Broke in Philly

Philly’s plan to treat gun violence as a public health crisis is getting an update with ideas from the community

A listening tour has surfaced new suggestions — but some of them are already in the works.

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Emma Lee / WHYY
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Dozens of community members have been coming out to voice their thoughts as city officials host a listening tour about Philadelphia’s plan to reduce gun violence by treating it as a public health crisis.

At the first two gatherings this month, in Germantown and South Philly, most of the discussion centered around solutions for underlying factors. Participants were consistently surprised when they suggested an idea — and officials responded by saying it was already being put into action, in some shape or form.

The series will convene four more times. It has a goal of gathering feedback and gauging awareness of what’s called the Roadmap to Safer Communities, introduced by Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration in 2019.

Held both in-person and virtually, the meetings have kicked off with members of the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice & Public Safety (CJPS) asking residents about their primary needs and what they think a safer neighborhood might look like.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has been on both Zoom calls so far, and indicated she’ll attend coming sessions, too. If you have a burning question for the person in charge of Philly’s law enforcement, here’s your chance.

Meetings all require registration, and run from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Upcoming dates and locations are:

  • March 22: North Philly — Martin Luther King Rec Center
  • April 12: Nicetown — Nicetown CDC
  • April 19: West Philly — Church of the Christian Compassion
  • April 21: Lawncrest — Lawncrest Rec Center

Although hosted at the same time, in-person and Zoom meetings are separate affairs led by different facilitators. So far, more people have attended IRL than virtual, with 33 people in the room in South Philly and more than 70 in Germantown, versus fewer than 20 locals in each Zoom session — not counting the journalists, city and state officials, and scholars tuning in.

City’s goals set in stark relief

Gun violence in Philadelphia has intensified since the Roadmap to Safer Communities was rolled out.

Mayor Kenney issued a call to action to craft the Roadmap in the fall of 2018, when the city was on its way to a 13% increase in homicides compared with 2017, per data from the Office of the City Controller. The following year’s increase was 1%, and then the pandemic hit. The grim tally in 2020 was 40% above the prior number, and it hasn’t stopped: figures in 2021 were 13% higher again.

Most Philadelphia homicides stem from gun violence, and non-fatal shootings have also increased. The city recorded 55% more of these incidents in 2021 versus 2019, and the tally is currently running slightly ahead of last year.

These trends put the Roadmap’s goals in stark relief. Initially introduced with the mission to “dramatically” reduce shootings, the aim was honed last year to target a 30% reduction by 2023.

Although city officials invoked radical change while the plan was formulated and have boosted funding for various anti-violence initiatives, the Roadmap to Safer Communities treads fairly familiar ground. The plan concentrates on diversion strategies, forms of community policing, and soliciting feedback in designated hotspots, action items that have been part of past efforts.

This spring’s listening tour aligns with the “Strong Community Engagement & Partnerships” plank of the plan, which addresses the disconnect residents in areas with high amounts of violence can and do have with city government.

As specific neighborhoods are targeted, the aim is to increase positive interactions with city personnel and services, through “person-centered programming that strengthens prevention and intervention efforts,” per the report. Opportunities for public feedback are considered a critical element.

What about young people?

Input gleaned from these meetings will be incorporated into this year’s update of the plan, officials said — although most of the discussion so far hasn’t been about the Roadmap specifically, but about the observations of the folks who tuned in.

Participation was tentative in both Zoom meetings at first, but got more active as time passed.

The youngest person to speak up was in their mid-30s, so the conversation often looked at the past. Lifelong Philadelphians talked about what, in the days of their youth, might have made certain kinds of violence less prominent. The common response was that the building blocks of safe communities were missing — economic opportunity, robust libraries and recreation centers, block-level organizing, a sense of neighborliness. Increased access to guns at younger ages was another common refrain.

Not that seasoned residents idealized their heyday. People recalled neighborhood beefs and personal feuds that drove violence in a different era. But both meetings were still heavy on allusions to a missing moral rectitude or lack of community values in attendees’ neighborhoods, especially among younger people.

But those younger people generally weren’t in attendance. Both in person and online, participants in the demographic the Roadmap is crafted around — young men aged 16 to 34 — were sparse.

Erica Atwood, the director of CJPS, did say there would be a separate meeting for young people in April, with more details coming soon.

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