Off The Cuff: January 2007

A month ago, a young black man was shot outside a New York strip club on the morning of his wedding. Sean Bell was unarmed, the police fired 50 rounds — you know the story, which is all about police abuse and racism. Those are the accusations, at any rate. But the Bell shooting and the controversy surrounding it, the threat of riots and the calling for the scalp of police commissioner Ray Kelly over one accidental shooting, make me wonder where the outrage is over a much larger problem in Philadelphia: the epidemic of young black men killing each other.

We’ve decided, in fact, there is nothing we can do about the mushrooming murder rate in this city; police commissioner Sylvester Johnson has admitted that his department has no answers. A few weeks ago, Johnson came to an event that this magazine sponsored at the National Constitution Center, to discuss violence in Philadelphia. District Attorney Lynne Abraham was there, along with Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge; also on the panel was Greg Gilderman, who wrote November’s cover article about the murder epidemic, and Penn professor Lawrence Sherman, who has ideas about getting guns off the street that have worked in other cities. The discussion was intense, but our police commissioner seemed lifeless, without energy or ideas; he defended his department and, unlike Abraham, is obviously not open to trying anything new.

Johnson seems more worried that aggressive policing will break the law — “I’m not going to break the law to enforce the law” is one of his favorite mantras — than he is concerned with figuring out a way to stop Philly’s youth from killing each other. Think about that for a moment: Our top law enforcement officer wants to proceed cautiously, not upset the status quo, not trounce on anybody’s civil liberties, in the face of a rising violent crime wave in his city.

It amazes me that Johnson wasn’t fired long ago — if the Sean Bell shooting prompted calls for the dismissal of New York’s police commissioner over one accidental death, why don’t 400 murders a year in Philadelphia demand action? Apparently we’re comfortable with a commissioner whose idea of leadership is to go around saying things like “I don’t believe that law enforcement is ever going to change the quality of life.” Or: “This is not just happening in Philadelphia. You’ll see the same thing in other big cities. Violence is up all over.” And: “I get concerned and a little frustrated, but it’s not enough frustration to change myself.”

Nor is the murder wave enough of a problem for John Street to find a new police commissioner, even with a sizable chunk of the city a war zone, with residents living in fear. The Daily News recently captured that fear after another wrenching murder: A five-year-old girl named Cashae Rivers was shot while riding in a car, and there was a chance for four witnesses to identify the gunman at a preliminary hearing. Except that they said, No, not us, we didn’t see a thing. That’s the Stop Snitching mentality that’s gripped this town, where neighborhoods can’t even speak out against the drug dealers and other thugs who murder our children.

There are no easy, quick answers to gun violence. But aggressive policing — as we and others have discussed — has worked in New York and other cities that have had big drops in violent crime. That would at least be a starting point. Of course, it’s easier for us to get distracted by a horrible murder of an unarmed young man on the morning of his wedding than it is to face a terrible problem that’s now costing this city 400 lives a year.