By Ron Todt
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia officials expressed alarm at surging gun violence this year that has already caused more homicides than were recorded in all of last year — and which continued last Tuesday with more killings.
Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told reporters last Tuesday that police were “working very diligently and passionately toward the goal of a safer Philadelphia” a day after six homicides occurred, including a man shot to death in the parking lot of a home improvement store in the middle of the day.
Police department statistics showed 363 homicides as of last Monday night — an increase of 40% over last year and already topping the year-long total of 356 in 2019, itself already the highest homicide total in more than a decade.
The violence continued last Tuesday as police called to a southwest Philadelphia takeout restaurant in the early morning found a 19-year-old man shot six times. He died at a hospital. Last Tuesday afternoon, a 33-year-old man was killed by a shot to the back of the head in west Philadelphia; two hours later, another man died in southwest Philadelphia.
“Every act of gun violence is absolutely tragic; however, it is especially shameful and sickening when the victims are among our most vulnerable,” Outlaw said. She cited “some recent positive trends in targeted areas,” with homicide reductions in some districts over the last 28 days following increased arrests for firearms violations and drug sales.
Outlaw said, however, that police cannot solve the problem alone and others must help ensure “real consequences” to hold those responsible for violence accountable and also to deter others.
“What we’re seeing is a pattern and a trend among those shooting victims or offenders who have history for similar types of crimes,” she said. “They’ve either been arrested for (Violation of Uniform Firearms Act) before, they’ve been a victim of a shooting before or they’ve shot someone in the past and they’re out and about being allowed to re-offend.”
District Attorney Larry Krasner, flanked by council members and other officials in north Philadelphia late last Tuesday afternoon, called the level of violence “unacceptable” and vowed “anything and everything” to bring perpetrators to justice as well as to get at the “root causes” of the violence.
Officials said the reasons for the dramatic increase this year were unclear but noted that similar increases had been seen around the country during the pandemic.
“Does it have to do with groups? Does it have to do with people having a sense of desperation? Does it have to do with the COVID crisis? The pandemic? I think all of those are factors,” Deputy Commissioner Ben Naish said.
Mayor Jim Kenney said the police department was doing everything it could, with officers taking hundreds of guns off the streets each month and trying to get between combatants “dead-set” on killing each other. He said, however, police risking their lives to remove guns were playing “whack-a-mole” as weapons were quickly replaced.
Kenney said he believed the pandemic and resulting economic crisis and rising gun violence constituted a “toxic stew.”
“As we get out of the COVID issue, hopefully soon, and get back on track financially, we’ll have opportunities to interact with people in a more close way and get the opportunity to refer people to job training and jobs when the economy starts to rebound,” Kenney said.
Outlaw noted, however, that violence had been increasing in the city for several years even before the pandemic, and solutions for longstanding problems had to be sought.
“Until mindsets are addressed, until the culture of violence is addressed, all the things that have been going on prior to this pandemic … we’re going to end up in the same place,” Outlaw said.
Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier called for an emergency declaration, saying talk of a “culture of violence” needed to be joined by talk of a “culture of scarcity” in some neighborhoods “that has locked people out of opportunity and that is largely responsible for what we are seeing today.”
Councilmember Kendra Brooks called on all residents to be “witnesses and eyes” on the street.
“We are losing our babies at the hand of our babies,” she said. “My kids should not have buried more friends than I have in their lifetime.”