Our neighbors in Chester have been making headlines in recent weeks for their significant reductions in homicides and shootings at a time when many cities, including Philadelphia, are seeing the opposite trend play out. Comparing the first five months of 2020 with the same period this year, shootings in Chester were down 40%; shooting fatalities there experienced an even sharper drop, falling by 68%. During the same time frame in Philadelphia, shootings increased by 29% and fatal shootings rose by 50%.
One potential ingredient of the reduction in Chester is that city’s Partnership For Safe Neighborhoods, which uses a strategy similar to one being tried in Philadelphia’s Group Violence Intervention program.
It’s still far too early to attribute the reduction in gun violence in Chester to any one factor. It’s also perilous to compare gun violence in such a small municipality — Chester’s population is about 33,000 people — with the challenges facing Philadelphia (population: 1.6 million). Still, there might be lessons from what’s happening in Delaware County.
Back to basics
Both Chester’s plan and Philadelphia’s Group Violence Intervention program are based around the law enforcement strategy known as focused deterrence, the premise of which is that most violence is related to a small number of individuals who are connected through informal groups. Researchers say that members of these groups typically account for 0.5% of a city’s population but can be responsible for about 70% of that community’s gun-violence incidents. Using that standard, Chester potentially has about 200 people involved in such groups, while Philadelphia has about 8,000.
In focused deterrence, each group receives a clear message from law enforcement: If you don’t stop the shootings, we will take advantage of all of your legal vulnerabilities (probation violations, outstanding warrants, missed child support payments, etc.) to make your life very uncomfortable — but we are also here to help, and connect you to services, if you want.
Philadelphia is intimately familiar with focused deterrence. Beginning in 2013, the use of that strategy in three South Philadelphia police districts led to a 35% decline in shootings.
Chester isn’t Philly
In Chester, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer says that while the concept behind focused deterrence is simple, the implementation is anything but. “Everybody who is a collaborator or a partner in the program, at least in the beginning, has to buy into the overall strategy,” Stollsteimer told this board.
Philadelphia officials launched their Group Violence Intervention program in August 2020 — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. That means Philadelphia couldn’t have brought members of groups engaged in violence into one room to deliver the “don’t shoot” message and instead had to dispense it one stoop at a time.
Philadelphia has also had to contend with some lingering criticism of the 2013 effort, which detractors argued was overly aggressive in its enforcement, unfairly stigmatized some members of the community, and cast too wide a net in its outreach efforts.
In part to address those concerns, Philadelphia’s Group Violence Initiative includes a more robust budget for social services, including the hiring of caseworkers.
A contrast in leadership
Despite the difference in scale between the two city’s programs, there is one major takeaway: Chester seemingly managed to get behind a strategy and deliver the “don’t shoot” message in a unified voice. That is far from the case in Philadelphia, where District Attorney Larry Krasner has criticized Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration for relying too much on law enforcement at the expense of social services, while Kenney criticized Krasner for “his office’s inability to prosecute crimes.”
That said, it isn’t too late to get on the same page. In the next several weeks, Philadelphia officials are expected to release a progress report on Group Violence Intervention. Grants distributed through an antiviolence fund created by City Council could have a synergistic effect on focused deterrence by expanding community resources.
Both the report and the selection of grant recipients will deserve scrutiny.
Philadelphia is bleeding, literally. The blood is mostly of Black residents, including children. To finally turn a corner in the gun-violence crisis, it’s imperative that city leaders find a message that they can all deliver in unison. Part of that message might simply be: Don’t shoot.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this editorial stated that the Chester Partnership For Safe Neighborhoods launched in 2019. It was debuted in 2020.