Chris Palmer et al., Philadelphia Inquirer, July 11, 2021
Philadelphia this past week surpassed another bleak milestone of bloodshed, as 10,000 people have now been killed or wounded in shootings in the city since 2015, the year police began routinely posting gun-violence statistics online.
The mark was eclipsed during a week in which the city’s shootings crisis continued at an unrelenting pace. In the first eight days of July, 77 people were struck by gunfire, including a 63-year-old woman injured in a double shooting in Kensington, a 30-year-old man killed in a quintuple shooting in East Mount Airy, and a 16-year-old fatally shot in a North Philadelphia homicide that also left a 15-year-old wounded.
Even in a city that has for decades been plagued by violence, the epidemic of gun crime has hit a new level unmatched in recent memory — a pace that began last summer and has been unsettlingly persistent in the months since.
One example: Just past the midway point of 2021, only one day has passed without someone getting shot. But there have been 30 days in which 10 or more people have been killed or wounded by bullets — an occurrence that was a relative rarity as recently as two years ago.
The sustained surge has overwhelmingly hurt Black and brown communities and is evident by nearly any metric. The city’s midyear homicide total in 2021 — the vast majority of which were gun killings — was the highest in at least 60 years.
City leaders — including Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and District Attorney Larry Krasner — have each repeatedly blamed the spike on structural factors exacerbated by the pandemic, including Philadelphia’s high levels of poverty, underfunded schools, and joblessness and underemployment. City health officials released data last week showing a “strong relationship” between zip codes with high levels of gun violence and chronic unemployment.
Criminologists also point out that homicides and shootings have surged across the country over the last year, a volatile time marked by COVID-19 lockdowns, an economic crisis, a national racial reckoning, and an accompanying debate over law enforcement’s role in society — all as gun sales skyrocketed nationwide. In Pennsylvania, state police reported an unprecedented volume of background checks for firearms purchases over the last year: nearly 1.5 million in total.
Kenney said during a virtual briefing Wednesday that he hoped the city would benefit from a fuller resumption of services as the pandemic wanes. He also has high hopes for non-policing antiviolence initiatives funded in the city’s new budget, including $20 million in grants for community organizations, and a strategy called Group Violence Intervention, which aims to engage with potential shooters and victims by offering access to social services. He said that initiative “can interact more freely now that the pandemic is subsiding.”
Nearly 94% of the 10,000 people shot since 2015 were Black or brown, according to the city’s data. Three-quarters of the victims were Black males.
And though those under 18 have generally made up a small share of the victims, the number of youths killed or wounded has risen sharply in the last two years. Through Thursday, 21 of them have been fatally shot in the city in 2021 — more than the annual total in five of the last six years.
The 10,000 incidents were the result of criminal activity — such as homicides, aggravated assaults, and robberies — and generally do not include accidents, suicides, or shootings by police.
The data do not identify victims or say where they’re from. But the locations of the shootings show just how concentrated they’ve been in pockets of Kensington, North Philadelphia, and West Philadelphia — communities that for decades have suffered from a lack of quality schools, job opportunities, and systemic disinvestment.
Police, meanwhile, have continued to contend that gun violence has spiked because would-be gunmen are not being held accountable, a barely veiled critique of the city’s courts and Krasner, the reform-oriented top prosecutor.
But Krasner has defended his office’s record and said data show many of the types of cases cited routinely by police are gun-possession cases without proven links to shooting incidents.
Accountability for actual gunmen has also been consistently low because of the Police Department’s foundering clearance rate. As The Inquirer reported in 2020, police over the previous five years had charged suspects in only 21% of the city’s shootings.