Philly Police: Tactics to slow gun violence are working in some areas

Shootings are still high citywide, but police leaders say a patrol strategy is making gains


By Anna Orso, Dylan Purcell and Chris Palmer
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Over the last week, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has repeatedly touted what she called "wins" in her department's efforts to reduce gun violence, a hopeful assessment of a city on track to log more shootings this year than in at least three decades.

In testimony to City Council last week and again during a news conference Wednesday with Mayor Jim Kenney, Outlaw said the department-wide patrol strategy is working, pointing to year-over-year reductions in gun violence in a handful of police districts, including in Fishtown, South Philadelphia, and Northwest Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Monday, March 1, 2021.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Monday, March 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

She and the top brass have also continually promoted data showing fewer shootings compared with this time last year in subsections of the city they call "pinpoint zones." Commanders are instructed to focus resources in those areas, which are where data show violence is most likely to occur.

But downturns in those sections don't reflect the trends citywide or the dire situation in large swaths of West and North Philadelphia. The city as a whole is on pace to set an all-time annual record for homicides, and an Inquirer analysis of the data shows shootings are up in two-thirds of the city's 21 police districts compared with last year — which itself was the most violent since 1990.

The figures are even starker when comparing violence levels before 2020. The Inquirer found shootings are up in 18 of the city's 21 police districts when compared with 2019. In some, the pace has doubled.

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One Southwest Philadelphia police district saw 15% fewer shooting victims this year compared with the same time last year. But State Rep. Joanna McClinton, whose legislative district includes that area, said overall her constituents say they are confronting an "unbelievable" amount of violence in their communities.

For families who have lost loved ones or duck for cover when bullets fly by their windows, she said, "it's difficult to feel the decrease."

"We just feel like there's not enough effort being put in from the people who are in charge," she said.

On Wednesday, Outlaw said she understands year-to-date improvements in some neighborhoods might not be encouraging for residents who live among persistent gunfire. But "a win is a win is a win," she said.

"Wherever there's positive information, or an opportunity to show that either something is working, or people are hard at work, we got to give people their kudos," she said. "It's not going to happen overnight. ... What we're trying to chip away at is a culture of violence."

Through Thursday, 1,886 people had been shot citywide this year, 8% more than at the same point last year, and homicides are up 14%, to 443. That's more than were killed in all of 2019, and the city has reached that tally in only three other years since the 1970s. The vast majority of this year's slayings have been committed with guns.

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The figures Outlaw highlighted, which the department also promoted on social media, show double-digit percentage drops in shooting victims and homicides in some police districts. A similar analysis by The Inquirer found that in six districts the department pointed to — the 1st, 12th, 14th, 15th, 17th, and 26th — there were 18% fewer shooting victims this year compared with the same point in 2020. That amounts to 89 people.

Those districts — which cover neighborhoods in Northwest Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and some stretches along the Delaware River — account for less than a quarter of all shootings year-to-date in the city. Shootings everywhere else are up by 19% — with 235 more victims compared with the same time last year.

In some of the districts highlighted by police, the rates of violence are still significantly higher than they were in years before 2020.

Consider the 26th, which encompasses Fishtown and parts of Kensington. Outlaw pointed to a 42% year-over-year drop in homicides and a slight uptick in shootings — 54 people have been shot this year compared with 52 at this time last year.

But 54 shooting victims by mid-October is still higher than in any year since 2015, and more than double the total in all of 2016.

Shootings have also increased year-over-year in most of the districts in North Philadelphia, stretching from Nicetown to Kensington. In five of them, shootings are up 17% — and the number of victims account for more than half of the people shot this year citywide.

City Councilmember Cindy Bass, who represents parts of North Philadelphia, acknowledged the improvement in some pockets of the city, but said many of her constituents aren't confident in the violence-prevention strategy citywide.

"The most important stat is: Do the citizens of Philadelphia feel safe in this city?" she said. "I would say, by and large, the answer to that is: No."

Outlaw contended the department's three-year-old patrol strategy is working in targeted areas. The plan, dubbed "Operation Pinpoint," expanded to 45 zones last year, and there are pinpoint spots located in every district in the city, though the department has declined to share the boundaries. She said the strategy provides a data-driven framework for deploying officers, tracking repeat offenders, and collaborating more regularly with other law enforcement agencies.

But for the department's strategies to work, she said, "we have to have the resources that we need to do it."

A wave of retirements has left hundreds of vacancies on the police force, and Outlaw told Council that about 1,000 officers aren't working because they're on leave due to injury, discipline, or for other reasons.

Like agencies across the country, she said, the department is struggling to attract officers, both in the wake of the gun violence epidemic and the nationwide reckoning over race and the role of policing.

Recruiting efforts have also been hampered by mandates, she said, including a rule that all new hires be vaccinated against COVID-19, and a new law requiring municipal workers to have lived in the city for a year prior to being hired.

"We don't have the same resources that we had a year ago," she said. "And quite frankly, another reason why I share positive information we have, is to let people know that we're still making do with what we have the best we can."

(c)2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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