In recent years, Philadelphia has been grappling with a climbing homicide rate, despite an overall reduction in violent crime. As of the time of this writing, homicides are up 4 percent when compared to this time last year. This past weekend, seven people were shot during a community cookout and basketball tournament at tiny Baker Playground in Philadelphia’s Overbrook section. Firearms play a role in the vast majority of homicides, and a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to firearm violence has significant implications for further reducing violent crime in our city.
The causes of firearm violence are complex. No intervention that fails to recognize this can result in a sustained improvement in the communities that are ravaged by this epidemic. The intersections between systemic poverty, racial inequality, limited educational and job opportunities, and violence are no longer in question. Here in our city, there is compelling data that this type of structural violence leaves certain communities particularly devastated. There is a well-established relationship between firearm assaults and neighborhood poverty levels. A lack of social capital also places neighborhoods at risk for firearm victimization.
Other factors such as substance misuse and abuse have also been shown to increase the risk of firearm-related violence, but what is remarkable is that neighborhood-level exposure, and not just individual exposure, has a direct effect on firearm homicide particularly among adolescents.
Studies on blight remediation, transforming abandoned buildings and vacant lots, have demonstrated a significant reduction in violent crime, and specifically, firearm-related crime, another argument for the contribution of environment to the prevalence of violence.
In this ongoing fight, it is clear that one approach will not suffice for cities throughout the country with different histories, challenges, and laws. The work of transforming communities and addressing proven root causes and contributors to violence is not mutually exclusive to the work of an effective criminal justice approach. Firearm related arrests are almost doubled in the city of Philadelphia when compared to 2015. But is must not be forgotten that many of those engulfed in the tragedy of gun violence are youth, and the degree to which their narratives around violence are shaped by the opportunities they have, and more importantly, the opportunities they don’t have, cannot be overlooked.
The poverty rate in Philadelphia has been unchanged at 25.7 percent in recent years. The highest concentrations of poverty are in portions of North and West Philadelphia, some of which have rates of over 45 percent. Many of those who live in poverty experience other disadvantages such as higher rates of chronic disease, abuse or neglect in childhood, and poor access to schools with high achievement ratings. But it must be noted that 76 percent of violent crimes occur in parts of the city where at least 20 percent of the population is experiencing poverty. In areas that have a poverty rate of 40 percent or greater, violent crime is almost three times more common.
We owe it to the people of this city to address this problem on every front. The fight for better opportunity has been shown again and again to impact violence. Firearm violence in our city is at a crisis point, and ignoring the context cannot lead to solutions that stand the test of time.