Following persistent calls from Philadelphia City Council members and hunger-striker Jamal Johnson protesting outside his home and office, Mayor Jim Kenney recently announced that his administration would host “regular public briefings to share the strategies underway to address this public health crisis and create safe, healthy communities” in response to the gun violence plaguing our city.
During the first briefing Wednesday, we heard almost exclusively from police officials. After presenting data, much of which is already published online, police then shared suspect mugshots, read wanted posters, criticized lack of community support, and projected the need for more overtime pay. This is not a public health response to gun violence.
Handing over control of the first briefing to police basically turned it into a police press conference and led to mostly law enforcement questions from the press.
This isn’t what gun advocates were asking for. The mayor and his administration missed a golden opportunity to reframe gun violence in Philadelphia as a public health problem.
With the rate of shootings nearly doubling in our city since the beginning of the pandemic and increasing 36% this year-to-date, the public urgently needs to understand the full spectrum of harm and responses.
Since both epidemic gun violence and the pandemic of COVID-19 are public health crises, we hope to see future briefings on gun violence mirror the city’s COVID-19 response and communications by answering the following questions:
How are our hospitals meeting the increased burden? How many gunshot patients are in our intensive care units right now?
Are the victims concentrated in particular demographic groups? Are responses focused on their needs?
What are the root causes that concentrate the burden of gun violence in specific communities, and how are they being addressed?
How are our prevention efforts performing in comparison with other cities, and what can we learn from those doing better?
What about the economic impact? How does gun violence affect businesses in Philadelphia? What are we doing to help shooting survivors manage lost income and the cost of care?
What new research is available regarding effective prevention strategies?
In a nutshell, public health responses should approach gun violence as an epidemic that can be contained and disrupted like any other, mitigated with intervention strategies, and eradicated by addressing root causes.
Prioritizing public health strategies to prevent gun violence is not a new idea. Journalism researchers led workshops on the topic 25 years ago, including one at The Inquirer. The Journal of the American Medical Association dedicated an entire issue to related research in 1992, and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop convened a landmark retreat on the approach in 1985.
The city should work to elevate gun violence information services to the standards set by COVID-19 efforts by distributing a press release following each briefing, sharing daily public summaries, and organizing a comprehensive home page and data dashboard. Right now, interested Philadelphians must check with five agencies and eight websites just to see the latest city data every day.
On the prevention side of the first briefing, we heard a comprehensive summary of ongoing initiatives but only one real data point. It was encouraging to learn that violence interrupters have visited 500 families, but to help the public understand the impact of these efforts, we need more open data, clear and simple explanations of how intervention programs work, and how we know they are working.
The mayor promised that future briefings will include experts from across his administration, state and federal agencies, and community groups and that the process will evolve. We hope that the mayor will take this opportunity to shape the narrative around gun violence as a public health problem to optimize the potential to prevent shootings and save lives.
Jessica Beard is a trauma surgeon and public health researcher at Temple University. Jim MacMillan is the founding director of the Center for Gun Violence Reporting at Community College of Philadelphia.