Philadelphia is on track to experience the deadliest year of homicides in its history. With more than 300 people shot and killed midway through 2021, some city residents have called for Mayor Jim Kenney to declare a gun violence state of emergency, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo did in New York. While supporters argue the declaration would encourage more urgent and expansive action to reduce violence, detractors see it as something of a distraction.
To tap this debate and discuss the state of gun violence in Philadelphia, The Inquirer asked a city councilmember who led calls for a declaration and the leader of the 48th Ward: Would an emergency declaration help reduce gun violence?
Yes: Regardless of what we call the response, the city needs a faster and more comprehensive approach to gun violence.
By Jamie Gauthier
Philadelphians know an emergency when they see it — and right now, they are seeing it in the unrelenting scourge of gun violence terrorizing our city.
Residents of violence-plagued neighborhoods are afraid to leave their homes or let their kids play outside for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Emergency room staff are responding to more gunshot wounds than they are heart attacks and experiencing vicarious trauma in the process. Over half of the more than 800 instances of gun violence involving school-aged youth in Philadelphia since the beginning of 2020 occurred among students connected to just 25 high schools; their teachers are in the impossible position of helping students process this unfathomable loss.
Data only further prove the point. Philadelphia is currently experiencing the highest rate of both shootings and homicides per capita of any major city in the country. We are on track to see 30% more homicides than we did last year, eclipsing the previous record high. This is a trajectory that we cannot accept as the status quo.
This month, Mayor Jim Kenney formally declined to declare gun violence a citywide emergency — an action that City Council unanimously called for last September, and which I have advocated for throughout the months since — arguing that it would have no material impact on his administration’s response to our city’s gun violence crisis. He suggested that the city was already doing everything it could to address this issue, pointing to the funds allocated toward anti-violence initiatives in the FY 2022 budget, and arguing that weekly meetings among leaders in the administration amounted to enough in the way of widespread coordination.
All of us who have advocated for an emergency declaration — city councilmembers, anti-violence advocates, and community members alike — never saw it as a symbolic gesture or ceremonial measure. Our advocacy was always about a faster, more transparent, and more comprehensive approach to tackling this crisis, which has already claimed the lives of over 300 Philadelphians and injured over a thousand others this year.
No matter what we decide to call it, I believe there is far more we can do to treat this issue as an emergency. To this end, last week City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and I demanded action from the Kenney administration, detailing specific steps to target anti-violence programming and resources to the 14 zip codes experiencing the heaviest volume of gun violence and to improve coordination among city departments.
“Philadelphia is absolutely experiencing a gun violence emergency, and we need to respond accordingly.”
We’re advocating for the creation of a Gun Violence Emergency Response Group, consisting of senior officials who would meet daily to coordinate efforts between operating agencies and carry out strategies to address gun violence hot spots. We’d like to see ramped up rec center programming, including extended hours and social services, in hard-hit neighborhoods. The Commerce Department received $5.6 million in this year’s budget to address gun violence; we need workforce development measures that are directly targeted at the Philadelphians who are most likely to shoot or be shot.
And, since we know that a great deal of this violence stems from interpersonal conflicts, we want to see our most impacted neighborhoods blanketed with outreach workers who can help head off these arguments before they turn into shootings.
This work is far from over. Regardless of how we move forward, let’s not equivocate: Philadelphia is absolutely experiencing a gun violence emergency, and we need to respond accordingly.
Jamie Gauthier represents the 3rd District in City Council and is a member of the Public Safety Committee.
No: Communities need a defined plan of action, not a declaration.
By Anton Moore
Declaring a state of emergency to address gun violence in our city without any guaranteed action behind it does nothing for Black communities. Without that action, it’s virtually a waste of time and misses the mark in effectively providing a solution.
As the executive director of Unity in the Community, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in underserved communities, I’ve advocated for gun violence prevention for more than a decade. While I believe gun violence is a state of emergency, the recent outcries for Mayor Jim Kenney to make a declaration call for more action and strategic thinking.
We need to start identifying what a state of emergency will look like in our community. If issuing this state will only lead to more meetings, town halls, and press conferences, then we are giving our communities false hope — and no real action or solution.
Let’s be honest: When you hear someone say a state of emergency, you automatically think that there will be some type of immediate response, enforcement, or relief from the ongoing gun violence here in Philadelphia. For example, if we announce a state of emergency today and shootings continue to happen on a daily basis, then the leadership here in the City of Philadelphia is going to have to answer for that immediately.
I think everyone needs to put their differences aside, stop bickering and debating aimlessly, and figure out how we can work together to put an end to this gun violence epidemic we are seeing here in Philadelphia. As the bodies continue to drop in our community, there must be some tough decisions made that are going to make everyone uncomfortable, but we have to put the safety of our children first. From the community perspective, that is not happening right now.
That means our words must match our actions when it comes to addressing gun violence here in Philadelphia. The question that we all have to ask ourselves is: What are we willing to sacrifice to bring about change on the issue of gun violence?
“I demand that these officials leave their offices at City Hall and come out into the field to stabilize these communities.”
If you ask me what solutions to a state of emergency look like: We must invest in community organizations and social media journalists who are on the ground and engaging at-risk youth in the community daily. We need to deploy every city agency to problematic communities and set up remote offices in these neighborhoods so that the community can have immediate accessibility to the resources and trained staff that can effectively address the issues of gun violence.
Let me be clear about the offices I have in mind: councilmembers and their staff, the mayor, L&I, the District Attorney’s Office, the city’s Office of Reentry Partnerships, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Department of Human Services, and Philadelphia School District senior staff. These efforts also must include workforce development programs, job opportunities, and much more. I demand that these city officials and programs leave their offices, including at City Hall, and come out into the field to stabilize these communities.
Most importantly, the parents must step up or things will remain the same. Parents are needed to instill values in their children, ensure the safety of their homes, and support a much-needed change for our communities. We need our parents and community members just as much as, if not more than, we need City Hall. It does our families and community a disservice to offer anything but a clear plan for support and action.
Anton Moore is president of Unity in the Community and leader of Philadelphia’s 48th Ward.