‘It’s an emergency’: Philly leaders, activists give Kenney a deadline to do more about gun violence

Jamie Gautier speaks from a podium at a press conference, with elected officials behind her

Philadelphia 3rd District Councilmember Jamie Gautier led a press conference of officials and community leaders demanding Mayor Jim Kenney declare a gun violence emergency on July 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A coalition of activists, state lawmakers, and Philadelphia City Councilmembers are putting Mayor Jim Kenney on notice: They say he has until July 30 to address eight action items they’ve proposed to deal with the city’s historic surge in gun violence.

“The mayor is important in this because he controls all the operating agencies in the city of Philadelphia, and in this moment the operating agencies need to train their resources and their attention on this issue,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents the 3rd District in West Philadelphia and is one of the officials leading the effort.

speaks from a podium at a press conference, with elected officials behind her
Councilmember Jamie Gautier led a press conference demanding Mayor Jim Kenney declare a gun violence emergency on July 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The list offers a multi-pronged approach to helping the 14 ZIP codes hardest-hit by shootings with resources that could prevent conflict through de-escalation programming and connecting people with viable jobs, as well as getting residents already affected by gun violence the mental health services they need.

The group led by Gauthier and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said decades of racist policies, such as redlining, that segregated the city and left pockets of poverty in Black communities, created the current environment where shootings impact Black residents the most.

Rebecca Rhynhart speaks from a podium at a press conference, with elected officials behind her
Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart joined other elected officials and community leaders in demanding a stronger response to the city’s historic gun violence on July 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Addressing our city’s gun violence is an issue of racial justice,” said Rhynhart. “The data shows that much of Philadelphia’s violence is concentrated in just 14 ZIP codes … out of 48 of the city’s ZIP codes.”

The coalition pushed back on Kenney’s reluctance to declare gun violence a citywide emergency, saying he was focusing on semantics. Kenney has insisted that making such a declaration would be symbolic as it would not release new state or federal funds or change much of what the city is doing.

To this, Gauthier and others said Kenney could call these eight action items whatever he’d like. They stressed that the list of demands did not require a special designation, only Kenney’s direction.

“If he wants to call it that or not, we all know it’s an emergency and he needs to act like it’s an emergency,” said Rhynhart.

Philadelphia elected officials and community leaders gather outside a convenient store for a press conference, with a crowd in the foreground
Philadelphia elected officials and community leaders gathered outside a convenient store at 51st Street and Haverford Avenue, where a 1 year-old was previously shot, demanding the Kenney administration declare a gun violence emergency in the city of July 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Included in the list is a call for the Managing Director’s Office to establish a Gun Violence Emergency Response Team that would meet daily to coordinate all city agencies and their efforts to curb shootings. This team would also keep the public up-to-date on all the city’s efforts to tackle shootings and would serve a role similar to the city’s Opioid Emergency Response Group.

The Managing Director’s Office would also work with City Council to develop a framework to distribute $20 million in new violence prevention funding; the Office of Violence Prevention would be tasked with expanding the Community Crisis Intervention Program to the 14 hardest-hit ZIP codes; and the Commerce Department would direct $5.6 million in additional workforce development funding to these communities.

The group also wants the city to be more transparent on progress made in implementing the much-touted, and recently updated, Roadmap to Safer Communities. Among demands, they want a list of libraries and recreation centers with extended hours and a timeline for when violence intervention grants will be distributed — advocates say the current pace is too slow.

State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), who serves as his chamber’s minority whip, was not at Thursday’s press conference where the group unveiled its demands. He says he’s in the early stages of behind-the-scenes talks with other lawmakers, members of Southwest Philly community groups, and experts at Penn and Drexel about what the state might be able to do differently.

Williams’ district includes parts of Southwest Philly that, like many neighborhoods, have been shaken in recent months by a surge in shootings.

He doesn’t think normal violence intervention methods — reaching out to community leaders, increasing funding for youth groups, creating job training programs — seem to be working well enough.

Katherine Gilmore Richardson speaks from a podium at a press conference
Philadelphia Councilmember At-Large Katherine Gilmore Richardson joined other elected officials and community leaders in demanding a stronger response to the city’s historic gun violence on July 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Williams said doesn’t have an answer yet, but he does think it makes sense to declare a state of emergency because “it’s clearly past the point of an emergency. It’s a crisis.” But, he added, he also thinks lawmakers need to take a step back before making any final decisions.

“Just saying ‘put down your guns’ is not gonna do it. Just saying ‘we have a basketball for you to bounce’ is not gonna do it … Even saying ‘we have a job for you’ is not gonna do it.”

He notes that the state budget lawmakers passed early this summer included $30 million for community-based anti-violence efforts around the state — much of which will end up going to Philly due to its larger population and rising homicide rate.

He wouldn’t say no to more state funding, he said — but added that first, he thinks lawmakers need to do a better job figuring out how to actually use it effectively.

“It has to be targeted,” he said. “It can’t just be ‘we sent it to Philadelphia. Good luck.’”

Helen Gym speaks from a podium at a press conference, with elected officials behind her
Philadelphia Councilmember At-Large Helen Gym joined a press conference of officials and community leaders demanding Mayor Jim Kenney declare a gun violence emergency on July 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As of Sunday, July 18, more than 1,200 people had been shot in the city, a 21% increase from the same time last year. Last Friday, the city marked 300 homicides, putting the city on pace to exceed last year’s record-breaking number of murders.

Gauthier and Rhynhart sent their proposals in the form of a letter Thursday. In a statement, spokesperson Deana Gamble said Kenney looks forward to continued work with City Council to address the gun violence crisis.

“The Mayor is glad to hear the councilmember is not focused on semantics, and that the recommendations she’s presented are closely aligned to the work the administration is already undertaking to continue our response to the national public health emergency that gun violence presents,” wrote Gamble.

Larry Krasner speaks from a podium at a press conference, with elected officials behind him
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner joined other elected officials and community leaders in demanding a stronger response to the city’s historic gun violence on July 22, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

No other details were immediately available about whether Kenney would take up some of the recommendations or if he’d meet with Gauthier and Rhynhart.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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