Q&A: Jim MacMillan of GunCrisis.org Talks About Philly’s Murder Rate

"The progress made in 2013 is indisputable, but we've still got a long way to go."

Jim MacMillan

2014 is starting out scary. After the record decline in homicides in 2013, the New Year has begun with a homicide-a-day rate reminiscent of the bad old “Killadelphia” days we’d hoped were past. Jim MacMillan, a former Daily News photographer and a founder of GunCrisis.org, tracks violence in the city. He talked with Philly Mag today about what’s happening and why.

There were two more homicides overnight in Philadelphia. That makes it 13 deaths in 13 days so far for the year. Is the relatively peaceful year of 2013 over, or is this a fluke?

I think both comments are too extreme. The progress made in 2013 is indisputable, priceless, unprecedented news, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Among my concerns: Based on my calculations, Philadelphia still suffers the highest rate of homicide per capita among large American cities. That’s before and after last year’s declines, because many of the large cities experienced declines last year. Another oversimplification of what happened in 2013 misses the point that homicides were up by 15 percent in the last six months of 2013 over the first six months of 2013. So depending on the duration of your convenience, homicides were up or down. It should never be oversimplified.

On the bright side, I did a chart comparing Philadelphia — New York, L.A., and Chicago — Philadelphia showed a greater rate of progress than those other cities, yet still has the most work to do. Premature celebration would be a mistake. I’ve seen the police commissioner go out of his way to avoid that.

We have seen an uptick in homicides at the beginning of the year. Is there anything we can point to — we’ve had colder weather, we’ve had warmer weather — is there anything we can point to to suggest the reason?

I don’t know. Maybe last year was the aberration, I’d hate to think so. But 13 days is much too small a sample to draw conclusions about a trend. Weather might’ve been a factor last year, however. If you look at the extremely violent January of 2012, it was unseasonably warm. It’s a little damp but quite pleasant now as I walk along. I think weather is often a factor. Last spring — when our rates were the lowest, the Daily News reported our rates were down 40 percent year-to-year — and I posted a bit at that time that we’d seen some of the coldest and wettest weather on record.

But I don’t want to be dismissive about all the tremendous efforts that are under way. The city’s applied some innovations in data-informed policing that’s certainly making a difference. I’m impressed with the data at Philadelphia Cease Fire, which is a program based at the Temple University School of Medicine. Mothers in Charge also does some public health innovation with some men who are about to be released from prison and returned to their communities. You can break down the innovations in policiing to a number of diffferent programs—GunStat for one, most notably in recent months the program they call “Focused Deterrence” which has been used to great impact in other cities, I believe a 50 percent reduction in shootings where applied in South Philadelphia. Incredibly good things are happening, but it’s not over yet, man.

It sounds then like it’s not time to panic, but still time for some grim determination.

It’s time to get some data-informed evidence of what made a difference, rather than opinions, then to replicate, scale up, amplify and multiply those programs. We know what innovations work. We’ve got to do more.

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