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Philly’s gun violence remained at record levels for the third straight year

Philadelphia had recorded 512 homicides this year through Tuesday, police said, and nearly 1,800 people were shot and survived.

Taneesha Brodie holds a photograph of her son, Quenzell Bradley-Brown, in her home in Philadelphia. Bradley-Brown was fatally shot while bringing in groceries to his home in September. Brodie said police told her it was a case of mistaken identity.
Taneesha Brodie holds a photograph of her son, Quenzell Bradley-Brown, in her home in Philadelphia. Bradley-Brown was fatally shot while bringing in groceries to his home in September. Brodie said police told her it was a case of mistaken identity.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

When Taneesha Brodie’s eldest son turned 8, she moved her family out of North Philadelphia to Upper Darby, seeking a safer community away from the city’s gun violence.

She was proud of the people her children became, especially her eldest, Quenzell Bradley-Brown. A married father of four, the 28-year-old spent four years in the National Guard reserves, then worked two jobs and often performed hip-hop, poetry, and comedy at open mic nights.

In February, Bradley-Brown and his family moved back into the city, to Overbrook Park, for more affordable housing and to be closer to his elderly grandmother.

Brodie worried at first, but considered the area to be relatively safe.

Seven months later, her son was dead.

As Bradley-Brown unloaded groceries from his car in September, someone shot him seven times in what police told his mother was a case of mistaken identity. His killing remains unsolved, one of hundreds across the city.

“This was always my worst fear,” Brodie, 44, said between tears. She struggles to sleep at night, unable to process how someone could take her “Q” — a loving, creative man who “would have done anything for anyone.”

For the third consecutive year, Philadelphia has experienced historic levels of gun violence, subjecting thousands of people like Brodie to the pain and trauma of a crisis claiming an unprecedented number of lives.

Through Tuesday, the city had recorded 512 homicides this year, slightly lower than last year’s record-breaking total, but higher than any other year in at least six decades. Most of the victims were young Black men, with the violence intensely concentrated in neighborhoods where poverty, blight, and other systemic disadvantages collide.

The number of people who were shot and survived — nearly 1,800 through Monday — also rivaled last year’s record-setting pace.

» READ MORE: Can widespread trauma therapy prevent gun violence? This community leader says yes.

And while other crime categories, particularly those not involving guns, had been declining over the last few years to decades-long lows, police statistics show several offenses had marked increases in 2022: Commercial burglaries were up by 41% compared to last year, retail thefts by 51%, and auto thefts by 30%.

More than 2,800 robberies involved guns this year, police said — about 55 per week — a 22% increase over last year, and the highest annual tally since 2015.

Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw declined interview requests to discuss the year’s gun violence and crime. But at a news conference on the topic last week, they said they were transferring 100 officers to the city’s most violent districts, and also adjusting their main patrol strategy to continue to focus on areas most affected by gun violence.

“We understand what we’re seeing is still entirely unacceptable, and … our work is far from done,” Outlaw said.

Shootings upended lives at all times of day, and struck people at their most vulnerable moments: children leaving a football scrimmage, a mother working at a recreation center, a man unloading his baby niece from her car seat. Some were lifelong residents, others visiting for just a few days.

Arguments and drug-related feuds remained the predominant motives in homicides, according to police statistics. But authorities also pointed to ongoing gang conflicts, social media posts, retaliation or revenge, and domestic violence.

And, in some cases, mistaken identity, like Bradley-Brown, who was returning with food for his family.

Philadelphia is not alone in its homicide surge. Gun violence has spiked across the country since the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago, and it recently became the leading cause of death for American children. Criminologists have pointed to a mix of unique and competing factors at play, including record-high gun sales, political and social unrest, and societal and economic upheaval in response to the pandemic.

Locally, the question of what’s caused the increase has been the subject of fierce debate. Republicans in the state House this fall impeached District Attorney Larry Krasner and accused him of fueling the city’s shootings crisis with his office’s reform-oriented policies, an accusation Krasner has strenuously denied.

Interviews in recent weeks with violence survivors, community advocates, and law enforcement officials, as well as data on the issue, show some clear trends: Guns continue to proliferate, carjackings have hit record levels, and the effects are being felt widely across impacted communities.

Guns continue to flood city streets

As shootings and homicides have hit sustained new highs, so has the proliferation of the weapons used to commit them.

For the third straight year, according to police statistics, around 90% of all homicides were committed by gun, about 15% higher than both the state and national average.

Police also recovered more than 6,000 so-called crime guns — firearms typically recovered at crime scenes, in drug busts, or from people accused of possessing them illegally. That’s nearly double the tally from just four years ago.

In the first nine months of the year, State Police said, more than 900,000 background checks were conducted on potential gun buyers, slightly down from the record-setting pace of the last two years, but outpacing every other year dating back at least three decades.

Statewide, the number of firearm sales and transfers has also skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. Through the first nine months of this year, State Police said, more than 900,000 guns had been purchased or legally changed hands — a pace similar to each of the past two years, when more than 1 million guns were bought or transferred annually.

