Our city is in the waning weeks of what will likely end up being the deadliest year in its history.
In 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, there were 500 homicides in Philadelphia — a record. The city eclipsed that mark last week when 55-year-old Eloise Harmon was shot repeatedly in the chest just around the corner from her home in South Philadelphia.
Besides those who’ve been lost, the number of people victimized — either directly by bullets or indirectly by grief, trauma, and fear — is incalculable. And with a month to go in the year, there is seemingly no end in sight to the bloodshed.
Last Wednesday, on the same day that Harmon was killed, Mayor Jim Kenney, along with other elected officials as well as local and federal law enforcement brass, held a news conference about gun violence.
Kenney said that the city is doing what it can, but the lack of gun control from the state stymies the response. “There are people making money selling these guns, making these guns,” he said, “and the legislature, they don’t care about people getting killed.”
Kenney is correct. It is unconscionable that at a time of rising gun violence in Philadelphia, as well as in other parts of the state, not only is the Republican-controlled General Assembly not considering new gun control measures — it is passing bills that would allow more people to carry loaded weapons in public. Thankfully, Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen exists as a safeguard.
But when a reporter asked Kenney to explain what the city is doing to prevent gun violence, the mayor grew frustrated, saying that the city’s efforts have to be seen in light of the pandemic. As more municipal operations such as the courts and the probation system return to their pre-pandemic capacity, the city’s strategies will bear fruit.
The comment is concerning because there are no indications that — even without the pandemic — Philadelphia’s efforts to stem gun violence would have been successful. The number of homicides in Philadelphia had been rising before the pandemic — at a time when homicide trends nationally were going in the opposite direction.
There is no magic solution. But there are ways to assess whether the city’s anti-violence approaches are working — but, for years, these efforts have not been evaluated despite platitudes of the importance of evidence-based approaches.
The city expected to release a preliminary evaluation of Group Violence Initiative, a shooting prevention strategy, in October. Now, the city expects it to be released by the end of the year. An evaluation of the Community Crisis Intervention Program, the city’s violence interruption effort, has never been completed despite the program being in existence for years.
Without an analysis of that crucial data, the truth is that city officials are responding to a crisis as if they’re wandering in the dark, hoping that our efforts work and assuming that without them, things would have been worse. Is Philadelphia doing all it can? We don’t know — and until we see evaluations of these programs, neither does the mayor.