Violent crime in Philadelphia continued to fall in 2017, with offenses including rape, robbery, and aggravated assault likely to rival last year's notably low totals, according to preliminary police statistics.

But for the first time since 2012, the city recorded more than 300 homicides — an uptick of nearly 15 percent and the only category of violent crime to substantially increase, the statistics say.

Police officials and criminologists are hard-pressed to explain why murders were up when other crime was down, particularly because fewer shootings were reported in 2017 than the year before.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based policy institute, said in a preliminary analysis of 2017 crime data that some other cities, including Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C., also experienced higher murder totals even as national levels of urban crime continue to decline, but analysts stopped short of offering explanations.

"It's tough to point to an iron-clad cause," said Ames C. Grawert, counsel for the Brennan Center.

Locally, officials point to several factors that could have contributed to Philadelphia's 2017 homicide spike, including the opioid epidemic, a department that had been several hundred officers short of what Commissioner Richard Ross feels is an adequate staffing level, and easy access to guns.

Let's analyze some of those elements.

The opioid crisis

Two of the city's most violent police districts — the 24th and 25th — intersect in Kensington, in the heart of the city's open-air drug markets and where heroin users have flocked amid a national opioid epidemic.

Those two districts alone recorded about a quarter of the city's homicides and shootings in 2017, according to police statistics. And Ross believes competition from the drug trade is fueling the violence, with dealers angling to control lucrative territory.

"It drives competition, and with competition and drug-trafficking organizations you tend to get drug violence that comes with it," Ross said.

Philadelphia 2017 Homicides and Shootings

By police district – through 12/25
Staff Graphic

In Philadelphia, many drug corners are run by different crews, which keeps competition levels high and allows would-be dealers from outside the neighborhood to try to seek a foothold in the area.

This year, the Police Department for the first time trained new officers to patrol by bicycle and assigned a group of young cops to Kensington. Although rookies in recent years worked foot patrols to spur interaction with residents while learning the beat, officials believe putting police on bicycles retains those benefits while giving officers more mobility.

It’s difficult to isolate what impact, if any, the bicycle strategy had, but the department plans to unveil it in districts beyond Kensington next year.

Resource questions

Although Kensington represents an especially violent slice of Philadelphia, police statistics show that homicides and shootings affect neighborhoods all across the city — complicating deployment decisions and crime-fighting strategies for police commanders.

“There are literally corners in this city where if we don’t have a police presence, there is going to be a shooting,” Ross said. “We don’t have a city where we have the luxury of concentrating in two regions.”

Outside of the 25th District, which had a 23 percent spike in homicides in 2017, four other police districts saw sharp increases in homicides last year — covering territory in South Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, neighborhoods in Northwest Philadelphia including Mount Airy and Germantown, and river wards including Frankford and Mayfair.

Ross also said that for part of 2017, the department had been about 400 officers short of what he would have preferred. Following a recruiting push, the commissioner said, he anticipates about 370 new cops will hit the streets by next September, allowing the department to spread about 6,500 officers throughout the city.

“[We’ll] be able to benefit from their presence,” he said.

Access to guns

About 4 out of 5 homicides each year are committed with guns, according to police statistics, and city officials have long lamented the ease with which people can acquire firearms.

It can cost as little as $50 to buy an illegal gun on the street, and they are so widely available that even teens can acquire them. During last week’s preliminary hearing for accused killer Brandon Olivieri, for example, prosecutors showed three photos allegedly pulled from Instagram — each of which appeared to show the 16-year-old proudly holding a different type of gun.

Officers made 8 percent more gun arrests in 2017 than a year earlier, and Ross said he is exploring the idea of having some detectives in each region of the city concentrate solely on investigating gun crimes, rather than juggling the traditional mix of shootings, robberies, assaults, and other offenses.

Ross, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, and Philadelphia District Attorney-elect Larry Krasner all have spoken out in recent weeks against federal legislation that would expand the ability for people to carry concealed weapons.

No foolproof answers

Still, few of those factors are unique to 2017, and Ross noted other longtime challenges for police, such as widespread poverty and a mentality that guns can be used to solve arguments.

Grawert, of the Brennan Center, noted that Philadelphia’s homicide totals are still on the lower end of recent decades — but that a one-year spike approaching 15 percent appeared outside the normal ebb and flow of annual crime levels.

Earlier this year, the city established the Office of Violence Prevention partly to analyze the effectiveness of the dozens of antiviolence programs that receive a combined $60 million in public funding. City Council also established a special committee on gun-violence prevention in June.

Bilal Qayyum, a longtime antiviolence activist, said those efforts need to focus on providing street-level intervention for young men who for years have been conditioned to pick up a gun when they have a problem. Without combating that issue, Qayyum said, policing strategies will only get so far.

“How do we get these young men to understand that that’s not the way to resolve conflict?” Qayyum said. “We have to, as a city, address that.”