Gun violence is an epidemic in Philadelphia. That is not hyperbole. Just ask the residents of the communities where gunfire and murder are everyday events. In 2013, we — one of us an ex-offender dedicated to social services, one of us a prosecutor specializing in eliminating gun violence — participated in an effort to combat this epidemic by implementing the Focused Deterrence Strategy in South Philadelphia. The aim of Focused Deterrence, which identifies those most likely to commit crimes and then corrals them together to offer them social services, is to reduce gun violence by changing offender behavior through a focused, blended strategy of law enforcement, community mobilization, and social services, including job training and placement.
Like many new strategies in this city, Focused Deterrence encountered entrenched resistance. But with the hard work and enthusiasm of a specialized squad of police officers and district attorneys, probation officers, social services coordinators, families, and community members, we succeeded in executing the strategy. It worked: Participants stayed alive. Overall, the strategy was credited with a 35 percent reduction in gun-related homicides in South Philadelphia. A 35 percent reduction citywide in 2017 would have equaled 110 murders that didn't happen. One hundred and ten people not in the morgue, still alive, and able to contribute to society.
Obviously, after the success in South Philadelphia, the city increased funding for Focused Deterrence and expanded it citywide, right? Wrong. Not only did the city not increase the funding, it actually reduced it from $150,000 in its first year of implementation to $120,000 in subsequent years. The strategy has never been implemented in any of the other gun-violence plagued sections of the city. So what is the future for Focused Deterrence in Philadelphia?
The Inquirer recently published an op-ed by Christopher Norris, quoting the mayor as being "down on" the strategy and describing it as "fading." In its place, the city is apparently pursuing an alternative strategy: eliminating poverty. No matter that the elimination of poverty has been a societal objective from time immemorial. And while it is an admirable goal, it is not a solution — or certainly not the only solution — to the murders that are going to happen today.
Homicides in Philadelphia, like other urban areas with gun violence, have precise causes that require precise coordinated strategies. Not everyone afflicted by poverty carries and uses a gun to hurt other people. Focused Deterrence has a proven track record of success of targeting those that do.
It works when it is funded and sustained. A recent study by the journal Criminology & Public Policy concluded that the strategy consistently achieved significant reductions in crime in multiple jurisdictions between 2000 and 2015 and that it should be a part of any urban strategy to combat gun violence.
But in Philadelphia, it has "faded." In its place, we have gone back to the future, speaking in quaint platitudes about an utopian future while the blood pools around us.