Hey, did you see your City Council at work last week? At a time when our city has become one of the nation’s preeminent shooting galleries, five members of our august legislative body — Jamie Gauthier, Kendra Brooks, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Helen Gym, and Isaiah Thomas — took the occasion to issue a statement about a case in Delaware County, calling the district attorney’s handling of the killing of an eight-year-old girl last summer by police “a miscarriage of justice.”
We don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of the Delco case, except to say it’s tragic. Apparently, some untrained and ill-prepared cops opened fire on a moving car in a crowded gym parking lot in response to gunfire — only the shooting wasn’t emanating from said car. It was perpetrated by some Black youths in close proximity. The cops have now been charged with manslaughter; before that, the kids — the shooters — had been charged with murder, charges which later were reduced to aggravated assault and gun offenses. That’s the “miscarriage” the Philadelphia legislators referred to.
Was anyone else wondering why Philly legislators were sticking their nose in a collar county case when their own actual constituency is under siege every day?
It’s fair game to question the charging decisions by the DA in the Delco case. But, for our purposes, was anyone else wondering why Philly legislators were sticking their nose in a collar county case when their own actual constituency is under siege every day? It had the ring of performative political pandering rather than problem-solving, no?
But there has been a lot of that going on. We’ve been in a crisis of historic violence and bloodshed for some time now — perhaps not coincidentally, the length of Jim Kenney’s mayoralty and Larry Krasner’s tenure as district attorney, respectively — and have yet to see a concerted, collaborative plan among city leaders to do something. Yes, the Inquirer keeps reminding us that homicides increased nationwide during the pandemic, but in Philly the trend pre-dated Covid-19. Murder in our shooting gallery of a city is already up 3 percent so far this year, following last year’s record 562 homicides, and has ballooned an astounding 100.7 percent under Kenney, increasing every year since the completion of his first year in office.
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What have we gotten in response to this challenge of all challenges? Consistent doubling-down on what hasn’t been working; significantly more funding of community programs that are focused on long term results, though often without goals, timetables or a definition of what success might ultimately look like; a whole lot of finger-pointing, with Kenney and Krasner sniping at each other; talk of task forces and pilot programs of innovative law enforcement techniques we already know work elsewhere; bromides like “you can’t arrest your way out of this” and “gun violence is a public health crisis.” Just mouthing bumper-sticker slogans helps precisely zero gunshot victims.
Most troubling, there’s been an absence of the most obvious, salient point: At a time when disorder and mayhem are reigning supreme, we need better, smarter law enforcement that makes it safe for Philadelphians to walk their streets — right now. There’s a way to balance police reform with public safety — Eric Adams is doing so brilliantly in New York, as we’ll get to — but here, progressives are loathe to be seen as somehow supporting police. So we’re mired in a failing status quo, even as nearby cities like Chester and Camden demonstrate how smart policing interventions like Focused Deterrence and Cure Violence can make immediate inroads into making cities safer.
The short term solution: innovative policing
Last month, I was critical of Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier for the 8-step plan they’ve demanded Mayor Kenney adopt. Their prescriptions, I wrote, included nary a mention of better policing and prosecution — despite the fact that criminologists agree that, if you want to turn around lawlessness, policing and prosecution are by far the quickest routes to that end.
Rhynhart called me afterwards, to point out that she has long been advocating for what I’m calling for — just not in her 8-point plan with Gauthier. Fair enough. But, still, the omission was striking. When you have a police force with one of the worst clearance rates in the country, (if you kill someone in Philadelphia, you have a 60 percent of getting away with it), and a district attorney’s office that prosecutes far fewer gun crimes while the cops are making more gun arrests than ever, you can’t deny that a big part of the problem is a splintered law enforcement effort that is failing the average citizen.
Elsewhere, political leaders like progressive San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and, most recently, New York’s Adams are showing a willingness to offend the woke Twitterati that makes up their base by saying what is self-evident: That innovative policing has to be the prime solution in the short term, lest we descend into anarchy.
Well, it looks like Rhynhart agrees. Last week, she penned an op-ed for the Philadelphia Tribune, explaining that the Kenney administration’s $155 million in anti-violence funding is not targeted to necessary hotspots and tends toward longer-term initiatives that, while worthwhile, may take years to reduce homicides.
We can ensure the safety of our people at the same time we fight for a more just system.
“Programming and services are critical prevention strategies for reducing gun violence, but we must also look at enforcement,” she wrote, stressing something that could only be considered controversial in the People’s Republic of Philadelphia: “We can ensure the safety of our people at the same time we fight for a more just system.”
