There's a lot of things that the Founding Fathers probably couldn't have imagined when they ratified the Declaration of Independence -- self-driving cars, cars, the iPhone, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," houses on 500-foot poles (...wait, that was "The Jetsons," nevermind). They probably never could have foreseen how Philadelphia itself would fare in the distant future -- that another revolution called the Industrial Revolution would shape this town a lot more than theirs, and that America's founding city would ultimately lose that war.
Whatever July 4 celebrations took place in Philadelphia's far-flung, faded neighborhoods turned to more grief as darkness fell and Independence Day yielded to homicide, life on the streets. The pops of cherry bombs and gunfire blurred, and by sunrise four citizens had been murdered -- three by bullets and a 17-year-old female who was knifed to death.
It's important to place this in context. Four murders in one night -- especially on a joyous holiday to celebrate American liberty forged here in this city -- is an obscene number, but the city's overall homicide rate still remains at its lowest rate since the mid-1960s and, according to the police department's website, is down 44 percent from its baseline year of 2007 (the year before Mayor Nutter took office, in what I assume is not a coincidence). That's both a national trend and a credit to good tactical work under Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
On the other hand, four murders on the night of July 4 isn't something to shrug and accept. It seemed ironic that these street killings came on the same weekend when CNN wasted hours of air time on the foggy notion that terrorists -- presumably of the Arabic kind -- might hit America and ruin our Independence Day weekend, even though the network also acknowledged that authorities had no such credible threat. It seemed a sad, shameful ploy to rope in a few viewers on a weekend when there was virtually no real domestic news. But maybe that shone a light on our weird value system when it comes to violence.
Four people killed by the National Guard at Kent State, and Neil Young will write a song about it. Four people killed by Muslim fanatics in Boston, and we send armored personnel carriers into the streets with aircraft taking infrared pictures in the sky. Four dead in Philadelphia on the 4th of July, and we call it one more Saturday night.
It doesn't have to be this way. Philadelphia has an enormous opportunity to take its policing to the next level in the coming years. Presumptive next mayor Jim Kenney has said many of the right things during his campaign about community-police relations, including the long-overdue end to stop-and-frisk. Even more critical will be Kenney's pick of a new police commissioner who can build upon the progress under Ramsey. But it's also a new opportunity to look at what's worked in other cities.
The new folks might want to check out Richmond, Calif., a low-income, high-crime community on San Francisco Bay. When murders there spiked in the 2000s, some City Council members suggested calling in the National Guard, but the city went in the other direction. It created an Office of Neighborhood Safety to focus more on solutions around community engagement.
The program was described over the weekend in a New York Times op-ed by its founding director, Devone L. Boggan. He noted: "A police liaison officer told us this startling fact: An estimated 70 percent of shootings and homicides in Richmond in 2009 were caused by just 17 individuals, primarily African-American and Hispanic-American men between the ages of 16 and 25."
What happened next was even more astounding -- a community outreach program that did actual outreach. "Then came the big innovation of the Operation Peacemaker fellowship program," Boggan wrote. "We offered those young men a partnership deal: We would pay them — yes, pay them — not to pull the trigger." Some of the targeted young men were invited to meetings and, if they responded to mentoring, would be paid as much as $1,000 a month to participate in a non-violence program.
This goes against everything that people in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania have believed for the last 40 years. During that time, as our state's prison population increased six-fold, powerful lobbies like the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and other police and victims-rights groups have pushed, always successfully, for longer sentences and harder time. I'm sure there are people reading this who could never believe -- no matter what the empirical evidence shows -- that it would make more sense to pay a troublemaker than to lock him up and throw away.
But Boggan described remarkable success in the Northern California program, both in individual cases -- like a young man named Shyeed who renounced violence and became an ambassador for the mentoring program -- and in the numbers. His city saw an astonishing 76 percent drop in homicides, or nearly double the rate of decline in Philadelphia. It's not clear whether this program can be easily replicated in a much larger metropolis, but Richmond's success shows the possibilities of outside-the-box thinking.
But is outside-the-box thinking possible in Philadelphia? We saw a disturbing caution flag this week when the city's Fraternal Order of Police contested a critical reform toward restoring trust -- Ramsey's decision to move forward with the Justice Department recommendation to name officers involved in shootings of civilians. Hopefully Kenney -- who won the FOP endorsement despite his fairly progressive policies -- can serve as a bridge to the 21st Century for the FOP leadership, which often seems stuck in the 19th Century...on its better days.
What we don't need is more of the same old, same old. Murder in Philadelphia, unfortunately, is one threat level that actually is credible. But hopefully by July 4, 2016, we can be several giant steps closer to that freedom enunciated famously not by the Founding Fathers but by FDR -- freedom from fear.