How Philly’s gun violence crisis fluctuated across 30 years of police commissioners

A look at how the city has fared under its most recent top cops.

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Closeup of a police vehicle in Philadelphia

File photo: Shown is a police vehicle in Philadelphia, Thursday, June 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This story is a part of the Every Voice, Every Vote series.

Distress over Philly’s high number of homicides and shootings has spurred some calls for the next mayor to replace Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.

Some longtime observers say it’s unfair to attribute the problem to a single leader, because of the many agencies and officials involved in public safety, as well as the complex variety of forces driving crime.

“Public safety involves much more than the police commissioner and the mayor,” said Phil Goldsmith, who served as the city’s managing director under Mayor John Street. “It’s really a systemic issue that involves the District Attorney’s Office. It involves the court system, it involves the prisons, it involves education.”

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If a police department leader does make improvements, it can take years to see their impact as changes work their way through the 6000-officer department and reshape public behavior.

In some cases, a commissioner’s work may end up making his or her successor look good.

At the same time, over the last three decades, particular mayor-commissioner pairings have seemed to correlate with notable changes in crime rates.

Here’s a look at how the city has fared under its most recent top cops.

Commissioner Richard Neal (1992-1998)

There’s precedent for discontent over persistent high crime leading to a commissioner’s departure, even when the person seemed to be doing a good job.

Philadelphia in the 1990s experienced a plague of murders comparable to what we’re seeing now. The number peaked at 500 in 1990 and remained above 400 through 1997.

Ed Rendell became mayor in 1992 and promoted officer Richard Neal to commissioner. Neal was praised for his professionalism and calm demeanor, for boosting ethics training and making upgrades at the the police academy, improving police equipment, creating bike patrols, and other changes.

But rates of murders and drug crimes remained stubbornly high, and political pressure from then-state Rep. Dwight Evans and others led Neal to resign under protest in 1998. “To suggest that all of the ills of society, particularly related to the issue of crime and drugs, lies wholly in the hands of law enforcement is utterly ridiculous,” Neal said at the time.

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On the day he quit, The Inquirer published an updated data analysis showing crime had actually dropped by almost 10% in the first half of 1997, compared to the same period a year earlier. Rendell responded by saying “a lot of people owe Rich Neal an apology.”

Commissioner John Timoney (1998-2002)

Whether due to police leadership or other factors, homicides continued to drop sharply. They fell to 292 in 1999, and remained below 350 for several years.

That lasting improvement is often credited to John Timoney, the blunt-talking, Irish-born New Yorker Rendell recruited as his second commissioner. Timoney helped develop the statistics-based method of policing known as Compstat, which the department used to deploy officers to crime hot spots and increase accountability for district commanders.

Timoney had a colorful public profile, often patrolling the city himself by bike. In his first week on the job, he caught a purse-snatcher while jogging near Rittenhouse Square.

He frequently met with church and community groups, and boosted public support for the police; residents applauded when officers entered Kensington en masse to crack down on gun- and drug-dealing.

But Timoney was criticized for aggressively cracking down on protesters during the Republican National Convention, which led to lawsuits and financial settlements by the city. George Burrell, a senior advisor to former mayors Bill Green and John Street, argues that Rendell’s overall approach to policing and other issues did not equally benefit all residents.

Rendell focused on reviving Center City, encouraging businesses to stay open later and expanding the Pa. Convention Center. That strategy left neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia, which were struggling after decades of disinvestment, with little faith in the government or police, Burrell said.

“Rendell had the mistaken view that if you fixed Center City, the neighborhoods would be beneficiaries of that, and they weren’t,” he said.

Timoney stayed on through the first two years of Street’s mayoral tenure and quit at the end of 2001. The Inquirer called his departure “a monumental loss.” In 2002 homicides declined further, to 288, before starting to rise again.

Commissioner Sylvester Johnson (2002-2008)

Mayor Street picked department veteran Sylvester Johnson as his next police commissioner. Burrell says the pair broadened the administration’s focus to benefit neglected outlying neighborhoods.

They launched the Safe Streets program to help residents living near drug corners, and instituted new bike and foot patrols. Street himself sometimes joined the cycling officers.

“When Street ran, he said, I’m going to turn my attention to neighborhoods without turning my back to Center City,” Burrell said. “They’d ride past drug corners, ride with neighborhood leaders and community members.”

Like Neal, Commissioner Johnson was known as a kind, community-oriented person who nonetheless struggled to tamp down crime. In 2003, homicides jumped 20% from the previous year’s historic low, reaching 348.

Goldsmith, the managing director at the time, doesn’t believe the upturn in killings can be attributed to any major policy changes by the Street administration.

“The first couple years [homicides] were low, and then they spiked up. I don’t think the policing changed. It’s just that something happened. It has ebbs and flows,” Goldsmith said. “I can’t point to any one particular time and say, boy, that was the right strategy, or not.”

Homicides rose further to 406 in 2006. The following year Philadelphia had the highest homicide rate among large U.S. cities.

