked, two law enforcement trends in Philadelphia have overlapped: Police have arrested fewer people, and prosecutors have secured fewer convictions in court.

In 2021, according to data published by the District Attorney’s Office, police arrested nearly 24,000 people for offenses ranging from murder to criminal mischief.

That’s the lowest total in at least six years, and about 40% lower than the average number of annual arrests police made from 2015 to 2019.

One major reason appears to be a significant decline in drug arrests. Police this year made just over 5,000 arrests for crimes including drug sales and drug possession, according to data from the DA’s Office. From 2015 to 2019, the average annual total was nearly 12,000.

Outlaw said some of those declines stem from police making far fewer pedestrian and vehicle stops compared with years past, a trend that likely reflects both an ongoing court agreement with the ACLU and police adjusting tactics during the pandemic to protect public health. The department has also been focusing more on people who sell drugs or commit violence instead of arresting drug users.

“We’re trying to be precise, we’re being strategic,” she said.

She also said the department, with about 6,000 officers, was down to its lowest staffing levels in years and simply can’t replicate the work of a force that was at least 10% larger several years ago.

As for the courtroom, the DA’s data say about 71% of the 10,000 violent crime cases resolved in the last two years were withdrawn by prosecutors or dismissed by a judge. In the five years before the pandemic, that rate was 52%.

Pinpointing why is complicated. Cases can be thrown out for any number of reasons: weak evidence, witnesses failing to appear in court, judges ruling in favor of a defendant. District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has also seen significant attorney turnover during his tenure, which critics say has contributed to the falling conviction rate. Krasner, however, has defended his staff and office’s performance.

Beyond those issues, the pandemic has significantly disrupted the way cases have moved through the system, and tens of thousands now remain pending due to an unprecedented backlog.

The DA’s Office said that in working through that backlog, it’s been easier for prosecutors to more quickly resolve the cases with weaker evidence, while stronger prosecutions have sat stalled, awaiting a trial or plea. The result, the office contends, is an unusually high proportion of withdrawals and dismissals this year, largely due to uncontrollable circumstances.

The office declined to make Krasner available for an interview. In an email, his spokesperson, Jane Roh, said it was “misleading, unfair, and lazy” to compare case outcomes before and after March 2020 because of the challenges the pandemic has caused in the courts.

Part of a national trend

Philadelphia was hardly alone in experiencing a violence crisis this year.

Of the 10 most populous cities in the country, eight have recorded a higher number of homicides in 2021 than they did in all of 2019, according to police in those cities.

More than a dozen cities also broke their annual murder records.

In Austin, Texas — where there’s been explosive population growth in recent years — police said there were 88 homicides in 2021, breaking the record of 59 set in 1984.

Columbus, Ohio, recently recorded its 200th homicide, also an all-time record. The previous record of 175 was set just last year.

In New York City, 479 people had been killed as of this week, about 4% more than last year and 50% more than 2019, according to the NYPD. (That figure is still well below 1990, when there were more than 2,200 homicides.)

And in Chicago — the only U.S. city to outpace Philadelphia this year — there have been nearly 800 homicides year-to-date, up slightly from the same point last year, and 60% more than the approximately 500 in 2019, according to police statistics.

Criminologists say it will be a long and difficult challenge to untangle the many new factors fueling the rise in violence over the last two years. Ajima Olaghere, an assistant professor of criminology at Temple University, said those new issues have simply exacerbated long-standing systemic problems including poverty, a lack of community resources, and a distrust of law enforcement in many communities of color.

“These are long-term, persistent issues that started and continued over months and years,” she said, “and what we end up seeing with violent incidents are the consequences of conflicts that are embedded in something deep that we never measured.”

‘The pain is everywhere’

Three days before Thanksgiving, dozens of people gathered on a basketball court in Philadelphia’s Lawncrest section, clutching balloons and huddling around a poster with photos of Covington, the pregnant mother-to-be killed two days earlier.

One photo was an ultrasound image of the daughter she intended to name Cyre.

As family wept and friends embraced, Colwin Williams spoke, saying: “We can’t tolerate this.” An outreach worker for Philadelphia CeaseFire’s Cure Violence, Williams has been to dozens of vigils this year for people lost to gun violence.

“The pain is everywhere,” he said later.

Williams spent 18 years incarcerated for armed robberies and has worked in violence prevention since his release a decade ago.

Outside of policing, he thinks any true solution to the violence crisis must include investing in programs that address trauma in vulnerable communities caused by generations of poverty, drug addiction, and exposure to shootings.

“Before surgery can be successful, you got to identify where the wound really is,” he said. “And we haven’t even stopped the bleeding.”