Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on Monday said he will not declare a state of emergency over the city’s gun violence crisis, writing in a letter that such a move “is not a solution that will demonstrably change conditions in Philadelphia.”
Kenney sent the letter to City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who for months has been pushing the administration to declare an emergency and treat gun violence as a public health crisis.
Gauthier called Kenney’s decision “an abdication of responsibility” and “a reflection of just how disconnected the mayor and his administration is from the actual reality that people in our communities are living through every day.”
At the urging of Gauthier, whose West Philadelphia-based district has seen historic levels of shootings this year, the mayor in March began holding weekly news conferences on the city’s efforts to combat the gun violence epidemic, styled after its briefings on the coronavirus pandemic.
Council last year unanimously approved a resolution by Gauthier calling on Kenney to issue an emergency declaration. But the mayor’s letter on Monday made official that he will not be fulfilling Gauthier’s primary request and issuing an emergency declaration similar to the one New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, has declared for that city’s surge in gun violence.
“Local government leaders across America are doing everything we can within our powers to bring resources, coordination and attention to the epidemic of gun violence that continues to spread like a disease across our nation,” Kenney wrote in his letter, which was obtained by The Inquirer. “Together we must all keep working on solutions to invest in and heal communities hurt by gun violence and resist the temptation to issue statements that will not have the desired impact. I look forward to your continued partnership on this front.”
Gauthier objected to the idea that a disaster declaration would be just for show.
“Obviously I’m not asking just for the declaration of an emergency with no action,” she said in an interview Monday evening. ”I’m asking for us to act like it is an emergency.”
But Kenney said three of the supposed benefits for declaring an emergency — it will unlock new resources, allow for better intergovernmental coordination, and draw additional attention to the crisis — are already happening in Philadelphia. He noted that the city is investing $155 million in anti-violence measures in the new budget, he works closely with other city and state agencies, and he has spoken to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and President Joe Biden about the crisis.
Lawmakers and Kenney added $68 million in new anti-violence spending in the budget that began July 1, for a total of $155 million on programs such as violence intervention and aid to neighborhood groups.
“[It] has been said that an emergency declaration would allow for a more coordinated response to gun violence. The reality is that our Administration has been working to address violence in a coordinated fashion for several years,” Kenney wrote, adding that “a disaster or emergency declaration would have no discernible impact on strengthening what is already a highly collaborative and innovative approach to addressing this public health crisis.”
His response comes amid an exceptionally violent stretch in July. In the first 18 days of the month, 185 people have been shot, according to police statistics.
Shootings and homicides were already increasing in Philadelphia before the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020. Since then, gun violence has soared in cities across the country.
In Philadelphia, 2,200 people were shot last year, and 499 died by homicide, one short of the highest total in the city’s history. This year may set the record, with 304 homicides and 1,264 shootings already recorded.
And Gauthier’s district continues to be at the epicenter of the surge. On the Fourth of July, two people were killed and two more were shot at a cookout. On Saturday evening, a 1-year-old was shot by a stray bullet as her mother was shopping at a store at 50th Street and Haverford Avenue.
If the Kenney administration started taking the violence seriously, Gauthier said, it would immediately increase support for violence-interruption programs, seek to broker truces between feuding street groups, increase spending on trauma services that can help reduce retaliatory violence, and bolster rec center programming and staffing to provide alternatives for young people. While the city is working toward many of those goals, Gauthier said it is not going far enough.
“I’m asking for our city to have all of the agencies focused on gun violence, to have all of our agencies working together around this problem, and I’m asking for a much higher level of accountability and transparency,” she said.
Violence-prevention activists like Jamal Johnson have long called on the mayor to declare gun violence a citywide emergency, saying it would allow for better collaboration among departments and send a signal the administration is taking the problem seriously.
Johnson, who has gone on hunger strikes to get Kenney’s attention, said Monday that the decision “reflects the mayor’s insensitivity” to the issue.
”I can’t believe he thinks he’s done all he can,” Johnson said.
He pointed to how the city dealt with the opioid overdose crisis in 2018, when Kenney declared a disaster in Kensington and established a dedicated operations center.
”This is extremely sad and disappointing,” Johnson said Monday evening. “He’s telling the citizens he’s given up.”
Staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.