The list arrived on prosecutor William Fritze’s desk last winter. Dozens of shootings in South and Southwest Philadelphia, color-coded by gang, each one an unsolved case in a long, deadly feud.
For Fritze, an assistant district attorney for seven years, the list was an assignment — one accompanied by the most precious gift afforded a Philadelphia prosecutor: time.
Fritze cut his teeth in the churn of violence that courses through Philadelphia’s busiest courtrooms, where prosecutors rarely get the time to search for connective threads between cases. But that was the job laid out for the Gun Violence Task Force last year, a joint effort among police, the district attorney, and the Attorney General’s Office.
Over the next year, Fritze and his colleagues pieced together the story of a neighborhood. Of a group of young men pulled into a shooting war whose latest explosion sparked over a slight toward someone’s mother on Instagram — but whose roots are nearly as old as Fritze.
It’s a beef between the crews on 27th and 31st Streets in a neighborhood where guns are easier to come by than a job. Where identity is shaped by the block you grew up on. Where image is protected at point of gun.
At the height of the conflict last year, there were 43 shootings in 13 months.
The blocks where the rival crews hang out, as Fritze would witness on surveillance video, are places where women pushing baby strollers duck for cover from gunmen. Where high schoolers are left paralyzed simply for walking home with the wrong classmates. Where grade schoolers watch teenagers die at their feet at corner stores. Where all this runs the risk of becoming normal.
It’s the story of a war two miles from Center City.
“We had people hiding and ducking for cover in their homes every night,” Fritze said.
He and other prosecutors, like the supervisor of the Gun Violence Task Force, Jude Conroy, and Chief Deputy Attorney General Brendan O’Malley, think that treating a string of seemingly endless shootings as one big case, instead of dozens of smaller ones, can help solve the most violent crimes in a neighborhood where many are afraid or unwilling to testify.
Poring over old cases, a bigger picture emerged, one that’s not always apparent in the day-to-day work of an overtaxed prosecutor.
“It was clear there were two small groups going back and forth creating all the violence,” Fritze said.
Fritze, 39, reserved but steely, grew up on a farm in Michigan. He came to Philly for a taste of city life, and landed a job as a victim advocate. That’s where he first saw the churn of the courtrooms. It didn’t feel like justice. He got his law degree at night, and soon found himself being a prosecutor in that system.
The task force targeted the worst offenders and cases they could prosecute – using thinner cold cases for context. In March, they charged eight people in several shootings, including the 2017 murder of Nasir Livingston, a 17-year-old ambushed in a Chinese takeout. Fritze is preparing for a pretrial hearing next week.
In the absence of witnesses, “silent witnesses” — ballistic evidence, cell phone records, social media, and surveillance footage — became critical. Beat cops and even brass, like Chief Inspector Joel Dales, provided front-line intelligence.
Dales, a quiet, forceful presence, commands the southern half of the city. His father, a police officer before him, taught him that to earn respect from the neighborhoods you serve, you have to give respect. That’s the attitude Dales took with him into the living rooms of the kids caught up in the war. They could be his own sons, he said.
On his visits, Dales offered help and a stern reminder: “Three things are going to happen if you don’t change what you’re doing. You’re going to wind up dead. Or locked up. Or paralyzed." Some of the young people had heard it so often they could recite it.
Sometimes, he would be met with a chilling reminder of his own. Like when worried parents would say they understood why their children carried a gun. It was their best protection.
That’s how you feel when your neighborhood’s at war. And that’s what Fritze and Dales hope we will all pay attention to: the weight of the violence on our neighborhoods – and the trauma that imparts. The bigger picture.
For a month after the arrests, there were no shootings. And a neighborhood got the kind of respite it is rarely afforded. But there have been new shootings lately – and a new list forms for Bill Fritze.