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Philadelphia is experiencing its deadliest year on record, with most deaths attributed to gun violence. Though shootings occur across the city, they aren’t evenly distributed, and the hot spots change from year to year, a new Billy Penn analysis shows.
Gun violence data is often interpreted at the ZIP code level, which experts say makes the takeaways more digestible by showcasing neighborhood trends. We went deeper, mapping a half-decade of police shooting data onto Philly’s election wards — the 66 contiguous city sections that determine where residents vote.
Looking at Philly shootings on this more granular level, it’s apparent that areas with the highest concentrations of gun violence have shifted over the last half decade (see map below).
“[ZIP codes] are an administrative boundary. They are a measure of population density … which is only one part of the puzzle,” said Dr. Sara Jacoby, an assistant professor of family and community health at the University of Pennsylvania. “But a ward is smaller. It’s a socially meaningful unit that can help with looking at internal social processes.”
The large area covered by a ZIP code means they aren’t that good at helping us understand some of the intricacies of gun violence, like how the amount of green space or wealth on a block can affect the frequency of shootings.
Philly wards are tighter units, so this data can be helpful for community members, leaders, and researchers looking to reduce violence. However, each ward does cover many blocks, and can group together communities that don’t necessarily have access to the same resources. So even if they are smaller, they can still homogenize lived experiences.
“In their minds, people’s neighborhoods are only a couple of blocks long,” said Dr. Caterina Roman, a Temple criminology professor studying patterns of violence in urban neighborhoods.
For example: It might look like a lot of shootings are taking place in Kensington at large, Roman said, when the majority could be happening on a group of blocks on the cusp of the neighborhood.
According to the Billy Penn analysis of data from January 2015 through October 2021, gun violence in some wards in Southwest Philadelphia and parts of North Philadelphia around Kensington is starting to drop to pre-pandemic levels. But in other wards in areas with a much shorter history of gun violence, shootings are increasing.
Experts say there are too many variables to be able to immediately explain why exactly shootings significantly rise and fall in certain areas from year to year.
There are some potential predictors, however. Recent notable changes in shooting incidence, Roman said, could have to do with the pandemic altering drug markets or gang activity. Jacoby recommended examining how patterns of investment and changes in housing values could correlate with shooting incidents.
Choose different years on the map to see how patterns shift. Tap a ward to see specific counts over the years.
Gun violence hot spots change from year to year
As of early December, the city had recorded more than 520 homicides. It’s the most since 1960, as far back as the Philadelphia Police Department keeps statistics. With weeks still to go in the year, that blows past the city’s previous record of 500 murders, set in 1990.
Violent crimes such as rape and assault without a gun are on the decline, leaving shootings to account for the majority of these deaths. And several wards with a history of low gun violence have seen an increase over the past few years.
In Ward 31, which is part of the River Wards, shootings quadrupled from just three in 2016 to 12 as of October this year. And Ward 8, which overlaps with Rittenhouse Square, saw just one shooting in 2018, but already eight by this fall.
Southwest Philly’s Ward 40 saw the most shootings in the city, with 76 by the end of October. But that’s significantly down from its peak of 126 last year. A similar year-over-year drop appears for Ward 7 in Kensington.
Just because an area sees a high concentration of shootings one year doesn’t mean it will see the same in following years.
In Kingsessing’s Ward 51, shootings were hovering around 36 incidents a year, a number similar to the majority of wards. Last year, the number skyrocketed, nearly doubling to 72. This year, shootings are falling again.
Ward 43, which covers North Philly’s Hunting Park, has a particularly volatile pattern of gun violence. In 2015, there were 46 shootings, but that number jumped 58% the following year. More recently, shootings there mirrored an increase in neighboring Kensington, jumping from 56 to 91 between 2019 and 2020.
Jacoby, the UPenn researcher, emphasized that while more granular data analyses can improve knowledge of how gun violence in one neighborhood may influence its concentration in another, it likely won’t calm the fears or change the behaviors of people grappling with the consequences of gun violence on their blocks.
“People don’t not leave their home because of what a scientist says,” Jacoby said. “They’re interpreting their safety based on their lived experience, which includes what happened to them in the past.”
Shootings in one neighborhood can contribute to shootings in another
Wards with a high concentration of shootings are likely predictors of shootings in surrounding areas.
For example, Ward 7 (Feltonville) had 107 shootings last year, the second most in Philadelphia. Two of the surrounding wards also also had similar tallies: Ward 43 to the west and Ward 33 to the east.
Ward 40, which includes most of Southwest Philly, saw a similar situation. Between 2019 and 2020, shootings jumped by 70%. The surrounding wards also saw big increases. Directly north, shootings in Ward 51 more than doubled.
Jacoby refers to this phenomenon as auto-correlation, or the notion that “places near one another are alike one another.”
Auto-correlation is particularly prominent in Philadelphia, said Roman, the Temple professor, because it has the highest level of deep poverty of any major U.S. city.
“Large swatches of the city that have high rates of poverty are also surrounded by other areas with high poverty,” said Roman. “This creates a network of disinvestment where these neighborhoods are going to be synonymous because they have similar levels of disinvestment: poor schools, poor infrastructure, limited affordable housing, and limited social opportunities.”
She gave the example of New York City, where lower income neighborhoods bleed into higher income ones. The transfer of opportunity and resources is still difficult, but more fluid.
“If you are in a neighborhood that is high poverty but you are surrounded by neighborhoods that are more affluent, you might have access to [better] resources,” Roman said. “Maybe there’s jobs that are higher paying that you would have access to if you just walked three blocks. Philadelphia doesn’t have a lot of neighborhoods like that.”
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents West and Southwest Philly and has pressed Mayor Jim Kenney to declare a gun violence emergency, said the ward-level shooting data shows the need for targeted anti-violence efforts.
In addition to the pandemic, she faulted chronic disinvestment in Black communities over the course of decades, and cited the need for better schools, high-quality jobs, blight reduction, affordable housing, and healthcare.
“In the short term,” Gauthier said, “we need to expand crisis intervention and the ability to directly reach and redirect those most likely to be involved in the cycle of violence. As demonstrated by this data, these strategies must be deployed in a very targeted way.”