Can Mayor Nutter Keep His Promise?

Recent violence threatens his pledge to reduce the murder rate by up to 50%

This has been one of the most violent weeks in Philadelphia in a long time. And it’s not over yet.

In five days there have been 17 shootings leaving five dead and four in critical condition. It is the thick of summer, hot and humid—killing time in the city.

Mayor Nutter must be holding his breath.

The mayor just announced necessary budget measures that will cut police hours on the street: a $6.3-million reduction in police overtime and two Police Academy classes scheduled for the coming year were canceled. It had to hurt the mayor when he made the announcement. Many government executives across the country have been forced by the economic climate to make similar cuts in police protection. But they don’t have everything on the line like Mayor Nutter does. They didn’t make The Promise.

In 2008, when Michael Nutter was sworn in as mayor of Philadelphia, there was one issue that dwarfed all others—murder.

I remember the bold, blood-red graphics that the local TV stations used with ominous music to alert viewers of their “City in Crisis” coverage. Every killing was covered and the anchors played the role of grim hosts in a macabre nightly murder telethon.

In 2006 the final number was 406. In 2007, the number fell to 393, but the networks and national publications still pointed out that Philadelphia was averaging “a murder a day,” and CNN dubbed the city “Killadelphia.”

We had the highest murder rate of the nation’s top 10 cities.

At the beginning of the Philadelphia mayoral campaign, Michael Nutter was a long shot in a crowded field of candidates for the democratic nomination, which has become the real race for mayor in this city because of an impotent local Republican party.

Tom Knox had more money. Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady had the organizations. Dwight Evans had the ties to Harrisburg.

But Michael Nutter grabbed on to THE issue.

I moderated the televised debate that was Nutter’s turning point in the campaign. He was running fifth in the polls and was taking some heat for a controversial plan to allow police to “stop and frisk” suspicious characters on the streets of Philadelphia.

When I asked then Councilman Nutter if his plan violated civil rights, he knocked it out of the park with “people have the right not to be shot.”

It was the defining moment of the debate and maybe the campaign, and the rest is history. Nutter went from fifth to first, won the nomination easily, and went on to beat Republican Al Taubenberger in the biggest landslide in city history.

At his inauguration, our new mayor continued to ride the crime wave and angrily proclaimed “I’ve had enough” to thunderous applause. He then made this bold promise: “We must cut our homicide rate by 30-50% over the next three to five years.”[SIGNUP]

In an interview with the mayor after the speech, I asked him if he over-reached. I reminded him that if he failed at reaching those goals, that quote would haunt him in his re-election bid. Nutter answered without hesitation that if he didn’t reach that goal, “I shouldn’t be re-elected.”

It was bold. It was self-motivating. It was what we all liked about Michael Nutter.

As of the end of last week, 157 people have been murdered in Philadelphia this year. That is up from 2009 when 151 people were killed during the same time period, but down 26% from the same period in 2007 when 212 people were killed on the streets of Philadelphia.

Mayor Nutter was close to reaching that “unreachable” promise.

That was before this violent week when we returned, for a short time, to “a murder a day.” Everyone in the police department knows violent crimes go up with the summer heat. The only question is how hot and how violent.

Hopefully, the temperature goes down both on the thermometer and the street.

Even with this week’s five murders, we are still far off the ugly pace of 2006.

The magic number is 275. If there are 113 murders or less in the next five months, Mayor Nutter will reach his goal of a 30% reduction. If not, he has two more years in his “three-to-five-year” window.

It is true that the murder rate is down across the country—its lowest level since the 1960s. A combination of data-based police strategies and tougher, sometimes mandatory, sentences seem to be the driving components of the success.

We have shared that success in Philadelphia and need to give credit where credit is due. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey deserves credit for bringing the police strategies that worked in other cities to Philadelphia.

Philadelphia police, especially the men and women on the street, deserve credit for carrying out the new policy. Remember that there was an epidemic of police shootings and murders during the crisis years. Officers gave their lives to keep us safe.

And Mayor Michael Nutter deserves credit for setting a bold promise and not forgetting it. A promise that, if the two-year trend continues, he will keep. If the short-term trend of this week continues, he is in trouble. We all are.

This column today is to remind people of the promise, the success and the work still to be done.

Often when a problem is solved, or at least abated, the electorate and the media forget that it ever existed as they move on to the next problem. The “City in Crisis” graphic can just be reworked with some new music, a different color and images of dollar signs and budget packets.

It makes successes easy to forget.

Mayor Nutter has been successful so far, but hasn’t yet kept The Promise. He has time; a hot summer and a cold economy have hurt, but he is still on target.

Either way, we need to remember. If The Promise is kept, I have a feeling Mayor Nutter’s ad people will make certain we remember it in the next campaign. If it isn’t, you can be sure his political opponents will remind us.