Philadelphia as a case study in the wave of shootings nationwide

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Like most major cities around the country, Philly saw a sharp rise in shootings and murders last year which hasn’t abated. But unlike most of those cities, Philly’s crime wave is on track to surpass even the very worst years of the early 1990s. In other words, whatever it is that is happening with regard to violent crime nationwide is happening even more so in Philly.

The difficult question is why? There have been ongoing arguments over that for months. Progressives tend to emphasize the pandemic and the rise in gun sales while some conservatives have pointed out that the jump seems to have happened last summer after the death of George Floyd. Today, ProPublica published a story today about the rise in crime in Philadelphia which attempts to argue the spike in violence is really the result of all of these factors happening at once.

This story is very long and can’t be summarized so I won’t try. But I will highlight a few passages that I think are interesting. For instance, many on the left have pinned the crime wave on the pandemic, often without providing any mechanism to explain the presumed connection. How exactly does locking people at home result in people shooting one another in the streets. To her credit, author Alec MacGillis actually provides an answer that makes a certain amount of sense.

In Philly, a gradual decline in violent crime a decade ago seems to be based on policing which was pro-active. An approach called focused deterrence meant cops would actually make lists of people they believed were most like to engage in gun violence and then attempt to prevent it. Another part of this crime reduction effort involved independent charity groups that were formed to offer kids something to do in a structured, peaceful environment. It could be as simple as gathering at a rec center to play basketball. But with the arrival of COVID, this support structure collapsed all at once.

In Philadelphia, one such group was an organization called YEAH Philly. It was co-founded in 2018 by Kendra Van de Water, a community activist serving on the city’s police advisory commission, who was bothered by the lack of youth input into debates around police reform. She started asking teenagers in West Philadelphia what they needed, and this evolved into weekly sessions at various rec centers, often with meals provided.

Among the activities the group organized were dialogues between the teenagers and police patrol officers in West Philadelphia. The teens would often resist at first, but eventually, Van de Water said, “they’d have so much to say, and say that they’d learned so much.” And then they would see the same officers around the neighborhood. “We know that the interactions are different when patrol officers and officers in general know people,” she said. “So that was our goal, just to improve that relationship and understanding about what goes on as a police officer, and also how young people process different things.”

But in March of 2020, the rec centers closed, and YEAH Philly went virtual, along with schools, libraries, churches and seemingly everything else. The organization tried to maintain contact with the teens via FaceTime and Google Hangouts, but it was a challenge. “They want to be seen in person,” Van de Water said. “They don’t do well logging on and doing all of that. So that was a loss.” Meanwhile, she saw the toll that other losses were taking. “When you don’t have young people in school, that’s a huge thing,” she said. “It makes a difference when you don’t have any of the rec centers open. That makes a difference. They play basketball. You know, they need these things.” As the weather warmed, Philadelphia opened not a single one of its 68 public swimming pools for the summer of 2020…

[Thomas] Abt is the author of a 2018 book on urban gun violence, “Bleeding Out.” “Everything we know about evidence-based violence interruption says you have to interact directly with the highest-risk individuals,” he said. “And that’s true for police, but that’s also true for all sorts of community services, including but not limited to street outreach. So for all of these individuals who are at the highest risk, all of a sudden, all of those services stop because of the physical distancing mandates.”

So the argument is that COVID kicked out all of the support structures designed to keep the young men most likely to commit or be victims of violence occupied. And maybe that would have gradually led to more crime and more trouble if not for what happened next: the death of George Floyd. In Philly, there were days of riots which forced police to further remove their focus from other parts of the city:

In Philadelphia, protests and looting continued for days, as did the use of tear gas. The police department redeployed officers from across the city to the protests and looting, leaving swaths of the city underpatrolled.

