Why Crazy Rightwingers and Bleeding-Heart Liberals Should Like Philly’s New Gang-Targeting Strategy

Hint: It's more protective of the rights that both sides care about.

Fascinating story from the Inky’s Mike Newall over the weekend about how Philly Police are trying a new technique to reduce violent crime in the city. They’re … going after the criminals.

How it works is this: Police identify as many gang members as they can in town. Then they round them up—voluntarily—and bring them to a meeting to deliver a stern warning from Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and District Attorney Seth Williams. Newall writes about what the men told the gangsters:

They did not want them to die, they told the group. They did not want to send them to jail. They wanted to help.

But if the men or any of their friends squeezed a trigger, their entire crew would experience the weight of the law like never before. The whole group would pay. No matter who pulled the trigger.

Cops would swarm, they were warned. And there would be stiffer jail sentences, higher bails, the revisiting of stalled cases, stricter probation, and parole enforcement, and even crackdowns on child-support failings, welfare fraud, and utility thefts.

From now on, after a shooting, Peco would inspect gang members’ homes. If they were stealing electricity, their lights would be shut off.

The crew members and their friends were now at the top of everybody’s list, Ramsey said. First in line for job training and other support services, but also squarely in the sights of law enforcement.

The result? “Compared with last year, shootings in South Philadelphia are down 43 percent, falling to 22 since the start of Focused Deterrence from 39 for the same period of 2012, police statistics show. Homicides were cut in half – from 15 to seven.”

This isn’t a new idea. It’s based on the theories of David Kennedy, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice—he’s a Swarthmore grad, as well—that have been around a few years: The New Yorker documented Cincinnati’s use of his techniques in a 2009 profile, and it has since spread in popularity.

The strategy relies both on carrot and stick, and actually using both: Newall reports that a shooting soon after the meeting resulted in revoked probations, shut-off electricity and more for the shooter’s fellow gang members.

But beyond that, there’s a carrot for both conservatives and liberals who pay close attention to gun violence issues.

For liberals, it’s welcome to see police target people with known gang affiliations, as opposed to stop-and-frisk, in which black people are mostly stopped and frisked for … being black people. It may be there’s something problematic about the way alleged gang members are being selected for scrutiny in this program, but nothing’s emerged so far, and conceptually, anyway, going after people connected to gangs is a big improvement over going after people who share a skin color with a few criminals.

For conservatives—Second Amendment lovers, in particular—there’s also something to love. So much gun violence in the last few years has produced plenty of calls to crack down on the guns and ammunition available to the general public. That infuriates the thousands of law-abiding gun owners out there; so a program that responds to gun violence with an attempt to go after bad guys—instead of lumping the good in with the bad—might also prove welcome.

The question, of course, is whether the program can work for the long term. It’s apparently resource- and energy-intensive. But the beginning of this program, at least, is auspicious.