If you’re looking for ways to quantify the depths of the gun violence crisis in Philadelphia, there may not be many bleaker statistics than this: There’s only been one day so far this year — Jan. 2 — when not a single person was shot in the city.
Since then, nearly 1,500 people have been shot in Philadelphia, including 295 fatalities. At least 50 other people were murdered by an assailant who used a weapon other than a gun.
Gun violence drives Philadelphia’s murder rate, which is on pace for a record this year, but it’s essential that the city also address three other factors if officials hope to stem a seemingly unrelenting tide of killings — increasing the rate at which murders are solved, fostering more cooperation from witnesses in criminal prosecutions, and rooting out corrupt officers whose bad practices later lead to convictions being overturned.
In Philadelphia, murderers have a better chance of winning a coin toss than being arrested. Last Wednesday, during the most recent briefing on the city’s response to gun violence, the police presented data showing that through Aug. 15, only 43% of homicides this year led to an arrest. That homicide clearance rate, or the percentage of killings that lead to an arrest, is on par with recent years.
An Inquirer analysis of all shooting incidents between January 2015 and November 2020, including both fatal and nonfatal shootings, found that out of 8,500 incidents only 21% resulted in an arrest or charge and 9% led to a conviction.
One reason for the low clearance rate is that the police and the District Attorney’s Office have a hard time getting witnesses to take the stand. District Attorney Larry Krasner cited witnesses’ failure to appear in court as a central reason for the declining conviction rate in gun cases.
Then, there is the grim reality that an arrest — or even a conviction — doesn’t always mean a homicide has been solved. For most of the 1980s, Philadelphia’s homicide clearance rate was above 80%. In the years since, the city has learned that didn’t mean that more than 80% of the actual perpetrators were arrested. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 14 people convicted of a murder in Philadelphia during the 1980s have been exonerated. Since 2018 alone, the conviction integrity unit in Krasner’s office has exonerated 22 people.
These exonerations, as well as recent reporting by The Inquirer, have shed light on the coercive and illegal tactics detectives used to get false confessions. This month, Krasner charged three former homicide detectives for lying in the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright, whose murder conviction was vacated due to DNA evidence.
Also this month, Krasner asked a judge to hold the Philadelphia Police Department in contempt for failing to turnover police misconduct records.
Philadelphia’s twin crises of gun violence and homicides are multilayered and intertwined. To reduce the number of unsolved murders in the city, the homicide clearance rate needs to go up. For the homicide clearance rate to go up, witnesses need to have faith that the system is actually seeking justice — not simply trying to improve its statistics by throwing another person in prison.