The shift in police focus was immediately discernible in the data: from late May to mid-June last year, police vehicle and pedestrian stops plunged by more than two-thirds. This was driven by more than staffing shifts, said Sullivan. Even officers still on their usual patrols were increasingly opting not to engage with the frequency they had before…

It was a seeming replay of the dynamic observed in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, and in Chicago following the death of Laquan McDonald. In those cities, arrests dropped sharply in the weeks following protests over the deaths. What made this latest iteration so unusual was that it was playing out in cities across the country, not only in the city that had experienced this particular death at police hands, Minneapolis. Some combination of the extremity of the Floyd video and the release of emotions pent up during the lockdowns had elevated the protests into a national event, reproducing nationwide the dynamic seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago several years earlier.

Even as police were pulling back, Floyd’s death had an impact on trust in the police which meant fewer people working with police and fewer violent crimes solved. The piece suggests that in Philly there was a growing sense that people, especially black men, were on their own. And that feeling may in turn have helped to drive an uptick in the number of people carrying guns. That change was facilitated by the fact that police had their hands full and probably didn’t want to stop-and-frisk anyone last summer, knowing they’d probably end up in a viral video or worse.

But it wasn’t just the police pulling back for obvious reasons. At the same time, Philadelphia’s progressive DA was letting people out of jail (so they wouldn’t catch COVID) and was charging fewer people for carrying guns on the grounds that he didn’t want to contribute to “mass incarceration.”

[Joe] Sullivan, the former deputy commissioner, said the lesser repercussions for illegal gun possession sent a message to those deciding whether to carry. “If your buddy goes to court and he [the DA] may drop the felony charge and let him walk out the door on a misdemeanor charge, what do you think he does when he gets back? He tells everyone. We’ve heard these discussions on prison tapes, prisoners talking about, you know, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it,’” he said. “I mean, you don’t need to hire an expensive private attorney, or a public defender. You got the DA’s office.”…

Krasner attributed the drop in convictions to a reduced quality in evidence provided by the police. A growing share of the gun seizures were from vehicle stops, and it was more difficult to determine ownership after a vehicle stop with several people in the car than it was for a pedestrian stop. And, he said, many of the stops continued to lack reasonable cause for suspicion — in contravention of the consent decree signed before Krasner arrived — and thus required his office to dismiss them.

But it was not hard to discern a broader ambivalence in his office’s approach to gun possession cases — the sense, shared by many in progressive reform circles, that it was unfair to brand Black and Latino young men with a criminal record solely for carrying a firearm, an act that millions of white Americans engage in as a matter of course. “Are we going to replace a war on drugs with a war on guns,” Krasner asked the Inquirer, “and are we going to use that as an excuse for mass incarceration?”

There’s a lot more to the piece, including the suggestion that social media played a role in the mayhem. Apparently, a lot of the arguments that get settled with gunfire in Philly have their origin on Instagram, which is something I wouldn’t have guessed.

Even more interesting is the suggestion that the decision not to reopen schools last fall played a role in the continuation of this negative pattern. Of course teacher’s unions won’t accept any responsibility for anything negative but when everything else fell apart last year, schools were really one of the few remaining constants for young people. When they only returned as online classes last fall, a lot of kids just fell away completely.

I don’t think this piece is the last word on the topic of the surge of violent crime but it’s the most detailed argument I’ve seen for how all of these various threads probably contributed to the ultimate outcome we’re seeing now. My own take is that all of it did play a role but the death of George Floyd was the key event. That’s when you have both police and people in neighborhoods pull apart (the start of the push to defund police). That’s also when the violence really starts to rise in most places.

Maybe if the pandemic hadn’t already cut off all the support structures and school had returned last fall the rise of crime would have been a momentary blip. That’s possible but I don’t think that’s what would have happened. What you see in other places where high profile police shootings have happened (Ferguson, Baltimore, etc.) is a pullback by and from police and a subsequent rise in crime that last for years, not months. The difference this time is that the phenomenon happened everywhere instead of just locally. As some have already argued, this could even be an inherent tradeoff to anti-police protests.