It’s easy for your outrage muscle to atrophy these days, isn’t it? Tune into the news and it’s one shoulder-sagging narrative after another. The more stories of public malfeasance and operational ineptitude (Afghanistan, anyone?), the more we slide into numbness. You shrug and move on, retreating inward.
But even in that context, news this week of stunning pettiness and incompetence and run-amok ego from Mayor Kenney, District Attorney Krasner and Council President Clarke ought to break through the morass and lead us to channel our inner Network anchorman Howard Beale. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore:
Let’s recap. While the body bags pile up in Philadelphia, two of our neighbors, Camden and Chester, have made real progress in combating the scourge of gun violence. City Council President Clarke led a delegation of councilmembers to Chester to hear from the mayor, the police commissioner and the district attorney about how their agencies have worked together to lessen homicides by some 60 percent.
Only Clarke didn’t even invite Philly’s mayor, police commissioner or district attorney to hear the collaborative message. Council, Clarke said, is an independent body and “doesn’t wait around for other people to act.” (Strangely, an Inquirer op-ed seemed to praise Clarke for this anti-collaborative streak.)
Then all hell broke loose. Kenney and Krasner started sniping at each other publicly about who doesn’t talk to whom in their relationship. “The mayor is disappointed, but not surprised, that DA Krasner continues his attempts to pass blame for his office’s inability to prosecute crimes onto his law enforcement partners,” Kenney’s spokesperson said. For his part, Krasner said the mayor hasn’t spoken to him in two years: “I look forward to working with the mayor. All he’s got to do is call me, and he has my number.”
Then Delco District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer—a proven reformer who plays well with others—got in on the act, saying Krasner has never returned any of his phone calls. “He can say whatever he wants about integrity, but we all try to work together for the common good, and Larry doesn’t participate,” Stollsteimer said.
While the body bags pile up in Philadelphia, two of our neighbors, Camden and Chester, have made real progress in combating the scourge of gun violence.
I showed The Inquirer article to my wife, who teaches second grade in Upper Darby. “A whole bunch of children need a timeout,” she remarked. And then I reached out to Congressman Dwight Evans, who said much the same thing. “All public officials need to be on the same team—Philadelphia’s team,” he said. “It’s bad policy and, frankly, bad politics for everyone involved to have all this public finger-pointing instead of problem-solving. If someone hasn’t called you, you just call them. All the people care about on this is reducing the gun violence.”
Finally, an adult voice of reason. Evans, you’ll recall, while a powerful state legislator in the early ‘90s, made a pilgrimage to New York when Philly’s murder rate escalated. He got schooled on the groundbreaking strategies of broken windows policing by legendary commissioner Bill Bratton and ultimately helped nudge then-Mayor Ed Rendell into hiring Bratton protege John Timoney to run the Philly force. Soon, the murder rate started descending. Ultimately, under Mayor Michael Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the city posted its lowest murder numbers in some sixty years.
Whether it was Evans and Rendell or Nutter and Ramsey, you never heard the childish rhetoric now infecting our airwaves by those we’ve hired to lead us. That’s why the outrage muscle has kicked into overdrive; we’ve never before had elected officials so blatantly placing their own egos ahead of the interests of their constituents.
MORE ON PHILLY GUN VIOLENCE FROM LARRY PLATT
My reaction is so visceral that, teeth clenched, I reached out to Shanin Specter, one of the nation’s premier trial attorneys. Is there any precedent, I wanted to know, for citizens to band together and sue elected officials for leadership malpractice? How could all the finger-pointing and playground name-calling by Clarke, Kenney and Krasner in a time of life and death crisis not be considered a type of theft of services? “In general, public officials enjoy immunity from suit for making bad policy decisions or no policy decisions,” Specter said. “The sole remedy is the ballot box.”
On some level, I knew that, of course. But the ballot-box cure seems to no longer be an option. Krasner was just reelected, Kenney is the lamest of ducks, and speculation is rampant among the political chattering class that Clarke will soon be stepping down from public life. The only options we’re left with, it seems, is to either be okay with our city as the nation’s preeminent shooting gallery or for all of us to open our windows and go all Howard Beale, en masse.
Well, before we all rage into the night, let’s examine precisely what this latest embarrassment tells us. First, that Clarke, Kenney and Krasner have all demonstrated precisely why they’re failing this moment’s test of leadership. George Kelling, the legendary criminologist who helped father the aforementioned broken windows theory of policing, used to say that there is no criminal justice system. There is, instead, a bunch of criminal justice institutions, agencies that, left to their own devices, often work at cross purposes if intentional efforts aren’t made to band together in common purpose, as has been modeled in Chester.
We’ve never before had elected officials so blatantly placing their own egos ahead of the interests of their constituents.
There, as here, law enforcement has embraced a proven evidence-based policing strategy known as GVI—Gun Violence Intervention. It’s the brainchild of criminologist David Kennedy and it’s the next generation of his widely respected Focused Deterrence strategy.
Evidence shows that a small percentage of people drive a vast majority of gun violence, Kennedy holds, and violence can best be reduced by focusing directly on them through a carrot-and-stick approach, best exemplified by this message from Stollsteimer: “We told them, ‘We know who you run with. We know your groups. You can’t have group shootouts anymore. We will help you if you ask us, but we will stop you if you make us.’”
So what’s the difference between the implementation of GVI in Chester as compared to Philly? First, in Chester, all stakeholders—the mayor, the commissioner, legislators, prosecutors, public defenders—are not only invited to the problem-solving table, they’re committed to working together. Moreover, in Chester—admittedly, a much smaller city—GVI has been implemented professionally. Here, the program is effectively run by a volunteer who had been working pro bono and who is now getting all of $5,000 a month to do one of the city’s most important jobs.
