Accurately tracking Philly’s gun violence epidemic depends on one guy named Gary

The city’s crime data recording system is “a rustic operation,” per the PPD.

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Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn
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Philadelphia emerged on Monday from a violent weekend. Just how violent depends on who you ask.

6ABC reported 34 people shot over the weekend. According to NBC10, there were “at least 17 separate shootings.” The Inquirer counted 23 incidents of gun violence on Sunday alone.

In a city plagued by gun violence, there’s no uniform way for the press or the public to accurately track these incidents in real time — and it turns out the a major piece of the police reporting process depends on one overburdened officer.

As with COVID-19, having up-to-date info can help affected communities and allow researchers to come up with more effective solutions. Advocates have been pressing for progress on the gun violence data reporting issue for a while now, and residents are also beginning to ask for it.

“If you could find a way to also provide major crime statistics,” said Basil Talbott of Washington Square West about Billy Penn’s morning newsletter, “it would help provide a fuller measure of the city’s health.”

Unfortunately, the situation appears to be getting worse. According to the latest police data, 901 Philadelphians have been shot so far this year, up 30% from last year to date.

Where do those figures come from? The total number of shooting victims in the city’s public information hub, Open Data Philly, updates each night at 12:01 a.m., according to Sergeant Eric Gripp, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department. The figures it displays come from an internal database and aren’t necessarily final or complete, he said. The info is also displayed on the PPD’s “Crime Mapper” page, which Gripp said pulls from the Open Data site on a daily basis.

A true count (as far as police know it, anyway), can be found in the department’s weekly crime stats report. The document, described by Gripp as “a snapshot provided for public access to give an overview [from] week to week,” is supposed to post every Monday by 10 a.m. But that’s not always the case — especially during a pandemic after a weekend of intense violence.

This Monday, the report didn’t upload to PPD’s Google Drive folder until 12:39 p.m. Gripp attributed the delay to the department’s imperfect record-keeping system.

A big part of that record-keeping system? Officer Gary Mercante.

He’s the guy in charge of checking and double checking the numbers, and posting the weekly report. The count has to be done a certain way so it’s in accordance with CompStat, a police management tool. (Critics of the tool say it can lead to discrimination; the NYPD police union is actively trying to eliminate its use.)

“In a perfect world, we try to get it done on Monday mornings,” Gripp told Billy Penn about the weekly report. “It’s just such a rustic operation.”

‘It could be as simple as Gary gets backed up’

In addition to compiling, double-checking and posting the gun violence and other crime data each week, Mercante and his COVID-reduced “skeleton crew” are also tasked with sending out pictures of missing persons or those wanted for other crimes.

“It could be as simple as Gary gets backed up with 1,500 other things,” Gripp said.

“It’s supposed to be up there as quickly as possible, but, as always, anything can happen — up to and including technical errors, or just, we thought we uploaded but it’s sitting elsewhere.”

By the middle of the day on Monday, if the past week’s numbers haven’t been uploaded, PPD will start getting complaint calls. If Mercante still isn’t available to post the data, Gripp said, other members of the department staff will.

Philly’s gun violence reporting lag isn’t all that abnormal. Right now, New York’s crime data populates incidents that occurred up until June 28. Baltimore’s system tracks until June 27 — while Boston’s and Seattle’s both include incidents until July 6.

“It’s concerning,” Gripp said, explaining that the department has to weigh timeliness with accuracy. “Obviously we want to get out the information as quickly as possible so people don’t start wondering and speculating. But…when there’s pressure, we end up coming from the other end of it with an error.”

There is a citywide effort to modernize some government software systems. Philly’s Department of Licenses and Inspections launched its first online permit application in March — right before offices had to close to the public due to the pandemic.

Could Philly’s police system get an upgrade? For now it seems unlikely, Gripp said. Since CompStat comes with its own reporting system, the department would be hard-pressed to find another program that’s compatible.

“Even if the city had unlimited funds, there are still state and national systems we have to communicate with as well,” Gripp said. “You can only automate so much.”

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