On my way home from yesterday’s moving press conference on the corner of 51st Street and Haverford Avenue, in front of the “Haverford Cold Beer” store where a one-year-old was shot on Saturday night and less than a mile from a triple-shooting on Wednesday, I got that gnawing feeling that we’d kinda been here before. The presser had been called by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, in whose gun violence-plagued district we gathered.
Before we delve into the déjà vu I was feeling, a bit of context. We were in West Philly because Gauthier had clearly gotten under Mayor Kenney’s skin. We are in the midst of a historic gun violence epidemic—on pace for roughly 600 murders this year, a shameful record—and Gauthier has been calling for the mayor to declare a state of emergency for some time. She recently distributed among her Council colleagues a draft letter to the mayor urging him to do so.
Kenney is right when he says that just the act of declaring a state of emergency won’t, in and of itself, save the next victim of gun violence. But a mayor who acts like we’re in an emergency can make a big difference.
Someone—a number of Council insiders and staffers have speculated it may have been Councilwoman Cherelle Parker—shared the draft with the mayor, who promptly released his own letter to Gauthier, essentially saying his administration has done all it can to fight this epidemic, and then publicly called into question her motives. “What I won’t do is allow for the fact-based work to be overridden by the political expediency sought by some and that is why I do not believe that a local emergency declaration would have any benefit for Philadelphia,” the mayor said on Wednesday.
It’s not the first time the mayor has responded to criticism by sidestepping the substance of a critique and instead focusing on the motives of his critics. Controller Rhynhart, whose fact-based reports on the performance of the Kenney administration has also been met with similar broadsides, reached out to Gauthier, and the two decided to enlist other elected officials to help prod this mayor into action in a city that, in their words, is “being held hostage by gun violence.”
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Yesterday morning, they sent him a letter outlining specific action steps and even going so far as to assign him a deadline—July 30—for a response with “a detailed plan and timeline for implementation for all of the above action items.” That’s a ballsy political mic-drop.
We’ll get to the substance of their would-be solutions in a moment. But, first, back to my déjà vu. We’ve been down this emergency declaration road before.
Back on inauguration day in 2008, newly-minted Mayor Michael Nutter’s first step was to sign an emergency declaration because of the gun violence that was plaguing the city. We’d seen 393 murders in 2007. “I’m a big supporter of the Second Amendment, but I think I have a First Amendment right not to be shot,” candidate Nutter had said in one of the mayoral debates the previous fall.
Now that we’re debating whether a state of emergency declaration holds weight or is merely a symbolic act, it bears keeping in mind Nutter’s use of the power. At the time, he explained that he wanted to send a clear message to 1.5 million Philadelphians and to the small band of knuckleheads who were shooting up our neighborhoods. A new tone had been set. Public safety was job one.
It wasn’t the only thing Nutter did, but it set the stage for the hiring of Commissioner Charles Ramsey and a bold goal of ultimately cutting the murder rate by 30 to 50 percent. “I shouldn’t be reelected,” Nutter said when asked what would happen if his administration didn’t meet its audacious goal.
When, in 2011, “flash mobs” of rowdy teens stormed through Center City and University City, Nutter declared a state of emergency again, and used his powers to enact smart carrot and stick policies. Rec center hours were extended, but curfews were also mandated in targeted neighborhoods. Lo and behold, the mobs dissipated because a signal had been sent by the mayor: We ain’t letting you break the social contract without real consequences.
Kenney is right when he says that just the act of declaring a state of emergency won’t, in and of itself, save the next victim of gun violence. But a mayor who acts like we’re in an emergency can make a big difference. That’s what Nutter did from day one.
By 2013, he and Ramsey oversaw just 246 murders, followed by 248 and 280 in the next two years. That marked the lowest murder rate in Philadelphia since 1967. This ain’t ancient history, folks. Under Nutter’s successor, Kenney, murder has increased significantly every year, giving lie to the widespread claim that our homicide surge is pandemic-related.
There is a difference between being anti-police and anti-police brutality. Smart policing that deescalates and keeps the peace by holding folks accountable is much-needed; policing that is itself lawless needs to go.
Now, about those solutions offered by Rhynhart, Gauthier and the other speakers at yesterday’s press conference. There’s a lot of long-term policy prescriptions suggested—$5.6 million in workforce development programs; increasing programming at rec centers, and some meaningless doubletalk (“the Managing Director’s Office of Community Services shall lead efforts to mobilize a community response by engaging individuals and additional non-profit and for-profit partners”).
