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Philly’s top cop wonders if gunmen are emboldened by perception of ‘no consequences’

Commissioner Richard Ross questioned whether gunmen are increasingly carrying illegal firearms because they believe they can avoid being held accountable — even if they are arrested.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross holds a news conference at the Police Administration Building on Monday, June 17, 2019, to update information on gun violence in the city during the Father's Day weekend.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross holds a news conference at the Police Administration Building on Monday, June 17, 2019, to update information on gun violence in the city during the Father's Day weekend.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

After a weekend in which more people were shot in Philadelphia than in any other 48-hour stretch in at least three years, Police Commissioner Richard Ross questioned Monday whether gunmen are increasingly carrying illegal firearms because they believe they can avoid being held accountable even if arrested.

During a news conference at Police Headquarters, Ross, backed by three top deputies, said police have nearly doubled the number of gun arrests this year compared with the same point in 2015.

Ross said he believes the increased arrest totals suggest that “some of these guys think they’ve figured something out relative to consequences or lack thereof.”

He added: “If you feel there [are] no consequences” for illegally carrying guns, “there are many people who will disregard the law because they’re not worried about it. Not because we’re not arresting them; we have to see why these people are carrying them in the fashion that they are.”

The comments by the typically reserved commissioner followed the unusually violent weekend in the city. Still, Ross demurred on offering definitive reasons for the perceived decline in accountability.

>> EDITORIAL: The city’s bloody Father’s Day demands action

Pressed on whether he was suggesting that District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office was being too light on accused gun criminals, Ross declined to say, adding that he did not know how many gun cases might be ending with a figurative slap on the wrist or if any individual office was responsible.

Krasner — sworn in last year on a pledge to curb mass incarceration — has drawn frequent criticism from the police union. Its leader, John McNesby, has accused him of having “great disdain” for law enforcement and siding with accused criminals over victims.

U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain also has been critical of Krasner, saying Philadelphia has “a full-blown public safety crisis” due to Krasner’s policies. McSwain said his office has increased violent-crime prosecutions as a result.

Ross on Monday did not join that chorus, but did say that he spoke to other big-city police chiefs on a conference call recently, and that “we all talked about not forgetting about the victims. The victims, all right. And this is what’s key.... We have an obligation to protect people that are out there trying to live a decent quality of life.”

The Police Department, Ross added, is studying all aspects of gun cases and their progression through the criminal justice system to identify possible trends that could be useful to all stakeholders. “We want to make sure that we are all working together, and that there are no unintentional consequences or policies or other things that we’re trying to do in this city that may impact us negatively,” he said.

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Krasner’s spokesperson, Jane Roh, said in an email Monday that the office’s policy was to bring charges in gun cases “100 percent of the time when the law and the facts in arrests made by Philadelphia police and other law enforcement support them.”

The District Attorney’s Office and state Attorney General’s Office on Monday announced that the Gun Violence Task Force, a collaboration between the two offices, had made seven arrests in Philadelphia for firearms offenses.

“District Attorney Krasner is completely committed to all effective efforts at reducing gun violence in the face of reckless state and federal policies that have made it possible for deadly firearms to outnumber people in this country,” Roh said.

She also said that McSwain was “lying, full stop.... There is absolutely no proven connection between [the District Attorney’s Office’s] approach to prosecutions and the homicide rate” in Philadelphia. She noted that McSwain has opposed the opening of a supervised injection site, a facility that proponents — including Krasner — believe can help save lives in a city ravaged by overdoses and drug-related homicides.

On Twitter earlier Monday, the district attorney called the weekend’s violence “tragic” and “alarming,” and said it “underscores why we must address the root causes of this public health crisis: Poverty, hopelessness, and a lack of gun control at state/fed levels.”

Earlier this year, Mayor Jim Kenney unveiled what he described as a public health plan to address the roots of gun violence, hoping that a blend of policing tactics, public health programs, and efforts to address topics including school truancy, poverty, and blight, would help stem the tide of shootings and homicides in the city.

On Monday, Philadelphia’s delegation of state legislators called on Kenney to declare a state of emergency over the city’s gun violence.

>> READ MORE: 19 shootings, 28 victims, 5 dead in violent Philadelphia weekend

“We can’t stand idly by and watch as it rains bullets in Philadelphia,” State Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Phila.) said at a news conference. “We cannot just offer words without action. I cannot stand another day as my children walk by memorials of teddy bears and candies.... We hear our communities cry out for peace, and we have an obligation to answer.”

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democrat, also wrote to Gov. Wolf asking for the same thing.

“I think we’re well past the point when those of us who are elected to lead are always reacting,” Williams said in a statement. “We must restore some level of public confidence by addressing this epidemic proactively.”

Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said Wolf is reviewing Williams’ request. “The violence in Philadelphia over the weekend is disturbing and horrifying,” Abbott said. “Gov. Wolf agrees that more can be done, and we look forward to discussing further steps with members of the Philadelphia delegation and other partners, including the mayor, attorney general, and law enforcement.”

On Saturday and Sunday, 28 people were shot — five fatally — in 19 incidents across the city, police said.

In total, more than 550 people have been shot in Philadelphia this year, according to police statistics, and through Sunday, 152 people had been killed in the city, the highest total through June 16 since 2012.

And on Monday, police reported more gunfire in the city, including a double shooting in West Oak Lane in which a 22-year-old man and a 32-year-old man were reported injured.

Staff writers Angela Couloumbis and Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.