Perhaps making up for lost time on the topic, Philadelphia’s district attorney finally set up a crime victims’ advisory committee. More than likely, that happened under some public duress. Since Larry Krasner’s election, victims, like the family of slain officer Sgt. Robert Wilson, have complained he’s left them out of the prosecutorial process. Meantime, political critics had, for months, expressed worry that Krasner wasn’t focused enough on the core task of his office: Crime reduction.
However, the city’s class of organized, police-aligned flacks, along with other political and media haters (in his mind), was fairly easy to dismiss. But, as increased gun violence over recent months—particularly these past several warming and wet weeks—has shook Philly, residents and victims themselves are joining in the chorus of skeptics who weren’t quite sure Krasner’s perceived over-focus on criminal justice reform puts local crime fighting on the right path.
Creating an opportunity for the city’s victims to offer perspective and ideas is, fundamentally, a good thing. The advisory committee is truly a welcome step. But a prosecutor’s office should already be partnering with victims and advocating for them. Setting up an advisory committee suggests that hasn’t been the case with this particular DA’s office. Instead, it feels as contrived as Mayor Kenney’s keystoning “Reconciliation Task Force” or the do-nothing task force on violence hastily arranged by City Council.
When WURD held an open anti-violence workshop at the distressed corner of 11th and Cumberland, not one elected official stopped through or sent staff despite invitations. Yet, when MSNBC held a Town Hall on the infamous Starbucks incident (where, ultimately, no one was shot or killed), city politicians hogged up seats.
This column can only assume that. To date, it’s been weeks since WURD’s Reality Check requested an interview with the District Attorney, who refuses to appear. Funny enough, Reality Check is the only public affairs show on WURD Krasner won’t appear on, perhaps out of fear he’ll be asked for his public safety plan (since we already know it, ad nauseum, for criminal justice reform). His office says he doesn’t have time on his schedule to do the afternoon time slot—which won’t require an in-studio appearance.
There’s another reason for pressing the matter: We want to make certain voters don’t accidentally switch out one form of racism for another. Not all Black folks are criminals, not all have spent time in a jail cell, even though we’re getting incarcerated the most and run the highest risk of ending up in a prison. And yet, criminal justice reform is regularly talked about, as if that’s all we care about. To assume such paints unsavory narratives and pushes ugly assumptions. Most of us just want a decent quality of life, a decent living and a neighborhood we can walk through safely.
For certain, there are just as many individuals victimized by the criminal justice system—ranging from “school resource officers” and complicit supervising adults all the way up to indifferent courts and policymakers—as there are residents victimized by actual crime. Still, that shouldn’t prompt city-wide indifference to rising gun violence. The editorializing on that topic is mounting, yet the lack of urgency from city leaders suggests an ‘is what it is’ approach, or a tacit acknowledgment that it’s not a crisis at all; just an accepted element of Philly life.
So, when WURD held a rare two-day open-to-the-public anti-violence workshop at the distressed corner of 11th and Cumberland, not one elected official (including the City Council President, who represents that district) stopped through or sent staff despite invitations. Yet, when MSNBC held a Town Hall on the infamous Starbucks incident (where, ultimately, no one was shot or killed), you’d have been lucky to score passes given all the city politicians who hogged up seats for that event.
Philly violent crime offenses increased by 14 percent between March and April, and then by an astonishing 45 percent between April and May. Aggravated assaults by gun rose 30 percent between March and April, and 28 percent between April and May. Philly and its leaders must focus both on criminal justice and fighting crime.
Priorities have always been a lopsided affair in Philly. And when dealing with violence that impacts residents (deliberate emphasis there since elected officials who are victims of violence receive an extra level of attention), it’s as if the issue doesn’t exist.
There is definitely an increase in gun violence throughout Philadelphia that deserves greater attention than it’s getting. Some, in an effort to minimize that violence, will only highlight the homicide rate to point out 3 percent fewer murders now compared to this same time last year. Many are quick to claim violent crime decreases to align it with the general spin regarding declines in crime in most major cities.
But, even that becomes something of a trivial exercise when you see reported homicide rates in Philly have either steadily risen or stayed steady since an uptick in 2013. There was a dramatic dip from 2012, but it suddenly plucked up by 0.8 percent by 2014, rose 13 percent by 2015, dropped only 1 percent in 2016 and then increased 12 percent by 2017.
Official Philadelphia police department crime statistics are presented, suspiciously, by weeks as opposed to months, a practice that would give any first cursory eye the impression that violent crime is falling. We need a full picture, though. A closer look into those numbers finds that Philadelphia does, indeed, have a problem once you look at violent crime holistically, combining homicides and aggravated gun assaults. In this assessment, we didn’t even include robberies by gun.
Since March, it’s been particularly pronounced. Adding up numbers provided by the Philadelphia PD here, violent crime offenses increased by 14 percent between March and April, and then by an astonishing 45 percent between April and May. Aggravated assaults by gun rose 30 percent between March and April, and 28 percent between April and May. In the first week of June (or “Week 23” according to PPD), there wasn’t just a 10 percent increase in violent offenses from the previous week, there was also a 23 percent increase in aggravated assaults by gun. There were also 40 percent more violent offenses than the first week of January (week 23 so far being the most violent week in 2018).
Philly and its leaders must focus both on criminal justice and fighting crime, for we won’t find any solutions to criminal justice disparities without first tackling public safety deficiencies. Indeed, fewer Black people in jail means less burden on communities and, thus, less strain on the system. But, can we also make certain that the places where underserved populations live are safer? Not doing so is, itself, a kind of crime, too.
Charles D. Ellison is Executive Producer and Host of “Reality Check,” which airs Monday-Thursday, 4-7 p.m. on WURD Radio (96.1FM/900AM). Check out The Citizen’s weekly segment on his show every Tuesday at 6 p.m. Ellison is also Principal of B|E Strategy, the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and Contributing Politics Editor to TheRoot.com. Catch him if you can @ellisonreport on Twitter.District Attorney Larry Krasner