Police at a loss to explain violence spike
PHILADELPHIANS looking to the police department for answers to why the city's homicide rate has spiked to the highest level in five years will be disappointed. Commissioner Charles Ramsey says the department just doesn't know.
PHILADELPHIANS looking to the police department for answers to why the city's homicide rate has spiked to the highest level in five years will be disappointed.
Commissioner Charles Ramsey says the department just doesn't know.
Ramsey, his deputies and criminal-justice experts say they're unsure to what they can attribute the 23 percent spike in homicides so far this year, or what can be done to put an end to the killing.
"This isn't, 'What's the new strategy that's going to somehow turn it around?' " Ramsey said. "Hell, if we knew that, we'd have done it already. We have no interest in allowing a body count to grow."
The homicide count has climbed to its highest level since Ramsey took charge of the department in 2008. Through Sunday, the city had 173 homicides this year. That's 32 more than last year at this time, and only eight fewer than at this time in 2007, the year before Mayor Nutter took office and brought Ramsey to town with a pledge to cut the homicide rate.
Following a particularly bloody January, Nutter outlined nine steps the city would take to crack down.
He pushed for augmenting the lines of communication between cops and communities, began offering $20,000 for tips leading to arrests of homicide suspects, and pledged to increase funding for the city's victim- and witness-services programs.
He also called for the city to strictly enforce two sections of the state crime code that deal with illegal-gun possession. District Attorney Seth Williams pledged to work with the courts to ensure that people arrested for illegally carrying firearms are aggressively prosecuted — which doesn't seem to be happening, Ramsey and Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross said.
According to the department's five-year report, released in August 2011, a gun was used in 88 percent of homicides between 2007 and 2011, and 76 percent of homicide victims had criminal records. The revolving door of criminals arrested and rearrested on weapons charges feeds into the relentless violence.
"Their point is well-taken," said First Assistant District Attorney Edward McCann. "When we sit around and identify the most violent defendants, far too often we see a court history where there were several opportunities to hold them accountable and take them off the streets, and cases get dismissed."
Despite that, McCann said the D.A.'s office has put forth a tremendous effort since 2010 to ensure that criminals arrested on weapons charges are vigorously pursued by the court system.
"It's not like people aren't doing anything. There's a concerted effort on everybody's behalf to fight this, and I'm sure that will continue," he said. "Is it perfect? Absolutely not. There's a lot of work left to do."
The department had confiscated 1,291 guns through June 7, and Ross says police put a major emphasis on confiscating illegal firearms.
"That's what it's about, because absent that, you're always going to be behind the eight ball, because, unfortunately, there are a lot of guns on the street," he said.
The Police Department uses statistics to try to predict violence and deploy personnel accordingly, Ross said.
"We look at our numbers on a daily basis to see where the trends are, where the hot spots are, where the retaliation appears to be occurring," he said. "Then what we do is we strategically deploy our people — en masse, when we can — and we use a myriad of ways to do that.
"We have foot beats that we lay down in areas, we have strategic and tactical units that get out, like Highway Patrol and Narcotics Strike Force, as well as our district tactical people, and we typically lay out grids that correspond to shootings and homicides and other violence."
But when a shooting does happen — as it has nearly every seven hours on average this year — Ramsey said it's hard to get any information from victims.