It is hard to pick a single statistic to capture the severity of Philadelphia’s gun violence crisis: 297 homicides so far this year, more than 1,200 shooting victims, more than 100 of them children, including 21 who were shot fatally; an average of five people were shot per day in 14 out of the last 15 months; 10,000 people were shot in Philadelphia since 2015.
For Philadelphians who live in the neighborhoods where this violence occurs daily, most of which are predominantly Black, the pain and loss are very real. As the violence surges and little changes, it’s reasonable for them to wonder if anyone in power is listening.
There is a concrete step that Mayor Jim Kenney can take to show city residents that their pain is heard: declare gun violence a citywide emergency, a measure this board has supported since last fall.
Philadelphia’s gun violence crisis is not new. The overall trend of homicides in Philadelphia has been increasing since 2015 — with a severe escalation in the rate of shootings since last summer. Meanwhile, overall violence, including violent crime, continues to be low.
Yet, the city’s response to gun violence feels a bit like Groundhog Day. The top three programs of the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP) — Gun Violence Intervention (GVI), Community Crisis Intervention Program (CCIP), and Violence Prevention Partnership — are all rebrands of programs that have been tried in Philadelphia in the past. The city finally secured external evaluators for GVI and CCIP — a key step — but being so late into the evaluation game means that now, in a moment of crisis, OVP still doesn’t know if their flagship programs are working.
The newly approved budget offers some reason for hope. While it includes $68 million in new funds that are related to violence prevention, appropriating money is the easy part. Getting money out the door quickly is hard — especially when the money is spread throughout multiple agencies with different priorities and processes.
To coordinate the effort, and ensure a shared sense of urgency, West Philadelphia’s Councilmember Jamie Gauthier has been calling on Mayor Kenney for about a year to declare gun violence an emergency, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo just did in New York.
Kenney has been defiant in his opposition, framing such declaration as a punitive measure that will lead to curfews and overpolicing, something elected officials are sensitive to given calls to defund the police. But that wasn’t a concern for Kenney when, in 2018, he declared Kensington a disaster area over homelessness and overdose.
Declaring an emergency would both open access to more funds and facilitate coordination between agencies. Gauthier’s resolution also called for a weekly gun violence briefing, a suggestion that Kenney did adopt, with briefings happening every other week since March.
Efforts to prevent gun violence must be coupled with checks to ensure that Philadelphia is not reversing the tide on mass incarceration, making the criminal justice bigger and less just. Declaring gun violence a citywide emergency doesn’t do either — and it’s the right way for Kenney to show Philadelphia that City Hall understands the urgency of this moment.