Chris Palmer, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 1, 2021
For just the second time in its history, Philadelphia’s annual homicide total threatened in 2020 to reach 500, another grim marker in a year where the city has been racked by the coronavirus pandemic, economic strife, and social unrest of racial inequity.
The number of people killed last year — 499 as of late Thursday — is 40% higher than in 2019, and more than in all of 2013 and 2014 combined. The only time more people were slain in the city was in 1990, when police reported 500 homicides as violence surged alongside an intensifying crack-cocaine epidemic.
The spike in shootings was even more pronounced. More than 2,240 people were shot since Jan. 1, 40% more than police have ever recorded. Those statistics date back only to 2007, when the Police Department began keeping track of shooting victims separately from the broader category of assaults involving a gun.
As in most years, the vast majority of victims were young, Black men — many from impoverished neighborhoods lacking resources and long afflicted by gun violence. But shots also killed and wounded children playing on the street. A pregnant woman was struck by a stray bullet — forcing the early delivery of her baby. Some gunmen fired indiscriminately into block parties. A witness was shot dead near City Hall in what police believe was a targeted hit for his testimony in a murder trial.
Still, the city’s crime picture continued to show uneven and unusual signs: As homicides and shootings soared, overall violent crime — which also includes rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults — remained near decades-long lows, while overall property crime was also lower last year.
In interviews, city officials including Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and District Attorney Larry Krasner said they believed a combination of factors unique to 2020 contributed to the spike in gun violence.
They pointed to a pandemic increasing stress and desperation for people in already-struggling neighborhoods; officers being pulled away from their regular neighborhood patrols to help monitor protests and respond to pockets of social unrest; COVID exposures forcing further staffing adjustments; and a series of trust-shattering episodes by officers — including use of tear gas and rubber bullets during protests in June — that may have further eroded law enforcement legitimacy in a city that has long struggled with the issue.
Many city services that function as checks against gun violence — or at least alternatives to the street — were also significantly disrupted last year: Criminal courts were all but shut down for months; the probation and parole systems struggled to operate regularly; schools and recreation centers closed; and many jobs disappeared as programs and businesses shuttered.
Police also point to the proliferation of guns on the street. They logged more than 2,300 arrests for illegal firearm possession last year, double the total from 2015.
Other forms of routine policing in the city were impacted in 2020. Total arrests fell by more than a third compared to 2019, according to data from the District Attorney’s Office, with drug arrests cut nearly in half, and arrests for violent crimes down 20%.
Some of that is likely due to policy shifts Outlaw temporarily implemented, in which officers were told not to immediately apprehend suspects in minor or drug-related offenses in a bid to avoid potentially spreading the coronavirus in the community or the city’s jails.
The Council on Criminal Justice, a D.C.-based research group, found that homicides in 21 American cities were up 32% between March and October compared with 2019. And some analysts believe 2020 could record the largest-ever single-year increase in murders in the United States.
Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, said that the national homicide spike hit its peak in June and July — after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and protesters across the country demonstrated against police brutality.
As cases piled up, police struggled to secure arrests. Just one in six of last year’s shootings had resulted in a suspect in custody, The Inquirer reported last month.