This is not a criticism of said point person, Bryan Lentz, a former prosecutor and state rep who was integral to the stunning 35 percent shooting decline nearly a decade ago in South Philly, thanks to focused deterrence policing.
Again demonstrating just how much our stakeholders exist on different planets, Krasner has criticized Lentz and GVI for being too punitive. (God forbid we should tell shooters who are holding our city hostage that, if they don’t let us help them clean up their act, they’ll face consequences.) But the real issue is this: GVI is a complex strategy. Not only do we essentially have a volunteer running it—someone who is more than capable of being the official director, at a professional salary—we also only have four caseworkers for a city with 1.6 million people in it.
Oakland, a city one-third the size of Philadelphia, has 14 full-time caseworkers working with the most at-risk population on the frontlines of the gun epidemic—and has had incredible success with reducing gun violence as a result. What does such an underinvestment in the management of GVI say about the administration’s commitment to really move the needle on gun violence right away, at a time when we’re investing record sums in anti-gun violence programming?
At the very least, Kenney, Krasner and Clarke could today adopt a type of public official’s Hippocratic Oath. They could “first do no harm” by stopping the saying of stupid s**t about those with whom they are supposed to be partnering.
Last week, Controller Rebecca Rhynhart released an eye-opening analysis of what Kenney is touting as a historic $155 million anti-gun violence investment for fiscal year 2022. At a time of immense crisis, Rhynhart found that only 21 percent of such spending is targeted to evidence-based intervention efforts to interrupt violence that have been proven to produce results within 1 to 3 years, such as GVI and the Community Crisis Intervention Program, a type of CURE Violence initiative that uses credible messengers on the street to mediate conflict in real time. The total funding for both comes to only $6.6 million for fiscal year 2022.
We need to invest in what works right now. That was the message we heard from David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, who spoke at our 2019 Ideas We Should Steal Festival. 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.
So besides acting adult-like, committing to work together, and investing in what works right now by professionalizing GVI and CCIP, what else could our leaders do in this time of crisis? Here are some thoughts:
1. Jim Kenney has to lose the sad sack routine. I take him at his word: His heart breaks with every reported shooting. But we need our mayor to be pissed at those who are holding his city hostage. And we need him to once and for all emigrate from his state of denial. “We do recognize this is an urgent crisis,” the mayor said on Channel 6’s Inside Story on August 15. “Two plus years ago we declared it a health emergency, we have coordinated all of our offices together, we’re working now with the FBI and the ATF and they’ve had from what I’ve heard this morning a pretty good week in grabbing a lot of guns and drugs and money off the street.”
Note to the mayor: Whatever you said two years ago, it hasn’t worked. Murder is up 78 percent over the course of your mayoralty. And you obviously haven’t coordinated with the District Attorney, as distasteful as dealing with him may be to you. It’s time to try some other stuff.
2. Let Outlaw Be Outlaw. A few weeks ago, the debate was over whether the mayor ought to declare a state of emergency. City Councilmembers and even Congressman Evans called on him to do so, but he demurred, rightly pointing out that such a declaration wouldn’t open up any new funding streams. But it could allow the mayor to institute a curfew in the city’s most troubled hotspots.
Turns out that none other than Commissioner Danielle Outlaw once thought such a strategy might be a good idea. When she was first hired, then managing director Brian Abernathy and Kenney chief of staff Jim Engler accompanied her to meet and greet members of Council. In that meeting, two people in the room told me, Councilwoman Katherine Gilmore Richardson asked whether it might be smart to institute a curfew in the 11 zip codes where most of our murders were occurring. “She [Outlaw] said that ought to be something we should look at, at which point Abernathy or Engler, I can’t remember which one, said, ‘We’re not doing that,’” recounted a source.
A number of Councilmembers took note of the exchange. Was Outlaw—whose crime fighting plan contains many state-of-the-art strategies—being muzzled or micro-managed?
3. Let’s look at what other cities have done—and steal from them! Indianapolis will use more than a third of its American Rescue Plan funds —$150 million —to support a three-year anti-violence plan that will fund community violence intervention programs, hire street-level peacemakers, and earmark $33 million directly to the police. In Louisville, Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer is spending a sizable percentage of its $340 million in ARP funds on violence prevention and intervention, including investments in new policing technology and diversion programs. And in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Youth Council to End Gun Violence launched Louder Than Guns, a provocative public messaging campaign aimed toward activating all of the city in the fight against gun violence, and not just those most often in the line of fire.
Philadelphia may do some of all these things, but not as well or as comprehensively as in these and other cities. Why not import some best practices? You’d at least be seen as doing something other than what you’ve been doing. (How have those tactics been working out for you?)
At the very least, Kenney, Krasner and Clarke could today adopt a type of public official’s Hippocratic Oath. They could “first do no harm” by stopping the saying of stupid shit about those with whom they are supposed to be partnering. We don’t care if you hate one another as long as you work together, for us.
Remember the rambunctious New York Yankees of the 1970s? Reggie Jackson proclaimed he was “the straw that stirs the drink” and captain Thurman Munson hated him for it? They were a long-running soap opera often referred to as “The Bronx Zoo,” with clashes of ego and even fisticuffs blaring from tabloid headlines.
But you know what? They came together enough to win the World Series. If a bunch of ballplayers could figure it out, why can’t a mayor, a district attorney and a council president?
Header illustration by Dan Shepelavy