With shootings spiking to levels not seen in years, Philadelphia City Council spent more than an hour Wednesday expressing frustration about vague or imprecise answers to questions about how much the city was spending on aspects of antiviolence programming, how many people were being impacted by those programs, and what metrics were being used to determine success.
During the second day of a virtual emergency hearing to address the gun violence, councilmembers wondered if too many agencies that can play a role in violence reduction — in law enforcement, social services, and behavioral-health counseling — were operating independently of one another and without a sense of a city in crisis.
“We don’t feel the overall level of urgency when it comes to addressing this issue with everyone,” said Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson.
“If gun violence is a priority for this administration, then every department has to talk the talk,” said Councilmember Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez.
Councilmember Cindy Bass said she was “disheartened” by the minimal details the city’s Office of Violence Prevention could provide on its efforts, saying: “It sounds like we have a whole lot of programs that probably are with the best of intentions, but behind those programs, I don’t have any numbers.”
Theron Pride, the city’s senior director of violence prevention strategies and programs, acknowledged that his office needed to do more research to answer some questions. But he and Vanessa Garrett Harley, deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety, sought to reassure officials that they were invested in reducing the violence.
“Please don’t mistake the fact that we don’t have the numbers as a lack of urgency or caring,” Garrett Harley said.
The emotional session produced a series of tough questions and heated speeches from the city’s legislators. But as was the case Tuesday, it did not produce any new promises for funding or specific answers to address the causes behind the uptick in shootings this year, 30% ahead of last year’s pace.
Much of the focus was on the Violence Prevention Office, which was established in 2017 to oversee and monitor the effectiveness of initiatives. It has a $9 million annual budget, and runs programs designed to connect with and help people considered at risk. The newest strategy, known as group violence intervention, was rolled out on Aug. 1 after delays.
Curtis Jones Jr. was among the councilmembers who asked questions about the new approach, but he grew frustrated when officials could not provide specifics about how many people it would affect and what services it had offered.
Other testimony focused on how the city’s probation and parole department interacts with people under supervision, and how illegal gun cases are handled by the criminal justice system. Kevin Bethel — a former deputy police commissioner who now oversees safety for the School District — said he was troubled by how widespread gun possession has become despite hundreds of arrests each month for carrying illegal weapons, a possible sign that those with guns aren’t afraid of potential consequences.
“That’s just not acceptable,” Bethel said.
The virtual hearing ran hours past its scheduled ending as members of the public called in to voice concerns about issues, ranging from systemic racism to nuisance establishments that seem to attract trouble, and a seeming lack of cohesion among city officials about the problem of gun violence.
The Rev. Gregory Holston, a longtime faith leader who took a job in the District Attorney’s Office this year, lamented that so many of the hearing’s themes were familiar.
”I’m saying the same thing to Council I said last year,” he said.