Part of the shock over last weekend’s mass shooting on South Street is a simple fact of gun violence in Philly: Communities and neighborhoods that enjoy the full range of investments don’t have gun violence problems. Communities and neighborhoods that don’t enjoy that same full range of investments do have gun violence problems. Elected officials and others, in the wake of gun violence, typically use the term “senseless” to describe it — and yet it’s not senseless. It’s predictable and preventable.
When we do the compare-and-contrast throughout Philadelphia, we know those neighborhoods. As we drive along Broad Street, for example, or from the bottom of Old York Road to its Montgomery County top, we assess level of risk based on conditions. We know the hardened streets, the presence of trash, how hot it is, the weary looks on Black faces, down to the cracks in sidewalks and the exterior conditions of the houses and so on and so forth.
We really don’t need spreadsheets or studies to know where the disinvestment and the resulting destabilization from that disinvestment takes place because we see it, and in passing, sometimes quip about it through the duration of a Philly lifetime. Hence, the question really isn’t “What do we do?” because, growing accustomed to generations of disinvestment, we already know what to do.
The question remains: Are we willing to do it?
Since the sins of (yes, racist) disinvestment past and present now spill chaotically into a beloved venue that otherwise safe-feeling White residents and tourists frequent, we’re bracing for a return to mindless stagecraft. Citywide reaction is a thoughtless knee-jerk to what just happened. The go-to response, especially when problems in Black communities seem unmanageable, is “add more police.” Policymakers and even community advocates will present ineffective concepts or say what they think people want to hear — like “hire more cops!” or “impose more curfews!” — rather than research and demand evidence-based investment strategies that have not only been tested in Philadelphia, but actually work.
“When it comes to solutions, a growing body of evidence demonstrates the promise of micro-level place-based interventions (such as rehabilitating vacant lots or increasing the number of community organizations) in significantly decreasing violence,” writes Brookings’ Hanna Love.
No one’s saying cities or neighborhoods don’t need or shouldn’t have police. Of course, we need that. But police should have always been the supporting cast to ensure the maintenance of fully-deployed investments — as opposed to the lead role. With a 6,500 officer force for a population of 1.6 million, Philly already has one of the largest big city officer per capita law enforcement agencies in the country, at nearly 41 officers per 10,000 people. And research shows a sizable police presence has minimal impact on gun violence in the immediate, near and long term.
Recent research from New York University reveals that hiring anywhere from 10 to 17 additional officers saves one life from homicide. So, in the context of last year’s record 562 homicides, adding 125 more officers (as that’s been floated) would have reduced the murder rate to 550. Yes, that is 12 lives saved; but is a reduction of just 2 percent for an additional $10 million in spending (on the low end).
The Philadelphia Police Department’s budget of $800 million, including recent raises and bonuses, seems to be giving us little if any, return on investment, as recent events on South Street showed us. We’ve got 14 percent of the officer workforce out on some form of injury-related leave (which is unheard of elsewhere); abysmal performance on arrests and homicide closure rates; and non-fatal shootings are 7 percent above last year’s rate as of this writing. What exactly is $800 million and an army of 6,500 officers buying residents if it’s not buying them any protection from violence?
We really don’t need spreadsheets or studies to know where the disinvestment and the resulting destabilization from that disinvestment takes place because we see it.
Let’s do what works
Instead, Philly should deploy a unified full-investment mix of evidence-based and field tested strategies to reduce homicides. That should include place-based strategies that are linked to violence reduction such as: All trash picked up (9 percent drop), all vacant lots cleaned and greened (30 percent drop), 10 percent more trees planted (12 percent drop) and all crumbling low-income homes finally renovated and repaired from total use of the city’s existing Basic Services Repair Program (22 percent drop).
That all adds up to 73 percent drop. If Philadelphia had pursued that approach last year, we could have, theoretically, seen 410 fewer murders and savings to the city’s economy of more than $582 million, since the cost of each homicide is $1.42 million, according to the Public Health Department.
Brookings Institute’s Hanna Love explored this idea last November in her research-driven call to “invest in place.” “Increases [in violent crime] were mostly concentrated in disinvested and structurally disadvantaged neighborhoods that had high rates of gun violence to begin with,” Love writes. “And when it comes to solutions, a growing body of evidence also demonstrates the promise of micro-level place-based interventions (such as rehabilitating vacant lots or increasing the number of community organizations) in significantly decreasing violence within these neighborhoods.”
We also have evidence that a $43 million investment over five years in “violence reduction strategies” like focussed deterrence that worked in places like Oakland, California — and in pilots in parts of South and North Philly — would result in a 35 percent decrease in homicides, as Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart explained in a 2019 study.
And what about the correlation between heat and violence? One would think Philadelphia’s cooling strategy would be bolder than just handing out fans and constantly letting kids out early from 100-degree classrooms. What would it take and how much would it cost for policymakers to mandate air conditioning in all rental apartments and, while at it, contact nonprofit BlocPower to embark on a bold plan to install solar-powered air conditioning units wherever distressed residents need that?
When will Philly Tree Plan finally come into being? The most we’re seeing is Councilmember Katherine Gilmore-Richardson beggint the city to expand tree canopy through recent legislation she introduced. Philly should be where Chelsea, MA is with its ambitious “Cool Block” strategy of city wide of tree planting, greening, white-roof and gray-street upgrades since we know the direct correlation between hot temperatures and violent crime, especially when layered on deep pockets of poverty and disinvestment?
Perhaps now is the time to explore year-round school, learning and engagement that, again, studies show “reduces teen crime.” Rather than push kids out into the violent wild, policymakers — in urgent partnership with non-profits, businesses and all universities — should be scrambling fast to not only reboot and increase funding for summer jobs program, especially for impacted Black residents ages 16 to 25, but also create a citywide under-one-umbrella “Summer Academy.”
That would include existing school buildings (that have air conditioning, of course) along with libraries and available safe spaces operated by all higher education institutions inside city limits and others. Envision a massive and tightly coordinated “Philadelphia Academy” system of literacy, arts, music, martial arts, culinary, IT, graphic design, carpentry, plumbing, automotive, etc. classes that every K through 12 Philadelphia public and charter school student is mandated to enroll in.
While we’re on literacy programs, that would be key: just 36 percent of School District students (in the critical grade years of fourth to eighth grade) are reading proficient. That means 64 percent of Philadelphia public school students are not. It’s stunning to consider that Philadelphia residents are surprised violence is so bad when most Philadelphia school students are functionally illiterate. So, when we already know that 80 percent of incarcerated individuals are illiterate and the linkage between lack of literacy and crime, where exactly is the “Marshall Plan” for the city to achieve complete levels of literacy for all Philadelphia children and adults?
What’s both fascinating and alarming is that all the answers are there in plain view. Data sets upon data sets produced by peer-reviewed and exhaustive research shows across the board reduction and near elimination of criminal violence, by making the necessary investments that make communities whole.
Does Philly want to end this crisis, permanently, or not?
Charles D. Ellison is executive producer and host of “Reality Check,” a daily public affairs program on WURD and is @ellisonreport on Twitter.
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