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Philly’s new gun briefings need improvement — even if we grade on a curve | Helen Ubiñas

I'm cautiously optimistic for what the new gun violence briefings potentially signal: long-overdue access, accountability and transparency that is so foreign to so many leaders.

Part of the scene of a fatal shooting on N. 34th St. at Wallace St.
Part of the scene of a fatal shooting on N. 34th St. at Wallace St.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

As far as Zoom meetings go, the city’s first biweekly gun-violence briefing held Wednesday was a solid C. And not just because one of the unimpressed residents tuning in on the city’s Facebook page called it “Cute — always words, no action.”

It started late — technical issues. Someone forgot they were on mute. There’s always that person who doesn’t realize you don’t have to yell at the computer — we can all hear you. And the one who is mostly checking themselves out in the glow of their ring light.

Of course, I kept my camera off — I’m no fool.

Oh, and as many of the 200 or so residents watching the briefing for press noted, there was nothing new — except for the not-so-small fact that the briefing was happening at all.

For that, I’m going to bump that C to a B-, as in Better, but much room for improvement.

And yes, I’m grading on a curve because if a little positive reinforcement works on children, then maybe it can work on public officials who act like children when being held to account.

“Some of you may be wondering why we’re beginning this now when gun violence has obviously been a growing challenge for the last few years,” Mayor Kenney said while kicking off the one-hour briefing with a prepared statement. “It’s painfully clear that we must take new approaches.”

Well, yeah. But would it have killed the mayor to give credit where it’s due — and credit is due to Jamal Johnson, the 64-year-old retired postal worker and Marine veteran who staged two hunger strikes to get Kenney to acknowledge and act on a resolution introduced by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier for the all-hands-on-deck urgency we give other public health crises.

Johnson was much more forgiving of the slight when I caught up with him after the briefing.

“We have got to support this and insist on the things that come after this,” he said. “But we can’t knock this down, and then insist on other things, because it’s going to be perceived that we’re just knocking down everything we’re asking for.”

Fair enough. So as inadequate as the first briefing was, I shall remain cautiously optimistic for what it potentially signals: long-overdue access, accountability and transparency that is so foreign to so many leaders that it has to be scheduled, right there between date night and self-care Sundays.

But, for now, so be it. Pencil us in! And let’s get to work.

For starters, it makes no sense to call these public briefings when only reporters could ask questions that, FYI, fellow journos, some residents were not impressed by.

“They askin’ all the wrong questions,” one woman wrote in the Facebook comments. I reached out to her to see what she wished was being asked, and to offer to take her questions to the next briefing until the public can ask their own questions, but I haven’t heard back. A spokesperson later told me that the city is considering “potentially using the Facebook comment feature so viewers can ask questions during the briefings (as time allows) or respond to viewers’ questions in writing afterwards.”

I vote for at least a few community questions being answered at every briefing.

It also makes no sense for Kenney and others to know enough to call gun violence a public health issue but continue to treat it as a public safety one.

If we’re truly going to treat this as the epidemic it is, then we need a lot fewer cops in white shirts talking about the whos, whats, wheres, and whens, and a lot more medical professionals in white coats helping tackle the whys and hows. They can start with taking on some of the questions raised in an Inquirer op-ed cowritten by Jessica Beard, a trauma surgeon and public health researcher at Temple University, and Jim MacMillan, the founding director of the Center for Gun Violence Reporting at Community College of Philadelphia.

“Prioritizing public health strategies to prevent gun violence is not a new idea,” they wrote.

By this point, none of this is.

Not the gutting data police presented on the call: Less than three months into 2021, there have been more than 103 homicides, 13 of them children, and more than 412 people have been shot, 40 of them younger than 18.

Not the agonizing stories behind every number.

And not the suffocating trauma weaved into the fabric of the city.

The resources and tools to start addressing the damage are out there; we just have to make the ongoing commitment to pick up the right ones and do the work. And that includes not falling back on the same ways of talking and treating the gun violence epidemic.

Kenney said the briefings will evolve with a revolving guest list that will include experts from across his administration, state and federal agencies, and community groups.

That sounds good. But we’ll see.

The next briefing is scheduled for March 31 at noon.

Bring your A game.