Yet the mayor defended his commissioner to the end. The Inquirer reported that the police department held a huge retirement celebration for Johnson in January 2008, where Street told him, “We will never let the people who want to run you down get away with it.”

Commissioner Charles Ramsey (2008-2016)

Mayor Michael Nutter took office in 2008 and emulated Rendell by bringing in an outsider to run the department: former Washington D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey.

In an interview last year, Nutter recalled that they declared a crime emergency and pursued several initiatives, such as redeploying officers based on analytics, assigning more officers to foot and bike patrol, creating text tip hotlines, and increasing use of video surveillance.

To try to find and seize firearms, they also had officers make frequent use of stop and frisk, the practice of detaining, patting down, and searching people on the street. The policing method is controversial because it often goes hand in hand with racial profiling.

Homicides immediately fell 15%, from 391 in Street’s last year to 331 in Nutter’s first. The total number of fatal and non-fatal shooting victims dipped 12%, from 1,596 to 1,399.

In 2013, murders saw another big drop to 247, the city’s lowest count since the late 1960s. Shootings also continued declining; the number of victims reached a low of 1,045 in 2014.

Burrell, the former mayoral senior advisor, argues the city was still reaping the benefits of the neighborhood improvement work done by Street and Johnson, and of larger social trends. Homicide rates were falling nationally, and in 2014 they reached their lowest levels in decades.

“You can’t attribute the decline in violence to just stop and frisk and toughness from the mayor,” Burrell said. “Mayor Nutter was not what anyone would consider a neighborhood mayor.”

Many residents credited Commissioner Ramsey for the drop in crime. Articulate and easygoing, he was an “overwhelmingly popular” figure, with a 69% approval rating, according to a 2010 Pew poll. That was well above Nutter’s 53% and City Council’s 42%.

The Philadelphia Police Department did face serious problems during Ramsey’s tenure, including allegations of widespread corruption in the narcotics squad and revelations that stop and frisk overwhelmingly targeted Black and Latino residents. The ACLU sued and the city agreed to change the way it practiced the policing method.

When Ramsey announced his retirement in 2015, he said himself that the police still hadn’t done enough to make some neighborhoods safe. “There are too many being shot on the streets of our city,” Ramsay said. “Too many murders, too many robberies, too much crime.”

Commissioner Richard Ross (2016-2019)

Mayor Jim Kenney succeeded Nutter and elevated longtime department veteran Richard Ross, Ramsey’s second-in-command. The Inquirer described Ross as an “intense, thoughtful leader,” an old-school cop who nonetheless had the respect of younger officers.

2016 saw remarkably low levels of crime, with the fewest property crimes and robberies since the early 1970s, and the fewest burglaries on record.

But even as overall crime numbers stayed low, homicides started rising again, and detectives struggled to solve cases. There were 353 killings in 2018, a 27% increase from two years earlier. The number of shooting victims jumped to 1,450 in 2018, the most in eight years.

Kenney declared gun violence a public health crisis and ordered up a plan to address it, but the new police strategies didn’t seem to work. The reasons were unclear; Ross and new District Attorney Larry Krasner pointed to an increase in drug-related homicides. Some people blamed Krasner, saying he wasn’t prosecuting gun cases vigorously, a claim he denied.

In August 2019, Ross shocked the city by suddenly quitting after the department was sued by two women officers. He allegedly had an affair with one of the women and later ignored her complaints about sexual harassment by another officer.

In accepting Ross’s resignation, Kenney said the commissioner hadn’t properly responded to allegations of racial and sexual discrimination in the department.

Commissioner Danielle Outlaw (2020-present)

Ross was temporarily succeeded by interim commissioner Christine Coulter. Kenney then followed the playbook of previous mayors in moments of crisis and looked outside the department for his next PPD leader.

Rather than a nationally famous figure like Rendell and Nutter, he hired the little-known Danielle Outlaw, who had served as chief in Portland, Oregon, for two years. She is the city’s first permanent woman police commissioner.

Kenney said he wanted her to address discrimination in the police department, but he and Outlaw were soon forced to deal with a series of new crises.

COVID disrupted the prisons and courts and led the police to detain fewer suspects. The killing of George Floyd led to constant protests and civil unrest that seemed to overwhelm the department. With Kenney’s permission, Outlaw allowed her officers to tear-gas protesters, which led to lawsuits and eventually $10 million in settlements.

At the same time, shootings and homicides soared in Philadelphia and big cities across the country. Murders in Philly skyrocketed 40% in 2020, to 499. They jumped again in 2021, to 562, more than double the low of the Ramsey years and the most the city has seen in at least six decades.

The number of shooting victims overall saw similar increases, rising more than 50% in Outlaw’s first year and hitting 2,338 in 2021.

Homicide numbers, while still high, are so far lower than in 2022. The police say they are solving more murders and the city says anti-violence programs launched in the last two years are beginning to have an impact.

This story is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. Learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters here.

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