Philadelphia Murder Rate Spikes: How to Stop the Epidemic

Since the beginning of the year, Philadelphia has buried 32 murder victims. By Jeff Deeney

A cooperating witness to a drug-related murder investigation ruthlessly liquidated. Three teens gunned down by the stepfather of some neighborhood boys they beefed with over Facebook. A pizza delivery driver set up for robbery, lured to an abandoned building and shot in the back.

This comprises but a slim cross section of the 32 murders that have taken place in Philadelphia since the start of 2012. This recent rash of homicides comes quickly on the heels of a year when Mayor Michael Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey were touting a steep reduction in violent crime, with homicides down 22 percent, robberies down 23 percent, and overall violent crime down 16 percent in 2011 from their 2007 highs.

The Mayor blames the homicide spike on a steady flow of illegal handguns into the city as groups like the NRA stymie his attempts to pass local gun-control laws. Richard Berk, a statistician who studies crime at the University of Pennsylvania, says the uptick could also be within the bounds of the “natural variation” of crime rates. Others have hypothesized that the unusually warm winter brought the annual springtime murder-rate jump a few months early.

Whatever the cause, the mayor wants to snuff out the brushfire, and has released a new anti-crime plan that promises to put 100 more cops on the streets over time, targeting neighborhood hot spots where guns and drugs are most concentrated. The district attorney’s office promises to seek maximum penalties against defendants accused of carrying illegal guns. And the mayor is increasing to $20,000 rewards for tips that lead to the convictions of murder suspects, and will allow residents to anonymously text those tips in.

“I just put a bounty on your head,” the mayor said at a press conference at a North Philadelphia High School, speaking to city's perpetrators of violence. “We are coming for you.”

Of the recent carnage, six of the 32 total murders have been confined to a roughly three-mile radius comprising the 24th and 25th police districts, known high drug-activity areas that the mayor intends to target with more cops. On the streets these districts taken together have been known for decades to drug addicts and the dealers who serve them as the Badlands. Of all the 32 murders to occur this year in Philly, perhaps the most chilling happened here: the execution of Rosemary Fernandez Rivera, a 33-year-old bodega owner who police say witnessed a murder and was cooperating with police to identify the perp.

A Badlands homicide spike is nothing new. Ever since famed columnist Steve Lopez, then of The Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote his novel 3rd and Indiana in 1995, the violent drug war and struggle to survive it has been the Badlands dramaturgy. But flooding the neighborhood with cops to stamp out murder sprees is nothing new; Operation Safe Streets, Sunrise, and Pressure Point are all previous attempts by law enforcement that targeted the Badlands. These efforts resulted in short-term reductions in crime, but were too costly to continue in perpetuity and spread drug markets into new territories of the city.

John MacDonald, chair of the Department of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, says studies show Mayor Nutter’s plan can be effective if implemented correctly.

“Urban violent crime typically clusters tightly in a few small geographical areas, so if increased police resources are allocated and distributed very specifically in those areas there will be an immediate impact.”

Focusing cops specifically on illegal guns can also act as a harm-reduction measure.

“There are 15 experiments conducted in various cities showing that when you put cops in hot spots and focus on guns you increase the probability of getting guns. When there are fewer guns in these areas the probability of someone pulling one out during an argument drops. It’s like drunk driving; prevention measures can be effective at getting people to do less of it.”

However, MacDonald is less hopeful about the district attorney’s strategy to fully prosecute all illegal gun offenders.

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“Prosecution is not effective at creating a short-term impact on crime. Promising to fully prosecute is a largely symbolic statement; it just takes too long to move a case through the courts towards a conviction for it to mean anything right now.”

In addition to the mayor’s plan, another potential game changer is in the works. As the most recent murder wave unfurled across the city, Philadelphia Ceasefire emerged from a long pilot phase and announced its official launch. Based on the same model established by Ceasefire Chicago, the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary The Interrupters, Philadelphia Ceasefire will implement a new model of violence intervention. It's a public-health approach that treats violence like a disease, a pattern of learned disordered behavior that after breaking out can spread unless quarantined. Ceasefire quarantines violence by going to the source and doing peer-based street outreach; the Chicago program has an extensive roster of former drug dealers, gang bangers, and state-penitentiary hard-timers who engage directly with kids on the street when violence flares to try to change the behavior before it infects a whole neighborhood.

“What’s important about Philadelphia Ceasefire,” says executive director Marla Davis-Bellamy, “is it’s community driven. It can’t just be police trying to reduce violent crime. Residents need to feel they’re part of the process.”

Based out of Temple University’s Medical School (the university hospital sees more firearm victims than any other in the state), Philadelphia Ceasefire uses ex-offender community outreach workers to intervene after homicides. The outreach team first canvases a neighborhood, gathering information and making contacts. Outreach workers often connect with gunshot victims while they recuperate and “are constantly in the ear” as Davis-Bellamy puts it, of the corner boys they work with, stressing the consequences of staying on the corner, and the positive benefits of changing behaviors.

Those familiar with the streets of North Philadelphia say changing old behaviors that can bring one to carry a gun and use it against another person is easier than it looks. Jorge is 24 years old; he sold heroin and crack in the Badlands for more than three years and says he eventually had to leave the neighborhood entirely, fearing for his daughter’s safety. The stress and pressure of life on the corner, constantly surrounded by gunfire and an ever-dwindling pool of childhood friends, who were either dying or being incarcerated, wore on his psyche. He attributes his chronic anxiety disorder and the panic attacks he suffers to his years of hustling; he self-medicates this post-traumatic condition with black-market-bought Xanax when he needs to. While he stays off Westmoreland Street, his old hustling spot, he’s still in communication with his remaining family and friends who stayed behind, and right now things are looking bleak.

“It’s real hot down there right now, man,” he says, “I stay away from there. I don’t go nowhere near there. Another friend of mine just got killed last week.”

José, who racked up a number of felony drug convictions in his time working the corner, says that he relocated his family out of state to get away from Philly’s violence.

“I took my family over to Jersey, and I just fall back over there now. I try to work little jobs here and there to support my daughter. I’m trying to do anything I can not to wind up back hustling (in the Badlands).”

Like many young men who work hustling drugs on these most violent corners of the city, José has a number of barriers to hurdle before leaving the street life behind for good. His criminal record hurts his job prospects in an already weak labor market; he takes under-the-table jobs usually arranged by family members when he can find them. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and has been idly sitting on good intentions about getting a GED ever since. He has a toddler-age daughter to support that adds to his financial stress.

Davis-Bellamy says that Philadelphia Ceasefire outreach workers help hustlers get off the corner by addressing these barriers. After connecting with a hustler, outreach workers create a “risk-reduction plan” that assesses their needs and connects them to community resources like substance-abuse treatment and jobs training.

This combination of the mayor’s deployment of extra police muscle, incentives for cooperating with detectives, and the launch of Philadelphia Ceasefire’s peer-based community anti-violence outreach are arriving not a moment too soon. As this story publishes, a plastic-wrapped body with hands bound dumped in a vacant West Philadelphia lot was just found. Three more victims were shot in a North Philly Thriftway parking lot; they were lucky enough to survive. Every day brings more grim news, and it’s only January.