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On gun violence in Philly

At the start of 2020, The Philadelphia Citizen tapped Jo Piazza to spend a year reporting for a podcast on Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic—its roots, its victims, its toll on our communities—and the solutions that could be effective in curbing it.

Listen to all seven episodes of Philly Under Firethen reach out to Mayor KenneyDanielle Outlaw and your state and local representatives and urge them to implement data-backed solutions.


Join us next week

A conversation on cities, race and gun violence

Alex Kotlowitz, author of An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago

June 16, 6pm-7pm, Zoom

A discussion with award-winning New York Times bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz, whose latest book, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, chronicles one summer on the turbulent streets of The Windy City. “A powerful indictment of a city and a nation that have failed to protect their most vulnerable residents, or to register the depth of their pain,” wrote the New York Times.In conversation with Citizen co-founder Larry Platt, Kotlowitz will talk about the scourge of gun violence and the craft and importance of storytelling. With a special guest appearance by best-selling author and podcaster Jo Piazza, producer of The Philadelphia Citizen’s Philly Under Fire podcast from the frontlines of the gun violence epidemic.


How Oakland cut gun violence


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Welcome to the enhanced audio edition of Larry’s story

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The $100 Million Gamble

Council is pushing the mayor to spend $100 million on gun violence prevention programs. Is that bold policy-making or the appearance of it?

The $100 Million Gamble

Council is pushing the mayor to spend $100 million on gun violence prevention programs. Is that bold policy-making or the appearance of it?

Last Friday, less than a month before Philadelphia’s budget deadline, a veto-proof majority of City Council sent Mayor Kenney a letter. In it, 13 councilmembers call our gun violence epidemic a “generational crisis that has reached a bloody peak” and urge the mayor to spend $100 million on anti-violence programs over the next year, tripling his proposed investment.

It seems, at first blush, to be a bold move. I’ve been around long enough to remember when Council was a glorified constituent service operation, which is why it was so dead set against then-Mayor Michael Nutter’s establishment of a customer service 311 system back in the day. That was stepping on Council’s turf.

But in recent years, Council has become more of a legislative body, even if it hasn’t always been overly deliberative. (For a group of public officials who rightfully talk an awful lot about the importance of diversity, there’s hardly any ideological diversity amongst them).


Still, let’s give credit where it’s due. Thirteen councilmembers have stepped up and are treating Philly’s wave of shootings and murders as the existential threat that it is—to all of us, not just those in the literal line of fire. In a city that has long either practiced a shrugging acceptance of the status quo or been satisfied with incremental tweaks, here is what appears to be a clarion call for real investment in change.

But pardon me if you’ve heard this refrain before: Good policy is implementation, as the late, legendary Jeremy Nowak, The Citizen’s founding chairman and spirit guide, used to say. Is the call to spend more on gun violence prevention smart policy? And, if it is, should we be confident such programs will be competently implemented and overseen? And how will we measure success? Will there be goals and timetables, so we can hold those who are quick to spend our tax dollars accountable?

Earlier this week, I reached out to the ever-thoughtful Councilperson Jamie Gauthier, one of the signatories on the Kenney letter, to explore these issues. I began by asking whether, if this funding came to pass, it would be administered by the city’s Office of Violence Prevention (OVP).

“I don’t think that’s a given,” she said. “We’re open to various ways of getting money out into the communities that need it. There are other departments that will see funding, like Parks & Rec. And we’re open to striking other partnerships to fund programs. The Urban Affairs Coalition has been brought up. So I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that all of this funding will be going to OVP.”

When Michael Nutter became mayor, he pledged to halve the murder rate and said he wouldn’t run for reelection if they came up short. How cool would it be if Council and the mayor pledged to resign a year from now if we haven’t seen, I don’t know, a one-third drop in murders by then?

Gauthier knew why I was asking. OVP has been an embarrassing failure. It was created in 2017 by Mayor Kenney with a $10 million budget and 11 employees, many earning six figures a year, and has become a symbol of the Kenney administration’s inertia and incompetence at combating gun violence. As chronicled in our Philly Under Fire podcast, during Council testimony last year, Councilperson Cindy Bass stumped the administration’s gun violence fighters when she had the temerity to ask for actual data that could show whether the myriad programs Council was funding were effective or not.

