Last Monday evening, Mayor Kenney sat at a round table and issued a challenge to a group of frustrated South Philadelphia residents: Write up your ambitious plan to reduce gun violence through economics, and then we'll have another invitation-only meeting, he told them. And the next meeting will include the Commerce Department, so that we can contemplate how to turn ideas into action.
The mayor's pledge was made without fanfare, but it's one that should be celebrated for its altruism as well as its pragmatism.
While crime, including murder, rates generally declined in America's 30 largest cities in 2017, Philadelphia saw an increase in its homicide rate. Last year, a total of 315 people were slain here. This year, the city is on track to equal or exceed that total. Nearly 82 percent of homicides involve firearms, according to 2017 data from the city Department of Public Health.
"Guns are a significant problem. … It's particularly an issue with teens. … Most of these victims haven't had a chance to live their lives," said Police Commissioner Richard Ross on Oct. 31, following a news conference which occurred hours before a 14-year-old girl and her 5-year-old brother were shot while trick-or-treating in Olney.
The city has tried many strategies to reduce Philadelphia's prevalent gun violence.
There's been stop-and-frisk, a widely condemned tactic that exacerbated tensions in some neighborhoods between police and citizens, largely failed to remove illegal guns from the streets, and was the catalyst for a 2010 class-action lawsuit against the government.
There's also been the "tough on crime" approach, when the city tried arresting its way out of the problem. The result was Philadelphia having the highest incarceration rate per capita of the 10 largest American cities.
Focused deterrence was another experiment in making Philly safer. In April 2013, Mayor Michael Nutter pinpointed South Philadelphia to test a law enforcement strategy that identifies those most likely to commit crimes and then corrals them together to offer them social services. According to a study from Temple University, this strategy led to a 35 percent drop in shootings in three police districts but had no effect on gang-related violence.
At the meeting last week, Kenney said that he's no fan of focused deterrence and confirmed that the program has been nearly phased out.
"Gun laws in the commonwealth leave a lot to be desired," Ross said to a few journalists who managed to bend his ear after the Oct. 31 news conference. The commissioner said the gun violence in Philadelphia keeps him awake at night.
As a result, Philadelphia is left with several failed experiments and a high homicide rate. Our goal now should be to execute bold new approaches, and having the Commerce Department at the table when discussing violence reduction through economic empowerment certainly fits that bill. The mantra should be peace through prosperity.
Most people agree that poverty and gun violence are closely related. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country, with a poverty rate of 26 percent. And according to the city's own data set, firearms homicides occur most frequently among residents in the lowest income neighborhoods, and are the leading cause of death for young non-Hispanic black males.
Reducing poverty and the reliance on the underground economy could have a positive impact in reducing gun violence.
In Southwest Philadelphia, this option is already in play.
Turning a New Corner, an initiative spearheaded by the Southwest Police Division in partnership with employers, workforce developers, and community leaders, executes street-corner job interviews in the city's most challenged areas. So far, 40 people have secured jobs, according to the Police Department.
This alone won't solve Philly's gun violence problems.
But if we, as a city, can move the needle on poverty and economic issues, relieving the other impediments to safe streets gets easier.
The mayor's productive meeting in South Philadelphia, and the successful ground game in the city's Southwest neighborhoods, are glimmers of hope in a city too often scarred by untimely death.