Is it time to defund Philly’s Office of Violence Prevention? | Helen Ubiñas
For the last four years, I have called for the city to require programs and organizations that receive gun violence prevention funding prove that their efforts work.
Against my better judgement, I clicked into the livestream Thursday morning for the latest hearing on gun violence prevention while Philadelphians continued to be shot and killed at record numbers.
Or, I tried.
In what I decided was a gift from the universe — how many times can I listen to the same people say the same things — technical issues on the city’s side delayed the virtual hearing until later that afternoon.
So, I turned my attention to the Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention.
An Inquirer editorial the day before had called out the office for its lack of answers to basic questions — How much did the city invest in violence prevention strategies last year? What services are offered? — during another gun violence-prevention hearing last month.
“Don’t mistake the fact that we don’t have the numbers as a lack of urgency or caring,” Vanessa Garrett Harley, deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety, which oversees OVP, told Council.
I’m not here to question her heart. But as someone who has been after the office since 2017 to evaluate the effectiveness of violence prevention programs for which the city blindly spends millions, I am here to tell you that there is absolutely a lack of urgency from that office.
As that editorial noted, even before the office was created in 2017, I was calling for the city to require programs and organizations that receive gun violence prevention funding prove that their efforts work.
I called for it in 2017 and 2018 and 2019 and I’m calling for it now, after receiving another discouraging status report from the office.
After it was created, the office dragged its feet for more than a year while insisting, each time I checked in, that yes, of course, they were working diligently on an evaluation process.
And then, in 2018, at a meeting where Mayor Jim Kenney announced that he was giving his administration 100 days to come up with a new approach to fighting gun violence, came this nonsense:
Garrett Harley triumphantly announced that as part of the time-to-get-serious directive, the Office of Violence Prevention would be evaluating all existing efforts to reduce violence — leaving me to wonder just what they had been doing the entire year before.
Brian Abernathy was the city’s newly named managing director then. When I called BS, he insisted the reason for the delay was staffers who were out of their depth.
Friday was Abernathy’s last day on the job, after disastrously demonstrating his own depth issues, but the Office of Violence Prevention continues to escape its own reckoning for its failures.
When I last wrote about the office, taxpayers were paying the office’s executive director, Rondell Revell, $118,450, and the senior director of violence prevention strategies and programs, Theron Pride, $133,900. Garrett Harley, who was hired to oversee the efforts as the newly appointed deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety, makes $164,800.
They’ve since hired a communications manager, Dave Kinchen, who makes $70,000, and a criminologist, whose identity and salary is apparently top secret because by the end of Friday, I was still waiting on the information.
Here’s what I do know: None of those handsomely paid hires has led to the long-promised comprehensive evaluation of programs.
When I reached out to the office, Kinchen sent me an emailed statement on behalf of Pride.
In short: One youth violence reduction program was independently assessed, and renamed. Another intervention program will be evaluated after a contract with an independent research institution is formalized. And — stick with me here — they have extensively evaluated violence prevention evaluations done in other cities to best determine how to conduct their own evaluations. Oh, and there’s going to be a survey!
Basically, a lot of billable hours for very little to show.
“Unfortunately, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the City’s budget, our efforts to evaluate all of the programs related to violence prevention have been hampered considerably with the elimination of the Office of Performance Management and other significant reductions in funding across the Administration,” read the statement. “However, despite these major setbacks, we remain focused on evaluating our programs and progress to ensure we continually use our limited resources effectively. "
There is a lot of debate these days over government budget priorities.
Should we defund the police, for example, in order to invest in community programs and institutions that focus on the social causes of crime, from poverty to addiction?
It’s a worthwhile debate.
Here’s another: If four years after its creation, the city agency charged with reducing the city’s gun violence still has no clue about the effectiveness of its programs, maybe it’s time to defund them.