Fewer police stats, more community engagement sought at Philly gun violence briefings

The Philadelphia skyline is pictured at night

The Philadelphia skyline is pictured at night during the fall of 2021. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

When Samantha Matlin was invited to speak at Philadelphia’s biweekly press conference on gun violence prevention in January, she expected questions and challenges about her work with the Scattergood Foundation, which the city enlisted to measure the progress of its anti-violence grant recipients.

Instead, the meeting quickly pivoted to a lengthy review of police reports, with priority given to carjackings — a topic Matlin noted did not directly address gun violence prevention.

The City of Philadelphia began holding its biweekly gun violence briefings in March 2021 to inform the public about each department’s anti-violence initiatives. One year later, a WHYY review of the briefings finds they have disproportionately revolved around data from the Philadelphia Police Department, which experts say emphasizes harmful portrayals of gun violence rather than grassroots prevention initiatives.

During the briefing Matlin attended, she said police representatives showed presentation slides of mugshots predominantly depicting Black men without providing enough context about the circumstances and historical factors contributing to each incident.

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“I’m not saying that any of this is done with malice, but I think we have to challenge ourselves to say, ‘What are we saying with this?’” Matlin said.

At the inaugural briefing on March 17, 2021, Mayor Kenney said the briefings would be a space where his “entire administration” could share information about their work to promote anti-violence efforts, like updates from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, initiatives from community partners and summaries of gun-related data from police. This holistic approach would hold officials accountable to combatting the root causes of the crisis.

Kenney and Erica Atwood, executive director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety, have maintained a regular presence at the briefings. However, WHYY’s review of 24 briefings — the ones archived on the City of Philadelphia’s Facebook page — found that representation from other city departments is negligible to nonexistent.

Since January, the briefings have exclusively featured Kenney, Atwood and representatives from the Philadelphia Police Department.

Of the briefings reviewed by WHYY, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health shared updates at just three. Community partners also remain on the fringes — although 14 residents and community group leaders spoke at the reviewed briefings, their presence has tapered in recent months, with just one speaking since October 2021.

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Representatives from the Philadelphia Police Department account for more than half of the speakers at the reviewed briefings, and they spoke for more than 2.5 times longer than all others combined.

The city said the briefings will continue to evolve.

“We will continue to refine our public and media engagement strategies around this issue because we need everyone’s help to solve this crisis and make our communities safer,” wrote Kevin Lessard, the city’s communications director, in a statement to WHYY.

During their updates, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales and Deputy Commissioner Ben Naish typically take about 20-30 minutes to walk the group through reports on firearms, shooting trends and investigations.

Matlin and Jim MacMillan, director of the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, believe the Philadelphia Police Department is doing necessary work to prevent gun violence, but should not have such a dominant presence at the briefings.

MacMillan said the structure of the briefings encourages the media’s coverage of gun violence to focus on police responses to specific incidents, which marginalizes alternative prevention strategies.

It also has the potential to harm victims by encouraging journalists to prioritize reporting about crime incidents, not prevention. Journalists attending the briefings are typically limited to asking questions about the topics discussed during the presentations.

“We know from our research that this sort of news coverage can leave residents feeling fearful, hopeless, dehumanized, and you can reinforce racist stereotypes and create situations where victims are treated like suspects,” MacMillan said. “Reporting on incidents can expose victims to further violence, and possibly even increase the risk and/or intensity of retaliatory violence.”

Both MacMillan and Matlin also said the images presented at the briefings reinforce stigma surrounding Black people and crime.

“Mugshots and surveillance video can perpetuate stereotypes, and perpetuate fear and hopelessness,” MacMillan said. “Maybe their police channels is where they belong, but they don’t belong in a gun violence prevention press conference.”

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier introduced the idea for the briefings to City Council in September 2020. She envisioned them as a space to share data, policy proposals and other anti-violence efforts, including from grassroots organizations across the city — similar to the structure of the public health department’s COVID-19 briefings.

“It was our thought that city officials having to get up every week to talk about violence could contribute to more accountability around the city’s actions on the issue and could raise the crisis to a higher level of importance within the city government,” Gauthier said.

Gauthier also wanted the briefings to connect people with resources and reshape the media’s coverage of gun violence to be more compassionate. She consulted the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting and journalists across the city for insight on their experiences covering gun violence and changes they’d like to see.

She’s grateful Kenney took up the charge of creating the briefings, but suggested several improvements for restructuring them. She wants to increase the briefings’ frequency to a weekly basis, broadcast them on more platforms, provide data about the outcomes of the city’s violence prevention efforts and present resources curated to the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

MacMillan also believes the city should archive each of the briefings in a more accessible way than its Facebook page, and aggregate and publicly distribute the data shared during the briefings. The police reports include data from as many as eight different city websites — or data that is not publicly available — and the complex process of accessing this information prevents viewers from gathering necessary information outside of the briefings.

“Sure, we can take screenshots of the presentation, but it communicates that officials control public data, like a peek behind the curtain into some secret world,” MacMillan said.

Making the data publicly available will also help people hold city officials accountable for providing accurate data, with MacMillan noting minor discrepancies in the data presented at the briefings compared to the original source material from various city departments.

Matlin hopes the city will use these concerns as an opportunity to improve the way it frames information about gun violence.

“This isn’t to point fingers, this isn’t to say people aren’t doing a good job,” Matlin said. “It’s really to say how do we do better? If our goal is to be a trauma-informed city that recognizes the complexity of trauma, and the value of all humans, how do we all do this better and work together?”

The next briefing will take place on April 13.

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