I caught up with Rhynhart yesterday. Her office has been auditing the police department and will have a “future-looking” report by June; meantime, she previewed for me the three pillars of her criminal justice philosophy. “For the last several years, I’ve been calling for the mayor to do the type of specific, targeted intervention programs that have been shown to work in other places, and, as you know, with Councilwoman Gauthier, I’ve worked to get more money to community groups,” she said. “But the third leg is, we need consequences. Without consequences, you embolden wrongdoing. We have a 37 percent homicide clearance rate and a 19 percent non-fatal shooting clearance rate. That means that if you kill someone, you have more than a 60 percent chance of never being convicted of it. And if you shoot someone and don’t kill them, you have an 80 percent chance of getting away with it. This can’t be the way we live. No Philadelphian wants to live this way.”
Rhynhart is right — in contrast to the mayor and district attorney — to talk about this moment as a crisis, one that can define the future of the city for decades to come. Others are also seeming to come around to the notion that, if we don’t do something, we may be on the verge of sliding into dystopia and disorder. Also this week, for example, seeking to fill the vacuum of leadership left by Kenney and Council, three Democratic members of Congress — Dwight Evans, Brendan Boyle and Mary Gay Scanlon — joined with Republican Brian Fitzpatrick to announce $1 billion in proposed federal funding targeted to the raising of clearance rates.
A proactive plan
All of them — Rynhart, Kenney, Council, the members of Congress — would do well to take notes when New York’s Adams talks about combating crime. Adams doesn’t speak in Ivory Tower criminology euphemisms. (Rhynhart could lose phrases like “evidence-based interventions” and replace them with lines like “smart policing that protects civil liberties while keeping our streets safe.”) He knows that democrats lose when they’re perceived to be out of touch with the values of their constituents. Rather than pander fearfully to the ideological extreme of his base, he has come out swinging — in three weeks, he’s already done more to combat gun violence than Jim Kenney in six years.
In the aftermath of the tragic ambush of two city cops last week, Adams announced a crime-fighting plan that he described as “not just a plan for the future. This is a plan for right now.”
It includes a laser-like focus on the 30 precincts where 80 percent of the city’s violence takes place; the immediate deployment of undercover “Neighborhood Safety Teams” in the most dangerous areas who will be required to activate body cams at all times; and the appointment of an anti-violence coordinator in every city agency. He’s also promising to embrace new technology, like facial recognition that can spot those who are carrying weapons, and to beef up the Gun Violence Suppression Division, which seizes illegal firearms and focuses on wiping out traffickers and sellers.
Predictably, democratic socialists on New York’s City Council have already cried foul, blasting the mayor’s plan as built on “a foundation of surveillance and punishment.” But one of those socialists tweeted her thoughts and prayers for the families of the two slain police officers — and for the family of their cold-blooded assassin.
Now, I’m all for a loving Judeo-Christian attitude, but, from a public servant, that speaks to a type of moral relativism that is not far removed from a group of Councilmembers sticking their noses into a Delco case and seeming to defend some kids who were shooting up a crowded parking lot. Repeat after me: Democrats lose when they seem to be out of touch with the values of their constituents.
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Adams’ plan is nothing if not proactive, in stark contrast to Kenney, who seriously recently said, “I’m responsible — the government is responsible for–a lot of things I have no control over.” Ah, City Hall, where no buck stops.
So, presumably, Rhynhart is in the process of putting together a big picture plan for the future of law enforcement in Philadelphia, though, tellingly, Krasner has refused to cooperate with her audit. “He’s challenged my legal authority to ask these questions,” she says. “I’m trying to address issues, and he wants to debate legal points. That’s okay. We’ve gotten most of what we need off his own data dashboards.”
So, If we were put together an Adams-like action plan for Rhynhart — not that she’s asked — what would be in it? Some thoughts:
Short for gun violence intervention, GVI’s initial incarnation, focused deterrence, is credited with cutting Boston’s murder rate by 80 percent, and a pilot program here under former Mayor Michael Nutter cut the gun violence rate by 35 percent in South Philly before Kenney discontinued it. GVI is the brainchild of legendary criminologist David Kennedy. Evidence shows that a small percentage of people drive a vast majority of gun violence, Kennedy holds, and violence can best be reduced by focusing directly on them through a carrot-and-stick approach, best exemplified by this message from Delco District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, who, along with the cops, has used GVI to cut the murder rate in Chester by 60 percent: “We told them, ‘We know who you run with. We know your groups. You can’t have group shootouts anymore. We will help you if you ask us, but we will stop you if you make us.’”
