How Philadelphia Police Are Cutting Gun Violence

Officers are collecting and disseminating intelligence more quickly in crime-plagued neighborhoods. Shootings are down six percent this year, and violent crime overall also is dropping.

In Philadelphia, a city with more than 1,000 shootings a year, shootings are down six percent this year and violent crime overall is dropping. says police tactics are changing. Before an officer stepped out of his car to investigate a recent shooting, a team of officers in a room five miles away already was working the case, remotely scanning for surveillance cameras in the neighborhood and diving into databases to find potential leads about the victim and who might have had reason to target him.

In minutes, that intelligence bureau’s handiwork landed in the officer’s email inbox, easily accessible from his phone. It’s part of a new effort that the department says reflects its continued attempt to drill down on blocks plagued by gun violence.

In recent weeks, the Inquirer and Daily News shadowed investigators in Southwest Philadelphia from crime scenes to hospital rooms and to the intelligence bureau. Along with interviews of beat cops, district commanders, and police brass, the newspapers took a close look at the police department’s strategies for combating gun violence and the challenges that remain in one of the nation’s most violent cities.

“We are not declaring success here,” said one deputy commissioner, Joseph Sullivan. “We just feel we’re moving in the right direction.”


How to Create Anti-Violence Strategies That Work

Some of the urban neighborhoods singled out as the most violent places in the country are mislabeled. In most of them homicides are confined to identifiable “hot spots” which require more focused intervention, according to experts at the New York “Smart on Crime” conference Wednesday.

Some of the urban neighborhoods singled out as the most violent places in the country are mislabeled, says a former senior Department of Justice official.

According to Thomas Abt, a former chief of staff for the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs who is now a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for International Development at Harvard University, a better description of them would be peaceful places plagued by a “few hot spots.”

Thomas Abt

Thomas Abt

Redefining them in that way can help shape more effective programs to reduce violent crime—and especially gun violence— in America, Abt told participants Wednesday, at a panel in the second and final day of the “Smart on Crime” conference at John Jay College.

“The most effective strategies are the specific ones,” said Abt, who is also a former deputy secretary for public safety for New York State. “(These) engage the highest risk places and people.”

Experts who advocate focusing on issues like poverty, guns or “cultural values,” are in effect concentrating on “everything besides the problem, which is that violence concentrates in hot spots,” he said.

Other members of the panel, entitled “Reducing Crime and Violence,” agreed.

“We can reduce crime with less law enforcement,” said David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at John  Jay College and director of the National Network for Safe Communities.

“Most murderers are not serial killers—locking up one does not affect the next one,” said Kennedy, who moderated the panel.

He added that there were now many examples of anti-violence programs that  work, where “ordinary people can make a difference.”

Violence in a few at-risk neighborhoods probably accounted for the startling 60% increase in Chicago’s homicide rate between 2015 and 2016, suggested Roseanna Ander, Executive Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Roseanna Ander

Roseanna Ander. Photo courtesy Harvard Club of NY

“When you have three million people in the city, 60% is a lot of people—it was a historical event (in which) the increase in homicide each month was higher than the homicide rate for the same month the year before.”

Policymakers’ failure to fund local community intervention programs might also have accounted for the increase, she said.

“In the state of Illinois, we had two years of not passing a budget,” Anders said. “The institutions set up in neighborhoods that work with highest risk population were decimated by the budget crisis.”

Devone Boggan, Founding Director of Advance Peace also noted the lack of programs and institutions in place to prevent gun violence in many cities.

Advance Peace works with “a targeted group of individuals at the core of gun hostilities, and bridges the gap between anti-violence programming and a hard-to-reach population at the center of violence in urban areas,” he said.

“What I found out trying to locate the right people is that we didn’t have any place to take them,” said Boggan. “What became real for us was…the options we had weren’t attractive, legitimate, or credible to the population”

Boggan and his team then decided to meet face to face with active firearm offenders and ask, “what can work?”

“What we found is these active firearm offenders are waiting for us to show up with something, they wanted to be engaged every day,” he said. “They wanted to trust social services, but found it difficult to. They needed to be taken to those social services.

“They needed to be walked through that door and stayed with until they said ‘I’m ready to do this on my own.’”

It can be difficult for those in the criminal justice system to trust social service providers, as well as the police officers in their community.

megan hadley

Megan Hadley

In communities where gun violence is prominent, most community members know who the violent offenders are, and they expect their local policemen to know as well.

“We keep officers in the same area to gain the trust of the community” said Robert Tracy, Police Chief of the Wilmington, Del. Police Department. “We are not about arresting everyone, just the most violent individuals.

“Lowering crime, reducing murders, and arresting less people. Isn’t that the goal?”

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.