“Law and Order” Isn’t the Answer to Rising Crime in Philadelphia

Residents and police stand in the street
Police officers direct citizens to move back near the scene of a shooting in Philadelphia on Aug. 14, 2019. Mark Makela/Getty Images

The devastatingly familiar crack of gunshots woke Shanee Garner’s 3-year-old son on a recent Monday evening around 8:45 p.m. These shots were closer than any had been to her West Philadelphia home this summer—just a block away. She rocked him back to sleep telling him everything would be all right, that it was just fireworks. “I’m not interested in exposing him earlier than I have to,” she said.

Not two hours later, shots rang out again. This time about four blocks away.

Between the two shootings, one 27-year-old man was killed, and three young men were hospitalized. Throughout the week there would be gunfire within earshot almost every night.

Garner grew up in the neighborhood, but she can’t recall the violence ever having been as debilitating as it has been this year. “This is the first summer where I feel like the economic depression that people are dealing with and gun violence is to the extent that I’m afraid to go out at night,” she said.

Shootings have surged in Philadelphia this summer, as they have in at least 20 cities across the country including New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee. According to data from the city’s police department, 1,281 people have been shot this year, a 41 percent increase from this time last year.

“I’m quite worried, to be honest,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “If this general trend continues or increases in the directions that it’s going, we will have more gun homicides [nationally] than we have had in 20 years and the [largest] year-to-year increase we have had in a very long time.”

Gun violence experts say there is not one factor to blame, but a confluence of circumstances. Theories on what has contributed to this deadly spike include the pandemic disrupting daily life, economic deprivation, more gun purchases, idle time, loss of trust in the police following George Floyd’s murder, and police responding to increased scrutiny by doing less to protect the communities they serve.

To no one’s surprise, President Donald Trump has politicized the violence. This week’s Republican National Convention has featured countless false claims that former Vice President Joe Biden seeks to “defund the police” if he wins office (Biden has supported increased funding for “community policing”). The effort to depict a future United States under a Biden administration as being overwhelmed by Trump’s vision of “American carnage” has not been particularly subtle.

“We have crime ravaging our streets,” New York Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy said at the Republican National Convention on Monday. “That is what America will see if a Biden-Harris regime runs our country.”

Residents of West Philadelphia, who are living through this crisis, don’t believe the “law and order” approach Trump has pitched is actually working.

“We have a record amount of funding going to police this year, and the fucking neighborhood is no safer,” said Garner, who is the legislative director for a Philadelphia city councilmember. “We have tried flushing funding down the police pipe—look where that got us.”

Under Mayor Jim Kenney, the Philadelphia Police Department’s budget has grown by 30 percent. The adopted 2021 budget allocates $727 million for law enforcement, which represents 15 percent of the city’s operating budget. Philly residents say they would prefer funding for new solutions and violence prevention, not just the aftermath.

“We need to fund crisis responders, violence interrupters, to make a concerted effort to improve schools,” said Garner. “We know what works.”

A few blocks away from Garner, Dana Booth lives in the West Philadelphia house where she was born in 1963. She has seen the recent increase in violence firsthand—two years ago she witnessed a murder on her block. Booth says she is comforted by seeing cops on the street, but would feel safer if officers spent more time building relationships with people in the community. “I think having more of a police presence and engaging with the community, not a little pop up here and there,” she said.

“I don’t think cops are going to help the situation,” said Reel “Sauce” Fortune, 22. He leaned against a fence surrounding an overgrown baseball field and a rec center that was closed on a Sunday. “Open community centers up for the kids, get them off the corner. It sounds cliché, but [that’s] it. Give them something to do.”

A theme that came up again and again in conversations with West Philadelphia residents was the need to find something for young people to do—paid work that would enable them to stay out of the underground economy, and ideally that engages them with the community.

Kendra Van de Water is the co-founder of Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout Philly, a Black-led program in West Philadelphia that engages young people who have witnessed or been the victim of violence, teaches them to peer-mediate, and in some cases gives them paid work mediating.

Van de Water says that cops are at times part of the problem.

“We believe that police exacerbate the situation,” she said. “A lot of times it comes down to communication. When you don’t look like someone from the neighborhood and you don’t talk like someone from the neighborhood, it can come off as really disrespectful.”

Van de Water invites police to come engage in uncensored dialogues with their members and to build relationships. In part this would make the officers less feared and also teach the officers how to engage with the kids they’re supposed to be protecting. “When police know young people in the neighborhood, they’re nicer to them, and they’re more likely to call us when something happens,” she said.

In their work, Van de Water and her mentees track disputes on Instagram and attempt to intervene before disagreements are handled with violence. “The turf wars and neighborhood beefs are over respect or over money—for younger people it’s mostly around respect,” she said. “Usually it’s just a whole bunch of calling names, back and forth. … They’ll send shots of themselves with guns and saying, ‘Oh, come to this place and we’ll fight at this place at this time.’ ”

One of YEAH Philly’s mediators-in-training, 14-year-old Presley Barner, described how the program is meant to work. “I would just talk to one person first, and then talk to the other person, and then get them to come back another day,” she said. “People cannot resolve something when they are mad.” (Barner hasn’t worked in the streets yet, but has helped de-escalate disputes between other group members.) Barner joined YEAH Philly after she was jumped by a group of young girls—Van de Water’s colleague connected with her at the hospital. She now wants to eventually become a professional mediator.

Since its founding in February of 2019, YEAH Philly has engaged about 260 young people. Their work is among the solutions that some residents see as more conducive to better outcomes than an increased police presence.

At the end of Garner’s block, the family of the 27-year-old man who was killed set up a vigil of candles and teddy bears in his honor. Beside the vigil is a poster where loved ones wrote missives such as “Gone but not forgotten,” “RIP cuz,” and “Love you forever bro. All you wanted to do was take care of ya son.”

At the end of the day, Booth said that for violence to stop, the community has to heal. “We’re broken and have trauma,” she said “People who have had family members shot, they have that trauma and they’re walking around with it. Do they have counseling after? Is that being addressed?”

As Booth sees it, no amount of policing can stop the violence until these underlying issues are addressed. “You can’t approach broken people in an authoritative way,” she said.