Since the summer of 2020, we’ve had a version of GVI in parts of Philly, and Kennedy has lent his expertise to the city as a consultant. Last month, a city report on the program contained some encouraging data, but the program remains underfunded and loosely managed. How in the world can it be that GVI is not yet citywide? How is it not operational in the 24th or 25th police districts, which have long had some of the city’s highest violent crime rates?
In cities where GVI is a difference maker — like Chester, for example — it’s because a vast array of stakeholders come together to make it work. In Chester, it’s managed out of the DA’s office, but the DA, mayor, police, public defenders and the courts all meet regularly and manage the program. In cities where GVI hasn’t succeeded — it’s failed twice in Baltimore, and a new attempt there is just now getting underway — it’s because law enforcement partners reject the very notion of partnership. Here, one of the biggest impediments has been Larry Krasner’s lack of buy-in; he tends to be all carrot, no stick.
Pay whatever his number is to bring Aqeela Sherrills here
If you missed Sherrills at our Ideas We Should Steal Festival, check out his talk here. He’s the director of Newark Community Street Teams, and it’s his street-level, credible messenger work that has helped that historically troubled city turn the corner on gun violence. Since Sherrills first took to Newark’s streets, the city has seen a double-digit reduction in homicides and has hit a 60-year low in violence.
Across the country, there is evidence that credible messenger interventions move the needle, as in Newark, Camden and Oakland. In St. Louis, Mayor Tishaura Jones credits another such intervention program, Cure Violence, for cutting that city’s homicide rate by 25 percent last year.
Too often, media accounts make it seem like escalating murder rates are just a force of nature. The truth is, we know what works to bring them down but we don’t always have the political will to do what needs to be done to succeed.
Will any progressive on Council or mayoral wannabe have the guts to call for actually hiring more cops and investing in more reforms? Any profiles in courage out there? Anyone?
Hire more cops!
Which gets us to our final recommendation. Yes, back when it became known that some 300 members of the Philadelphia police force posted racist and misogynistic messages on Facebook, including many captains and lieutenants, I wrote that we were beyond the “few bad apples” excuse. There is a culture issue in these paramilitary organizations that is in desperate need of reform.
I stand by that, which is why we’ve championed culture change programs like EPIC — Ethical Policing is Courageous, a peer intervention culture change that remade the New Orleans police force — and ABLE, Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement. Both programs create the space for police forces to police themselves on matters of ethics and community relations, which goes a long way to healing the broken bonds of trust between cops and those they swear to serve.
But we need to do two things at once: Change the culture of policing while hiring more cops to begin with. The situation is getting dire. There are currently roughly 400 vacancies in the Police Department, and another 600 or so are out due to injury, which may be a sign of the “de-policing” trend some say is infecting police departments nationwide.
Some 800 will soon be taking the DROP retirement benefit. Why such a manpower shortage? Hell, would you be a cop right now? If you’re not a part of the problem, chances are you feel like you’re being treated as though you are. On top of all that, the city has a ludicrous residency requirement — you have to be a resident within the city limits for a year before entering the Academy. What sucka is going to move here and wait a year just for the privilege of being publicly vilified for a starting salary of about $50,000 per year?
Will any progressive on Council or mayoral wannabe have the guts to call for actually hiring more cops and investing in more reforms, like the ABLE program, which Commissioner Outlaw has been trying to get off the ground here? Any profiles in courage out there? Anyone? Anyone?
Rhynhart has taken the first steps toward making the kind of nuanced argument Adams has ridden to political success in New York. It’s an argument best made in the 2015 book Ghettoside by journalist Jill Leovy, who argues that police are both occupying force and ill-equipped when it comes to protecting Black and Brown lives.
“This is not an easy argument to make in these times. Many critics today complain that the criminal justice system is heavy handed and unfair to minorities,” writes Leovy. “We hear a great deal about capital punishment, excessively punitive drug laws, supposed misuse of eyewitness evidence, troublingly high levels of black male incarceration, and so forth. So to assert that Black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception. But the perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former are a kind of poor compensation for the latter. Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
Amen. Leovy lays bare for us the complicated central dichotomy we all need to square for ourselves. Can we make policing and prosecution as good and as fair and as tough and as loving as we all aspire to be in our own lives? Can we move beyond the partisan shibboleths (looking at you, Krasner: suck it up and cooperate when someone is trying to make you better, you big baby!) and get to problem-solving? Can we make it safe to park your car on a street in broad daylight without getting shot, and can we ensure that, when we do call the cops, no heads are going to get busted up as a result?
A lot of questions, I know. It sure would be nice if those we elected had some answers.
Larry Platt writes for The Philadelphia Citizen.
This article was republished with permission from The Philadelphia Citizen.