City Controller: Philadelphians deserve to feel safe

Updated: Jan 18

With 562 homicides, 2021 was the deadliest year in Philadelphia’s recorded history. Most of the victims were young Black men. — AP photo

BY Rebecca Rhynhart for the Tribune

This was originally published by the Philadelphia Tribune on Jan 16, 2022

Philadelphia families should feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods. But right now, city government is failing its people. With 562 homicides, 2021 was the deadliest year in Philadelphia’s recorded history. Most of the victims were young Black men. Most of the murders were committed with a gun. In total, almost 2,300 people were shot in the city last year. We need strong leadership to make our residents safer, and it starts with tackling gun violence and getting illegal guns off our streets.

Since 2019, I’ve called on Mayor Jim Kenney and his administration to implement a comprehensive anti-violence strategy that utilizes programs with proven success in other cities, like Oakland and New Orleans. These programs treat gun violence like a public health crisis and are strategically targeted to those most likely to shoot or be shot. My office’s previous analysis of the Kenney administration’s $155 million in anti-violence funding found that the resources were spread citywide, rather than targeted, and were primarily focused on longer-term initiatives that could be worthwhile but are likely to take years to reduce homicides, rather than short-term interventions that are targeted at the crux of the problem.

This past summer, I stood with Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and other city leaders to demand the mayor take specific action in the 14 ZIP codes most impacted by gun violence, including expanding programming and trauma services to support those specific communities now.

Programming and services are critical prevention strategies for reducing gun violence, but we must also look at enforcement. Over the last few months, my office has been analyzing what must be fixed in our city’s criminal justice system to bring the violence down. We focused on two trends: clearance rates, which tell the percentage of these crimes “cleared” by the police making an arrest, for fatal and non-fatal shootings; and declining conviction rates for illegal gun possession, called violations of the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA), which is the responsibility of the DA.

Despite increases in the number of arrests made by the police for fatal and non-fatal shootings, police clearance rates for homicides are dismally low. In 2020 just 37% of all fatal shootings were solved by the police. The non-fatal shooting clearance rate, already much too low at 27% in 2015, decreased to just 19% in 2020. Shootings and killings have increased so dramatically that despite making more arrests, the clearance rates have decreased. This is unacceptable and must change. The police have offered some strategies to improve the clearance rate, such as increased investigative staffing to keep up with caseload volume and improved technology to support investigations. My office is undertaking an audit of the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) and it will review this problem and potential solutions to it.

We know the majority of urban shootings are committed using illegal guns. Although police have increased the number of arrests made for illegal gun possession by more than 100% since 2015, conviction rates for VUFA cases declined from 65% to 42% according to the District Attorney’s Office data dashboard. That means more than half of all those arrested and charged with carrying a gun illegally in our city face no consequences. The DAO has cited issues with evidence in vehicle stops and witnesses not appearing for court as contributing factors to the decline in conviction rates. However, our review of conviction rate trends over the past several years does not show either of these reasons as the sole factors for the decline. According to Police Department data, conviction rates have decreased across all stops, not just vehicle stops, and while failure to appear is the leading cause of case dismissals, the number of cases dismissed for this reason has held steady since 2016, according to the DA’s testimony to City Council.

I strongly believe in criminal justice reform. We must not return to the days of over-incarceration. It is harmful not only to those who are imprisoned, but to their families and the larger community. Sentencing and bail reform, if done correctly, are important to solving this issue. However, right now, much of Philadelphia does not feel safe. Our people live in fear of gun violence.

We can ensure the safety of our people at the same time we fight for a more just system. That is what Philadelphians deserve. To reach this goal, we must make changes. While Kenney has called out the state for its unwillingness to support Philadelphia’s efforts for more stringent gun laws, we must acknowledge that there is more that the city can — and should — be doing to strengthen enforcement.

The police must improve clearance rates for shootings and murders and continue to make arrests for illegal gun possession, and the DA needs to enforce the gun laws already on the books and prosecute those arrested for gun charges appropriately, garnering convictions and making our city safer. It will take targeted and aggressive efforts to stem the flow of illegal guns into Philadelphia and to hold those engaging in illegal gun activities accountable to the highest degree. The DA must prioritize illegal gun possession cases, in addition to the areas of reform he is focused on. There must be real consequences.

At the same time, we need a course correction on Kenney’s inadequate response to gun violence. To stop the bloodshed, the mayor must make specific, targeted investments in the intervention programs that work and into the communities most afflicted by gun violence.

Philadelphians deserve to feel safe. We can’t allow another year like last year. Change must happen now.

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