Kenney not ready to declare gun violence emergency for Philadelphia

“There’s a whole range of legal and practical questions that need to be answered,” the mayor said.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney at City Hall in March 2020

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney at City Hall in March 2020

Emma Lee / WHYY
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A day after New York became the first state to declare a disaster emergency over rising gun violence, Mayor Jim Kenney said he is not ready to declare one for Philadelphia.

Kenney said his administration has yet to determine what a citywide gun violence emergency declaration could even look like, nearly one year after City Council passed a resolution urging the action.

“There’s a whole range of legal questions and practical questions that need to be answered, and whether or not that would even be effective,” Kenney said Wednesday.

He suggested it could impose on civil liberties, and said the city needs to have a conversation about “the definition of what the emergency declaration would accomplish.”

The resolution urging such a declaration was introduced by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and passed by 14 of 17 councilmembers last September.

Gauthier in a phone interview said the city would be able to shape the parameters of its own declaration.

“We would create the emergency declaration and it would include whatever we put in it,” she said. “As far as I know, there’s no pre-determined conclusion that it has to include over-policing or martial law.”

When it became apparent shootings and homicides in Philadelphia were on a trajectory to surpass their horrifyingly high 2020 numbers, activists like hunger-striker Jamal Johnson took up the demand for an emergency declaration.

The call percolated through social media after more than 20 people were shot over the Fourth of July weekend — including two killed as 100+ bullets were sprayed at a cookout in West Philly

More than 1,100 people have been shot so far this year, per police data, about 25% ahead of last year. Overall, the city has recorded 286 people killed, 34% ahead of last year’s pace and more than double five years ago.

Kenney noted on Wednesday that New York’s emergency declaration came from the state level, but also said his administration has not talked to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s office about help for Philly’s gun violence crisis.

Activist Jamal Johnson went on hunger strike last winter in part to urge the mayor to declare a gun violence emergency

Activist Jamal Johnson went on hunger strike last winter in part to urge the mayor to declare a gun violence emergency

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Philly’s already adopted many of N.Y.’s new plans

Publicly available information on N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s gun violence declaration lacked detail, but seemed to bring his state in line with strategies Philadelphia has already employed.

Cuomo called the declaration a “public health approach” to gun violence, for example. Philly Mayor Kenney declared gun violence a public health crisis in 2018.

According to a press release, New York’s emergency declaration will create an office of gun violence prevention and invest $138.7 million in violence prevention, intervention and jobs programming.

Meanwhile, Philly officials have touted the city’s own $155 million investment for fiscal year 2021, about $27 million of which is new money.

New York’s disaster declaration will target “hotspots” statewide, while the Philadelphia Police Department has detailed the ways its pinpoint policing strategy has contributed to fewer shootings and homicides within targeted areas of the city.

New York’s disaster emergency will also enable, “the state to expedite money and resources to communities so they can begin targeting gun violence immediately,” the release said.

In Philly: Regular public briefings, internal coordination

Gauthier’s Council resolution calls on the city to take as drastic an approach to gun violence as it did to the coronavirus pandemic, or the opioid epidemic in 2018.

The resolution outlines specific actions the city should take under an emergency declaration, and the city has already implemented some of those things, including:

  • Working with Council to provide increased funding to anti-violence work,
  • Improving transparency through regular gun violence public briefings, similar to those held for COVID-19
  • Coordinating city departments to combat violence — the administration did this when it created the Office of Strategic Initiatives for Public Safety in late 2020.

Other strategies mentioned in that resolution include:

  • Leveraging private industry to further fundraise for anti-violence work
  • Creating a youth intervention program that includes Philly’s juvenile probation and parole, the Courts, DHS, and the School District
  • More quickly and frequently evaluating the effectiveness of city-run anti-violence programming.

The city has said it is evaluating its Group Violence Intervention initiative, which launched last August, but data from the first round of program evaluation has yet to be released.

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