“Please don’t mistake the fact that we do not have the numbers, or that you haven’t been given numbers as of yet, as a lack of urgency or caring,” said Deputy Managing Director for Criminal Justice and Public Safety Vanessa Garrett Harley in response.

That buck stops anywhere but here ethos can also be heard in the reply from OVP Executive Director Shondell Revell, who earns $118,000 per year, when Philly Under Fire journalist Jo Piazza asks just what his office does. You tell me if his rambling, non sequitur-filled, bureaucratic response has you feeling confident that all we need is more money to turn the corner on gun violence:

The overarching task [of OVP] is to really be a voice of community, to coordinate services, to introduce people to services they probably never knew existed, but also be a source for solutions, too, taking issues in the community and turning them into valuable resources, as in programs, and also highlighting the work being done in the community by small mom and pop shops. How do you empower the community and how do you take their voice and turn that into viable solutions? So I think that we have a multitask prong, but in a nutshell the office is really that voice for the community and trying to elevate solutions to make life better.

Uh, ‘scuse me? Good to know OVP has a “multitask prong”; I hate prongs that are single tasked. Seriously, if Revell’s response to such a straightforward query tells us anything, it’s this: City Hall, we have a problem.

Now, to be fair, it’s pretty much accepted within the corridors of city government that OVP is a shit show, which is why the administration brought in Erica Atwood, Gauthier’s former chief of staff and Mayor Nutter’s former director of Black Male Engagement, to oversee it as Director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety. (Because never would a sclerotic government eliminate an ineffective office; better to layer more bureaucracy on top of it.)

That said, Atwood is a serious, no-spin person, so maybe an influx of new funding and her oversight can begin to move the needle. But would you put your cold hard cash down on that? If you wouldn’t, then the question is self-evident: Why would Council wager your tax dollars on what could be a losing bet?

Because, remember, any further investment is almost certain to take place without really knowing the results of many of the violence prevention programs the city has been funding up until now. Inquirer columnist Helen Ubinas, who calls the city’s Roadmap to Safer Communities plan the “Roadmap to Nowhere,” has, since 2017, been relentlessly calling attention to the fact that hardly any data exists to measure the return on investment of some $60 million in annual gun violence prevention programming.

She has been rebuffed time and again, year after year, by the Kenney administration every time she tries to find out whether there’s an evaluation process for the anti-gun violence programs the city funds, and it’s become difficult to read her dispatches and not conclude that our tax dollars are feeding a voracious type of gun violence industrial complex.

When I ask Gauthier what the murder rate will be a year from now if we make this $100 million investment, she doesn’t spin, to her credit. “I think it’s hard to fix on that type of number,” she says. “I can’t say to you there will be a 50 percent drop in the murder rate. But I will say that I don’t think Philadelphia has ever invested significantly in this type of evidence-based anti-violence programming. We’ve piloted this, done that program over there. We’ve done focused deterrence and Cure Violence pilot programs in the past, but haven’t had a consistent, comprehensive strategy for prevention and intervention.”

She’s right. As we’ve documented, the city has piloted evidence-based programs with impressive results. But, because they were Michael Nutter’s policies, Mayor Kenney never expanded them and even let them lapse. That said, in the councilmembers’ letter to Kenney, only $15 million of the $100 million price tag is targeted to “investments to expand capacity and ensure efficacy of existing evidence-based programs such as Group Violence Intervention, Community Crisis Intervention (Cure Violence), and community-led violence interventions.”

Gauthier says that $15 million number could change, that she and her colleagues are not wedded to it, and that the various buckets of funding in the plan all support one another. “We’re putting dollars into safe haven programs, jobs programs, and trauma supports, and they all can wrap around any evidence-based approach strategies,” she says.

Fair enough. But if you really want to be bold, why not explicitly call for far more than $15 million in what we know has worked elsewhere? The call for $100 million in new spending sounds good, but is it smart spending? And if it is, can it be turned into real results in this moment of crisis?

City Council member X says we’ve gotta reduce homicides in the next year, so we’re going to launch a mentoring program for middle school students,” says David Muhammad of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. “A mentoring program for middle school students is great. We need it. It will never get you gun violence reduction in 12 months.”

