Philadelphia has a homicide crisis … again. In 2019, 356 people were murdered, a steep rise from 2013′s low of 246 homicides, though fewer than the 391 homicides in 2007. Last January, Mayor Jim Kenney unveiled the Roadmap to Safer Communities, a five-year plan to address gun violence. How effective is the city’s approach? Based on the fact that no one has evaluated it and homicides and shootings have increased, it’s fair to be skeptical.

Philadelphia is not the only city struggling with gun violence and homicides. Some cities, though, are getting results.

In 2016, Chicago experienced an unprecedented spike in gun violence. From 2015 to 2016, Chicago saw a shocking increase in homicides of 56% from the previous year — 778 people were killed and more than 4,200 people were shot. The spike led to headlines about “out of control” violence and for President Donald Trump to declare that “Chicago is like a war zone.”

But very little has been written about what followed: Over the past three years, homicides in Chicago decreased by 37%. In 2019, the city experienced fewer than 500 homicides — the fewest since 2014.

In 2015, Philadelphia and Chicago had the same homicide rate per 100,000. Fast forward to 2019, Philadelphia’s homicide rate is higher than Chicago’s — about 4 more homicides per 100,000 residents.

What happened? Chicago started to take gun violence seriously.

We spent the last week talking to stakeholders in Chicago to understand if there are lessons for Philadelphia.

The citywide view

After 2016, Chicago realized that to address gun violence, they needed all hands on deck.

Forty foundations and funders — including Chicago’s professional sports teams — came together to form the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities. Since its inception, PSPC committed $75 million toward reducing gun violence in Chicago. Nine community outreach groups from different neighborhoods formed Communities Partnering for Peace — a coordinating body that meets every other week. The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab became involved in the day-to-day decision-making of the police with analysts working daily in the districts (possible because of a $10 million donation). State Attorney Kim Foxx, Chicago’s equivalent to a district attorney, shifted resources away from low-level offenses to create a new unit of prosecutors who are embedded in police districts struggling with gun violence.

A biweekly coordination meeting of the Communities Partnering for Peace — a coalition of nine violence prevention outreach nonprofit organizations from nine neighborhoods in Chicago.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Family Services
A biweekly coordination meeting of the Communities Partnering for Peace — a coalition of nine violence prevention outreach nonprofit organizations from nine neighborhoods in Chicago.

Two years in, there is already data to suggest it’s working not just on homicide rates, but crime rates. According to a RAND Corporation evaluation of the use of civilian data analysts in police districts to inform daily deployment decisions has shown double digit reductions in homicide, robberies, and sexual assaults. Another evaluation has shown that effect was even larger when a prosecutor was embedded.

Chicago is far from where it needs to be. The city’s homicide rate exceeds those of New York and Los Angeles. But Chicago did prove that when the community decides to work together, and data drives decision- making, meaningful reduction in gun violence is possible.

How it looks on the ground

Jim Kenney’s agenda for the upcoming four years set a bold goal: Reduce shootings by 25% and homicides by 30% by the end of his term. That’s ambitious but possible. Between 2016 and 2019, Chicago reduced homicides by 37% and shootings by 39%.

According to the Philadelphia Police Department, 80% of shootings inside crime “hot spots" are committed by 2% of known offenders. That means the city must invest violence prevention dollars in that small group of people most likely to pick up a gun.

READI Chicago is an example of such targeted investment. The nonprofit provides high-risk men with jobs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and assistance connecting to other service for an 18-month period. When they say high risk, they mean it: The men that READI reaches have on average 18 arrests, five of those for felonies. More than 30% have been shot and close to 80% have been victims of violence. So far 600 people have been engaged with READI. The Crime Lab at the University of Chicago is currently evaluating the program. The program costs about $20,000 a year per person.

Participants of the READI Chicago, a gun violence program for high risk men, and their crew chief participating in cognitive behavioral therapy prior to the 2019 Chicago Special Olympics, which participants have worked at for the past two years.
Courtesy of Heartland Alliance
Participants of the READI Chicago, a gun violence program for high risk men, and their crew chief participating in cognitive behavioral therapy prior to the 2019 Chicago Special Olympics, which participants have worked at for the past two years.

Since June, Philadelphia gave out $1.7 million in grants to close to 100 community groups as a part of the implementation of the Roadmap to Safer Communities, the city’s violence reduction strategy. Each grant was between $1,500 and $20,000. The city prioritizes organizations serving men of color ages 16 to 34 in high-crime neighborhoods — a group much larger than those who are actually likely to pick up a gun. Either way, the city doesn’t collect data on who has been served — as READI does — to ensure the funds reach those most at need.

Another lesson from Chicago is that professionalization of staff is critical. A coalition of Chicago groups founded the Metropolitan Peace Academy, an 18-week training program for outreach workers.

Philadelphia’s street outreach program, Community Crisis Intervention Program, has operated for over a year now. It has never been evaluated. But one welcome development: the city is partnering with Cure Violence, a Chicago based organization credited with the violence interruption outreach model.

Other efforts by the city as a part of the Roadmap include investment in police analytics, blight removal, and a still-in-planning relaunch of Focused Deterrence (dubbed Group Violence Initiative).

Last year, Harvard researcher Thomas Abt told The Inquirer editorial board: “To reduce violence, focus on the damn violence.” Blight removal, poverty alleviation, and community development all have inherent value and reduce violence in the long run. But in the short term, reduction requires focused investment in the very small group of people who are a likely to pick up a gun: Identify them, offer comprehensive services, and continuously evaluate the effort.

None of this is new. It took 778 homicides and more than 4,200 shooting victims for Chicago to act. Philadelphia’s 356 homicides and 1,466 shooting victims in 2019 should be more than enough to mobilize our city.