How Not to Get Murdered In Philadelphia

It's easier than you think ... for some residents.

We know that Philadelphia is the most deadly of the 10 biggest cities in America (it’s not even close). And we know that there are times in this city—like now—when high-profile killings join the steady drumbeat of less publicized murders to create a kind of terrifying noise that, for a while, manages to drown out everything else. Last week, fellow Philly Post contributor Christine Speer Lejuene asked two questions. 1. Does Philly’s high murder rate actually affect you? And 2) What’s the value in dwelling obsessively on crime statistics?

I’d like to stab at answering her first question using, yes, statistics.

For a large majority of Philadelphians, the odds your life will end violently in the streets in any given year is vanishingly small: about seven in 100,000. You’re twice as likely to die in an airplane crash than as a murder victim in Philadelphia. Unless, that is, you are a) black and b) male. If you are a black man, your chances of getting murdered in this city are 10 times that of the rest of Philadelphia. I calculated those figures using totals from the police department’s analysis of 2010 homicides (the latest full year available), which tells us that of the 306 victims in 2010, 216 were black men. Let’s put this another way: For most Philadelphians, murder is almost as unlikely here as it is for residents of New York or San Francisco, and less likely than in places such as Omaha, Nebraska. For black men, though, Philadelphia is a ridiculously dangerous place, with a homicide rate that is probably higher than Baghdad’s (though such comparisons can be tricky).

Clearly there’s a lot more to feeling safe in a city than avoiding a fatal gunshot. And there’s a lot less racial inequality among the victims of other crimes, like assault and robbery. But these statistics do put Philadelphia’s persistent plague of homicides in context: This is a problem that affects different parts of the city in profoundly different ways.

Which is why it makes sense—as uncomfortable as it sometimes can be—that the Nutter administration now talks about violent crime in Philadelphia in explicitly racial terms. The Nutter administration likes its statistics, and having spent more than four years now looking at the numbers, the mayor’s team is no longer shy about talking about homicide as a largely African-American problem.

“As a black man in this country I’ve been appalled that 75 percent of the people killed and doing the killing are African Americans. That’s abhorrent to me,” said Everett Gillison, Nutter’s chief of staff and the deputy mayor for public safety. “We’ve got an African-American D.A., an African-American mayor, an African-American police commissioner, and we’re not going to be the ones to talk about the carnage in the African-American community?”

If you know anything about Gillison—a lifelong public defender and a deeply devout man—then you know he is the last person on earth to think that a lock-’em-up approach is the only answer. But it is telling that even Gillison, who worked heroically to reduce the size of the city’s prison population, is so fed up with the persistence of the violence that he’s full-square behind stiffer sentences for possession of illegal guns.

“Yeah, we’ll get into root causes, but we’re also going to have personal responsibility play a huge piece in this,” Gillison said, discussing Nutter’s new crime initiative.