You may recall that, as part of our 2019 Ideas We Should Steal Festival, we hosted David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. Muhammad’s CeaseFire program cut the homicide rate in half in Oakland, CA, and he consults for other cities who are seeking similar results. He said that most cities that seek to confront gun violence throw boatloads of dollars at all sorts of problems, instead of honing in on the proven techniques that can stop the violence right now:

The problem is many, many things fall under the broad category of violence prevention. I’ve heard everything from planting trees to universal pre-k to lead paint abatement. All of those have some research that says they result in gun violence prevention in 10, 15 20, or 25 years…100 percent of the cities I work with do not get this at first: Your actions must be aligned with your desired outcomes. But I tell you what I get. City Council member X says we’ve gotta reduce homicides in the next year, so we’re going to launch a mentoring program for middle school students. A mentoring program for middle school students is great. We need it. It will never get you gun violence reduction in 12 months.

But we continue to do things and either don’t know, or sell it to the public, as if this is an effective strategy to immediately reduce gun violence. An effective mentoring program might give you gun violence reduction in 10 years and it might give you some great outcomes in the next six months or 12 months, but just not gun violence reduction. Gun buybacks and midnight basketball programs are great, feel good programs that you should do, just don’t say they’re actually going to end up reducing gun violence. In Oakland, we wanted to reduce gun violence immediately.

Listening to Muhammad, one has to wonder: Is our $100 million cure another example of the kitchen sink approach practiced by many of the cities who seek out his counsel to begin with? Gauthier and her colleagues, for example, earmark $15 million for “guaranteed employment for youth” and $45 million for “safe havens for youth and families,” defined as “investments that will ensure access to safe places to learn, play, keep cool, and be fed.”

Sounds great, right? But how many of the victims and shooters are youth? In Oakland, as Muhammad notes, the city also spent millions on youth programs—then studied the data and learned that the average age of those doing the shootings, and getting shot, was 28. Unsurprisingly, the murder rate hadn’t budged. It was only when they shifted their funding to groups that work with men in their 20s and 30s that the numbers dropped.

Here, Muhammad says, the average of shooters and those being shot is 21. If we want to stop the shooting in Philadelphia right now, shouldn’t we also be intervening with those on the frontlines today, in an intentional, focused way, as Muhammad outlined when he visited?

The outline proposed by Council runs the risk of making the same error so many cities make when they first seek Muhammad’s counsel—not aligning their actions with their desired outcome. And once you make that fundamental error, it’s hard to recover, because so seldom are there transparent mechanisms provided to measure success. How will we know our $100 million investment is working?

“Council wants more reporting, accountability and study of these initiatives,” Gauthier says. “In our letter, we say that we will annually assess anything over $250,000.”

That’s a start, I guess, but even that sounds kind of half-assed, no? Why not make reducing gun violence a common project for all of us, complete with a “follow the money” website that can track in real time every dollar spent and every murder abated?

Judging by the price tag they’re proposing, Gauthier and her colleagues are thinking big, as the moment calls for. But we know by now that, when it comes to local politics and policy, the rules of David and Goliath often apply. Big plans are commonly felled by little things. I want to believe that, before spending $100 million, Council and the mayor will prepare for the unintended consequences that are sure to bubble up. But then I listen to an expert like David Muhammad and I worry that we’re just throwing money at a vexing problem without a ruthless, disciplined strategy behind it.

You know what might make me feel better? Real accountability. When Michael Nutter became mayor, he pledged to halve the murder rate—which he, and police commissioner Charles Ramsey, did—and said he wouldn’t run for reelection if they came up short. How cool would it be if Council and the Mayor pledged to resign a year from now if we haven’t seen, I don’t know, a one-third drop in murders by then?

Right now, we’ve got a proposal for a lot more spending and a lot more talking. But, outside of a letter to the mayor, we still haven’t seen a comprehensive plan with real accountability. We finally have a significant amount of money to invest in an intransigent problem. Are we going to take advantage of this opportunity? At this point, I’m hopeful…but not altogether confident.

Header Photo: Council Members at the Violence Prevention and Opportunity Press Conference held in April. By Jared Piper for Philadelphia City Council / Flickr.

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