But, while there is reference to targeted interventions in the 14 predominantly Black and brown zip codes that are murder hot spots, there is hardly any real talk of the elephant in the room: Law enforcement. Gauthier likes to say you can’t arrest your way out of this problem, but when you have a police force with one of the worst clearance rates in the country, and a district attorney’s office that prosecutes fewer gun crimes while the cops are making more gun arrests than ever, you can’t deny that a big part of the problem is a splintered law enforcement effort that is failing the city.
In New York, by electing former cop Eric Adams to be the likely next mayor, voters—particularly Black voters—expressed an important distinction: There is a difference between being anti-police and anti-police brutality. Smart policing that deescalates and keeps the peace by holding folks accountable is much-needed; policing that is itself lawless needs to go.
Across the country, practical problem-solving mayors are investing in the former. In Birmingham, Alabama, progressive Mayor Randall Woodfin has hired more cops, uses Predictive Policing to identify times and locations where specific crimes are more likely to occur, and established a “Real Time Crime Center” to help police monitor active crime scenes—all while treating gun violence like the viral contagion it is, as Mayor Kenney has argued. In Newark and Camden, as we’ve chronicled, smart policing that works hand-in-hand with community stakeholders has bucked the violent trend currently sweeping the country.
That Nutter emergency declaration in 2011? What got a lot of attention was a speech he gave in his church, lambasting the young African-American kids who were wreaking havoc on the streets. That, in itself, is worth revisiting, a stirring example of moral leadership that makes the average citizen, Black or white, feel like someone is on the job:
But what is most telling in retrospect is the press conference Nutter held the day after his church speech, in which the mayor stood shoulder-to-shoulder with then-District Attorney Seth Williams (who would soon be charged and convicted of public corruption), the late NAACP head Jerry Mondesire, and Ramsey. They were all on the same page, with no finger-pointing between them.
“Philadelphia is lawless right now. There’s this perception that you can do anything you want and get away with it,” said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas. “When a one-year-old is getting shot, something has to happen. Stuff has to be shut down.”
Yesterday, in stark contrast, D.A. Larry Krasner joined the chorus at 51st and Haverford, pointing the finger of blame—pundit-like—at those whom he should be partnering with: the police. His newest critique is that the PPD doesn’t invest in state-of-the-art forensics to solve crimes. That may be—I have no idea—but what is clear is that, in Larry Krasner’s world, nothing is ever his fault.
“Yes, I want more dollars,” Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said yesterday when it came his turn to speak. “But we need an immediate response. Philadelphia is lawless right now. There’s this perception that you can do anything you want and get away with it. When a one-year-old is getting shot, something has to happen. Stuff has to be shut down.”
Speaker after speaker yesterday modeled the type of urgency that is missing from the mayor. “The Kenney administration all but said they think they are doing all that they can,” Rhynhart said. “I can’t accept that. The people of our city cannot accept that.”
“If everything is being done, then we wouldn’t be seeing five people shot every day,” Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson said. “No amount of effort is enough until our neighbors feel safe.”
“Our village is dying,” an emotional Councilmember Kendra Brooks said.
The tone was the right one—we’re in a soul-sucking crisis we can’t shrug our way out of. But, still, there were some noticeable missteps.
Why, after all, did no one mention Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw? Not long ago, I wrote about her impressive plan but, in times of crisis, words on paper do not leadership make. If you really believe this is an existential crisis for Philadelphia, how can you not raise the question of whether the hard-to-find commissioner is up to the job? I very much want to see Commissioner Outlaw succeed. But certainly asking whether she can is valid and important, no?
And in what universe is it okay to share a stage and give a platform to Movita Johnson-Harrell? Yes, she tragically has lost two sons to gun violence, but the former state representative also funneled something like half a million dollars through an anti-gun violence charity to pay off a Porsche, fur coats and a Mexico vacation. She was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail back in January of 2020 before an early Covid-related release and now she’s back, being praised by Krasner for her “courage” and running the Charles Foundation, another charity, this one in memory of her late son.
My heart goes out to Johnson-Harrell, but if you’re an elected official in Philadelphia—a lawmaker—how do you share a stage with someone who committed fraud under the guise of combatting gun violence? “Philadelphia,” our promotional bumpersticker ought to read, “where nothing is disqualifying.”
In the end, though, it’s hard to be cynical about yesterday’s press conference. Some lawmakers took a brave stand against a do-nothing mayor, in a town long starved for profiles in courage. That’s a good thing.
And it was all at the behest of two female officeholders, Gauthier and Rhynhart, who no doubt grew tired of Jim Kenney’s pat on the head. We got your snide paternalism right here, they seemed to be saying. In a town that has gone decades without an opposition party, it’s good to see two women step up and proclaim that a condescending emperor has no clothes.Header photo by Maggie Hart