Even as gun violence rises to unprecedented levels in the city this year, parts of West Philadelphia have seen a drop in such crime, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Tuesday.
They attributed the downward trend to a crime-fighting initiative launched in July. A city and state law enforcement collaboration has led to a 46% decrease in shootings in the 18th Police District, which includes Cobbs Creek, they said. And in the 19th District, which includes Overbrook, the number of shootings fell 18% during that time, Shapiro and Outlaw said at the Christy Recreation Center, on South 55th Street.
In March, 16-year-old Kahree Simmons was fatally shot in the back of the neck on the center’s basketball court, and a boy and girl, both 15, suffered graze wounds during a shootout between four gunmen who emerged from an SUV and a man who was on the court, police said.
“As I’ve said each and every time I’ve walked away from the basketball court here, I’m not going to forget these kids and I’m going to continue to fight for them every step of the way,” said Shapiro, who noted that he has visited the center three previous times since Simmons’ murder, which remains unsolved.
Shapiro — who is running for governor and widely seen as the Democratic front-runner — said the collaboration between his Office of Strategic Response Team and city police was launched to combat violence in West Philadelphia. Earlier this year, The Inquirer reported that of the 2,200 people who have been shot in the city west of the Schuykill since 2015, the paper’s analysis of police data and court records indicated that suspected shooters had been charged in only about 450 incidents.
In the 18th District, shootings fell from 65 to 35 in the months since the initiative began, and from 83 to 67 in the 19th District, according to an Inquirer analysis.
Shapiro’s office analyzed the time period from Jan. 21 through July 7, before the initiative began, and noted a significant drop in shootings. (He and Outlaw initially cited steeper declines but later corrected those figures.) However, the comparison touted by Shapiro uses time periods with an unequal number of days. An Inquirer analysis of Police Department data comparing shootings from July 8 through Dec. 10 over multiple years shows a similar trend. Shootings in the 18th and 19th Districts combined fell from 158 in 2020 to 102 in 2021, a decrease of 35%.
The decline comes after shootings reached their highest level in recent memory, both in West Philadelphia and across the city. While the number of shootings so far this year is higher than last year’s record tally, the pace of gun violence appears to have slowed since the summer. Since July 8, shootings citywide are down 13% compared with the same period last year, although this year’s second-half total remains roughly equal to the level of shootings that occurred in similar periods from 2015 to 2019.
Since July, Shapiro said, investigators from his office and city narcotics officers have been working overtime in the two police districts and have made 178 arrests and seized 63 crime guns. He and Outlaw would not say if additional personnel were deployed for the initiative, nor would they discuss specific details on how the two agencies were working together.
Shapiro said the collaboration features “robust intel sharing” to identify crime hot spots and threats and to deploy officers where they are needed most. The initiative is being funded by $300,000 from the attorney general’s budget, with most of that money being used to cover overtime pay, Shapiro’s spokesperson said.
“Our team has been adding shifts and doing double duty to help PPD,” he said. He called the numbers of arrests made and guns seized a start that he said had resulted in an estimated seven fewer deaths and 38 fewer shootings in the two districts compared with the previous six-month period.
“We’re running every single firearm taken off the street through our Track and Trace program to find out who bought them, if they’ve been used in crimes, and how they got into the hands of criminals,” he said. “Look, the progress we’ve seen here isn’t an end to the conversation, but indeed is a call to action.”
Outlaw said: “While it’s only been six months since we began this initiative, the promising statistics that the AG shared show that we have been able to make significant impacts into the operations of those bad actors who’ve been plaguing these communities for generations.”
She noted that West Philadelphia and other parts of the city still have “a long way to go” toward becoming safer.
As of Tuesday, the city has seen 3,923 shootings this year, compared with 3,752 at the same time last year, a 4.6% increase, according to Police Department statistics. There have been a record 529 homicides in Philadelphia this year, compared with 470 at the same time last year, a 13% increase.
To counter such trends, Shapiro said, three things are needed: the hiring of more police officers; laws to close the “ghost gun loophole,” which allows people to buy gun kits that lack serial numbers; and bail reform to stop the release of violent offenders on low cash bail after an arrest.
“These are three commonsense steps that can make a big difference in our community,” he said.
Capt. Matthew Gillespie, of the 18th District, said that since the partnership began, none of his officers has missed a day of work, and the relationships between officers and community members has improved.
“We have seen an increase in community involvement,” he said. “More block captains, more people calling the district wanting to be involved, more kids coming to this rec center wanting to play, more programs here. So, when the violence decreases, the community investment does increase.”
Don and Theresa Browner, who have lived a block from the rec center since 1965, did not know why Shapiro and Outlaw and all the flashing police lights had come to the neighborhood. When told, they said they were skeptical of the decreased crime stats touted by the officials.
“I don’t think so,” Theresa Browner, 87, said as she and her husband leaned on their canes while walking to their car. “Maybe, they mean instead of 10 shootings, it’s four. But there’s still a lot of shooting around here,” she said.
“The other day somebody got killed. You got to look into that,” said Don Browner, 80. “But I hope that it’s true.”
Staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.