In prior years, that tally had typically been about 750,000.

In Philadelphia, license-to-carry permit approvals have also exploded. While fewer than 10,000 permits were issued in both 2019 and 2020, police said, that number climbed to 52,000 last year, and was around 40,000 in late December this year.

Deputy Commissioner Frank Vanore said more guns on the street can create more opportunity for them to fall into the wrong hands, even unintentionally. Police frequently receive reports of gun owners leaving firearms unsecured in their houses, where children can get a hold of them, or in cars, where they can easily be stolen.

Kenney, a Democrat, has frequently criticized Republican legislators for failing to pass new gun laws, and his administration has sued for the ability to enact city-specific gun legislation. At his end-of-year news conference, the mayor also said the crisis is being fueled by increasingly powerful firearms.

“When you’ve got a clip that’s 40, 50, 60 rounds, it’s disgraceful,” Kenney said. “It should never be sold, and it’s only sold for the purpose of killing people.”

Carjackings hit record high

Carjackings, another gun-related crime, have continued to rise at a startling pace. Police said more than 1,300 carjackings were reported this year, a 53% increase over last year and nearly six times the annual total reported just three years ago.

Eleven people were shot during carjackings this year, police said, and officers made 274 carjacking arrests, sometimes for charges connected to violence, other times for theft or unauthorized use of a vehicle.

Police and community members say the rise in the crime is fueled in part by young people using the cars for joyrides around the city, or to commit additional crimes. Criminal justice experts have also pointed to the increased value of used cars, plus electronic key fobs and heightened vehicle security that require robbers to confront drivers for their keys.

The crime’s randomness had many on edge, affected every neighborhood, and for some, was nearly fatal.

One early April morning, Raheem Bell, 28, was sitting inside his Mercedes outside his Wissinoming home. He dozed off while working on his laptop, he said, then awoke to four young people in masks banging on his window telling him to get out of the car.

Bell, a life skills teacher at Frankford High School, slowly emerged. But one of the gunmen shot him twice in the stomach, leaving him to bleed as they drove off in his car.

Bell was hospitalized for three months, in and out of critical care and multiple surgeries. His car was found two days later at a North Philadelphia gas station, and his case remains unsolved.

A long scar extends across his stomach, and he used a colostomy bag for months after his release. He still struggles mentally with the trauma, especially as shootings continue across the city. Still, he’s grateful.

“I’m just so glad to be here,” he said recently, looking up to the sky.

And he’s become more energized to give back to his community, joining the many Philadelphians across the city who fight every day to support and protect their own.

Last week, Bell held an event at his neighborhood elementary school, giving away 500 toys, resources, and free food to local children.

“Everything I do has a new purpose behind it,” he said.

A new shootings unit

The Police Department earlier this year launched a new unit dedicated to investigating nonfatal shootings — a major structural shake-up designed to allow detectives to respond to shootings in the same way the department handles homicides. In the past, nonfatal shootings had been investigated by detectives who also responded to robberies, assaults, and other major crimes.

Outlaw said the change has improved the department’s clearance rate, the percentage of cases considered solved. And she said it’s allowed for better coordination with the homicide unit, a key benefit because many nonfatal shootings and homicides overlap in terms of potential suspects, motives, and locations.

Still, the clearance rates in both units — 23% for shootings, 47% for homicides — remain below goals Outlaw had previously set: 30% for shootings and 65% for homicides.

Officials recently announced a $50 million cash infusion for the city’s forensic and digital policing systems, an award authorities hope will continue to lift the clearance rates higher.

The sprawling mental toll

Just one shooting can affect dozens of people, from the neighbor who holds pressure on the wounds to the funeral director who prepares the body.

Tone Barr, the community liaison director for the West Philadelphia Masjid, has comforted too many grieving mothers to count, he said. Before 2020, he rarely held a Janazah, or Muslim funeral, for someone younger than 25. Now, he said, it’s the majority — over the summer, he estimates he buried upward of four young people per week, mostly boys and men, all fatally shot.

In the first week of October, Barr buried two boys 16 and younger within three days. He remembers most victims’ names, including Nicolas Elizalde, 14, and Sincere Zy’Ree, 16, whose obituary he keeps in the drawer of his office.

Elizalde and Zy’Ree are among 218 juveniles shot in Philadelphia, and 30 who died.

“As a funeral director, they don’t give you the training ... for the perfect words to say to a grieving mother who lost a 15-year-old or a 10-year-old,” said Barr, a West Philly native who still lives there with his wife and three children.

Barr often prepares the bodies ahead of the Janazah. He washes them three times, wraps them in three white shrouds, then places them inside a pine coffin for the service.

That takes a toll. He’s angry and heartbroken, he said, especially for his Muslim brothers and sisters burying their own.

“Everybody don’t see what I see,” he said. “Everybody may see the finished product, when the body is wrapped up or in a casket. But I see the body when he got multiple bullet holes.”