Maybe It’s Time for Philly to Think Differently About Crime

Should the city take cues from other big cities and try to convince a more diverse pool of people to commit to fighting gun violence?


Friends of Zakee Watkins set up this memorial near Cobbs Creek Park after he was shot and killed there in late March. Photo | David Gambacorta

In the aftermath of Philadelphia’s most recent appallingly violent weekend, familiar scenes are playing out across the city for what seems like the umpteenth time.

You know how the sequence goes: Grief-stricken family members huddle together at vigils. Stuffed animals and cheap candles pile up on sidewalks, temporary monuments to heartaches that will never fade. And someone inevitably mutters a short prayer that goes unanswered: Something has to change. 

No kidding. reported Tuesday that the city has already recorded 329 shootings, a 44 percent jump from the same point a year ago. The homicide tally stands at 78, a 17 percent increase from last year. But this isn’t a conversation about numbers per se, because numbers always ebb and flow. Gun violence is a perpetual epidemic in this city, no matter what the murder rate looks like on any given day.

Cops, toddlers and teenagers have been among the gunshot victims so far this year. So what happens now? Do we just brace ourselves for more bloodshed, and hope that the bodies don’t pile up higher than usual?

Marla Davis-Bellamy, the director of Philadelphia Ceasefire, didn’t hesitate to offer a couple of suggestions on Monday afternoon, when the weekend carnage was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Step 1,  she said, is to change how people think and talk about violent crime. It’s a health crisis that can be treated with preventative care.

“I just don’t think the average citizen really understands that the violent behavior we often see is behavior that is learned,” she said. “And I don’t think we place enough emphasis on the prevention aspect. We can actually get out in front of these incidents. So much of what we see is interpersonal violence that escalates into shootings.”

Stopping the next outburst of gunfire among 14- to 25-year-olds who have troublesome histories — young people who have survived or committed shootings, or have been arrested or linked to gang activity — is what Ceasefire tries to do in pockets of the 22nd and 39th Districts. There are others doing similar work, like a group of doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia whose work was recently spotlighted by Philadelphia magazine.

Step 2, Davis-Bellamy said, is to convince a larger and more diverse pool of people to commit time and money to fighting gun violence. “When we talk about this issue, we tend to talk to the grass roots people, we talk to the police, we talk to the gun lobby,” she said. In other words: preaching to the choir.”We don’t talk to the philanthropic community or the private sector. In Chicago, Baltimore and Boston, everyone is engaged. It’s not the just the street folks and the hospitals. Everyone has skin in the game.”

She has a point. Chicago officials in 2013 set out to raise $50 million in corporate donations for a foundation called Get IN Chicago that laid out a five-year plan to combat youth violence. The Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls partnered with an organization providing school-based programs to at-risk youth. Boston has a Youth Violence Prevention program that has the backing of a heavy hitter — the Bank of New York Mellon — as well as local foundations.

None of these efforts are perfect. The Chicago Tribune found that there were serious problems with how Get IN’s money was managed. Baltimore’s long-running Safe Streets anti-violence program was suspended last summer after guns and drugs were found in one of its offices.

But that doesn’t mean new approaches don’t have merit, especially at a time when the city’s police force is smaller than it has been in 22 years, and the criminal justice system as a whole is being reimagined. Think of what CHOP or Ceasefire could accomplish if the city’s elite rallied around fighting gun violence the way they did when local leaders implored them to help raise $68 million in 2006 to keep Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia.

“We need to really look at what’s happening on the streets of our city,” Davis-Bellamy said. “For whatever reason, we have become immune to it. We hear about [a tragedy], we read about it, and then we just go on to the next thing.”

City Council’s Committee on Public Safety is trying make youth gun violence a primary focus. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, the committee’s chair, said a follow-up to last month’s marathon hearing will be held on May 13th. Local youth will testify at that hearing about their experiences of growing up in a world where making it to adulthood seems increasingly rare. In the short term, Johnson said he’d like to see agencies like the Department of Behavioral Health and the Police Department work more closely to deal with some of the underlying causes of violent outbursts. He has long range plans, too, like putting a proposed change to the city charter on the ballot in November that would establish a commission on youth gun violence.

“If people don’t feel safe,” he said, “we’ll never reach the heights this city is capable of reaching.”

Follow @dgambacorta on Twitter.