‘A desperate plea for help’: Philly councilmember asks Kenney to declare gun violence emergency

Right now, Philly is “choosing to be helpless” when it comes to gun violence, says Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Last Thursday — after eight months of shootings that claimed the lives of hundreds of people — Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier sent what she called “a desperate plea” for help.

Gauthier wrote a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney asking him to declare gun violence a citywide emergency and to “raise the issue of gun violence in our neighborhoods to the highest level of importance.”

“I think this is a hard issue, it’s a knotty issue, it’s a big issue,” Gauthier told WHYY News. “But I don’t think it’s an issue where we have to be helpless. We’re choosing to be helpless.”

So far, Gauthier has yet to hear from Kenney’s office.

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“The Mayor has received the Councilmember’s letter and is taking it under consideration,” wrote a city spokesperson in an email. “Tackling our original public health crisis of gun violence continues to be the Mayor’s top priority, therefore all options remain on the table.”

The city’s Office of Violence Prevention, the department tasked with curbing violence in the city, said it’s working hard to fulfill its mission. But Gauthier said people are being shot almost every day in the West and Southwest Philly neighborhoods she represents, and the city’s current approach to dealing with the issue, which lacks transparency, is not working.

Just look at how the city has worked to contain the spread of COVID-19, Gauthier said. There are bi-weekly briefings updating the public on the number of new cases, new outbreaks, and emerging patterns in coronavirus spread. Statistics are updated daily on the city’s website.

Gun violence is just as much a public health crisis, Gauthier said, so why not take a similar approach to keep the public regularly abreast of the toll it’s having on neighborhoods?

According to the most recent police data report, released once a week on Mondays, more than 1,300 people have been shot in Philadelphia so far this year, up 42% from last year. The total number of people murdered at this point in the year is the highest it’s been in more than a decade, with Black men and boys making up 244 of the 301 recorded victims.

In January 2019, the city released its Roadmap to Safer Communities, a five-year plan to reduce gun violence that outlined areas the city should put its resources, such as connecting more people at a high-risk of committing and becoming victims of violence to paid training and work opportunities.

Just last month, the city launched its Group Violence Intervention program in parts of Gauthier’s district as an effort to do just that, although officials running the program admitted during a recent council hearing that some key elements of the program were still in the works, including hiring an independent evaluator.

While Gauthier called the roadmap and intervention programs “critical first steps,” she also has concerns over how the programs are being implemented.

“There is very little transparency around what is happening with those initiatives and if they’re making a difference,” she said. “[The problem] requires constant measuring of our effectiveness so that we can ramp up our strategy or change our strategy if we need to.”

‘The public deserves to know’

During the two-day hearing, hosted by the council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention, OVP did not have details on how much money the department was spending on violence intervention or the number of people the group had engaged.

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“The public deserves to know what the city is doing and the public deserves a much higher level of urgency than we’re seeing right now towards the problem,” Gauthier said.

Dave Kinchen, an OVP spokesperson, said the office sent a prompt report to council after the hearing, which includes a breakdown of how much it spent on staff and community investment grants. Kinchen said there are efforts to make more of the office’s data collection available on its website.

For now, Kinchen said the Group Violence Intervention effort has made 41 attempts to reach out to people “known to be affiliated with groups that are or have been involved with gun violence” across the 12th, 18th, and 19th police districts in its first month — all in Southwest Philadelphia.

The office was able to reach 65% of the people it had identified as candidates with the help of police or their families, per Kinchen.

Also in its first month, the office trained 60 people to conduct these in-person outreach efforts.

According to Kinchen, the Community Crisis Intervention Program, which uses a “trusted messenger” to help those likely to commit violence find alternatives, has also been covering more ground this year.

These “violence interrupters” go to the scene of a shooting or homicide and offer mediation services and promote jobs.

The program expanded in the fall of 2018 with grant funding, but as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board recently pointed out, instead of the 5% dip in shootings the city anticipated, gun violence continued to climb. The program’s effectiveness was never evaluated.

The OVP started to track the interactions violence interrupters have with residents, starting in January 2019, and found they are interacting with an additional 76 people each week in 2020, reaching an average of 577 people a week.

But the effect of these interactions remains unclear in Philly.

Just last month, a 6-year-old girl was shot in Gauthier’s district, a mass shooting took place at a recreation center injuring six, including a pregnant woman, and two more people were shot at Malcolm X Park two weekends ago.

“Even if the things that we’re doing are known to be proven models, we have to make sure that we’re implementing them to the fullest extent possible and that we’re implementing them with fidelity,” Gauthier said.

“We’re seeing those murder numbers climb and climb and climb, even as we say that we’re implementing these efforts … We don’t even know if what we’re doing is working.”

‘A very dark time here’

In addition to sending a message to residents that gun violence is one of Philadelphia’s top priorities, Gauthier said declaring a citywide emergency would be a call for nonprofits, educational and health care institutions and other private businesses to come together and try to stop the shootings ravaging the city and traumatizing residents in mostly Black neighborhoods.

Gauthier pointed out Kenney has used his powers to mobilize the city’s resources and address a health crisis before. In October 2018, Kenney unveiled his emergency response to the opioid crisis, which has hit the Kensington neighborhood particularly hard.

The declaration made it so the city’s 35 offices could work together to address addiction.

“It’s a very dark time here,” said Gauthier of the escalating number of shootings and homicides. “And I get the sense that people don’t know what’s being done to help them. My letter to the mayor was a desperate plea for help out here.”

Gauthier said she hopes more of her peers will join her in asking for the emergency declaration.

On Thursday morning, City Council is holding another committee hearing on gun violence.

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, the committee chair, said Thursday’s hearing “will look at local, state and federal efforts to stop shootings and underlying offenses, including illegal gun trafficking, straw purchasing and illegal gun possession.”

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