City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier have leveled new criticism of how Mayor Jim Kenney has dealt with gun violence, saying he has failed to urgently tackle a crisis marked by the highest homicide rate in generations.
The controller and Gauthier, whose district is among the hardest hit by gun violence, escalated their dispute with Kenney this week by publishing a half-dozen letters between their offices dating from July to September.
In the letters, Gauthier and Rhynhart ask the administration to provide details on its response to rising rates of gun violence, specifically with regard to initiatives outside traditional policing. They said they chose to release the months-old communications this week because the administration hasn’t rolled out some of its new antiviolence programs or expanded existing ones quickly enough.
In an interview Tuesday, the pair said the Kenney administration has provided only vague responses to their overtures and has failed to direct resources to the people most affected by gun violence.
“There seems to be a lack of strategy,” Rhynhart said. “We were calling for very specific, targeted investment into the neighborhoods that are most impacted, and for a sense of urgency around that. And what we found is, I would call it, a sense of detachment and responses that are much more general in nature.”
Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Kenney’s administration, said in a statement that the Mayor’s Office hasn’t received additional questions or requests to meet from Gauthier or Rhynhart since the correspondence in the fall.
He said the administration is “acting with urgency to reduce violence through many means,” steering money to neighborhoods most prone to violence. He cited $13.5 million in grants to grassroots antiviolence organizations, the majority of which are based in North and West Philadelphia.
Rhynhart, who is seen as a likely mayoral candidate in 2023 and has frequently clashed with Kenney, said her public criticism of the mayor on the issue of gun violence isn’t political. “People are dying, and I’m an elected official, and I need to do everything I can do to make an impact,” she said.
With two weeks left in the year, the city has seen 529 homicides, far surpassing the previous annual record of 500, set in 1990. The climb has been driven by shootings, which have steadily increased since 2016 and exploded in frequency in the spring of 2020 amid the pandemic.
City Council members pushed for increased antiviolence spending in the city budget this year, and lawmakers touted a $155 million investment in their compromise with Kenney. But only $68 million of that amount was new spending for the budget approved in June, and the rest was a repackaging of existing programs. The new funding includes a $20 million community grant program, restoration of funds previously cut from the Free Library and Parks and Recreation budgets due to the pandemic, and expansion of existing violence prevention programs.
Gauthier and Rhynhart publicly called over the summer for Kenney to declare a state of emergency over the surge in gun violence and released a plan that they said would target violence prevention spending to the zip codes with the most shootings. They urged Kenney to form an emergency response team that would meet daily to implement antiviolence strategies.
Kenney declined to declare an emergency. He said his administration already had a tactical team that met regularly and includes key members of several city departments.
The correspondence Rhynhart and Gauthier released this week included follow-up questions from an August meeting they had with members of Kenney’s administration. The last correspondence — answers to those questions from Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff — was dated Sept. 13.
Gauthier and Rhynhart said the responses in that five-page letter were inadequate. In response to a question about targeting funding for out-of-school time and recreation centers to certain neighborhoods, the administration provided little more than links to the city’s website.
There hasn’t been formal communication between Rhynhart, Gauthier, and the administration since that September letter, they said. The officials said that they had one meeting with members of Kenney’s administration in August but that the mayor was not present.
Gauthier said she has instead gone to individual city departments to seek details on money spent to quell violence. She said she broadly supports the programs themselves but doesn’t believe they’re being appropriately targeted or implemented quickly enough.
The Community Crisis Intervention Program, for example, uses outreach workers to mentor young men and mediate conflicts in the city’s most violent neighborhoods. The current budget included funding to expand that program, but the expansion hasn’t happened yet. Gauthier and Rhynhart have advocated for a greater focus on intervention programs because they work directly with residents most vulnerable to violence.
Lessard said the city has already rolled out a number of initiatives aimed at reducing violence, including holding its first in-person event as part of its Group Violence Intervention program — which aims to engage people considered likely to shoot or be shot — and scheduling a late-December opening of “evening resource centers” in Southwest Philadelphia.
But Gauthier said the strategy still lacks clarity, saying, for instance, that $5.6 million in Commerce Department funding included in the antiviolence package isn’t aimed at job opportunities for people most likely to be involved in violence. The Kenney administration said that money will improve commercial corridors and help Black and brown businesses.
“They cannot be called violence prevention and intervention,” Gauthier said, “if they’re not really targeted to those who are involved, most likely to be involved, or to the discrete areas where we’re seeing gun violence happen.”