Summer is coming. Philadelphia hopes a new activities campaign will prevent gun violence and keep kids safe

Kids swim at the James Finnegan Playground pool

Kids splash around in the pool at James Finnegan Playground in Southwest Philadelphia on June 30, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Summer is approaching, and residents hardest-hit by the ongoing gun violence crisis are bracing for a seasonal surge in bloodshed. The City of Philadelphia says their new lineup of recreational activities is designed to keep children out of the line of fire.

On Wednesday, representatives from the city’s criminal justice, law enforcement, and children and family services departments promoted a wide array of largely free summer offerings that they’re calling “PlayItSafePHL”. The list includes summer camps, athletic leagues, science programs, swimming lessons and more. There are also thousands of jobs available for teenagers in search of seasonal work.

“Our kids need activities,” said City Managing Director Tumar Alexander. “Our kids should not live in their houses in fear, stay in their houses throughout the summer. So we’re gonna do our best to make sure these programs are not only enriching but also safe for the young people to transverse to and from.”

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In some cases, that means police involvement. Joe Dales, deputy commissioner of operations for the police department, says stationary and roving officers may be deployed to some activity centers.

“To make sure that we can have a safety zone around these locations,” he said. “We’re still in the planning phase, I’ll have more detailed information within the next few weeks.”

Community members who followed the announcement on social media voiced concerns that more officers won’t stop the shootings, and asked for other changes such as recreational center improvements and therapy for children.

Jamal Johnson, a longtime gun violence prevention advocate, suggested the city pay community members to monitor these programs instead.

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“A presence is needed,” he said. “I don’t think it necessarily has to be law enforcement.”

He raised his now-grown children in Philadelphia, and says the summer programs used to be popular with Black families. But with gun violence as high as it is now, some feel it’s “just a disaster waiting to happen.”

Philadelphia has seen deadly shootings and firearm injuries on basketball courts and at recreational centers, as well as on city blocks designated as “PlayStreets”. National data indicates that shootings happen more frequently when it’s hot outside.

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said in March that the department has had to adapt its summer programs in response to surging violence. That’s been especially true for staff training, which used to involve how to keep a clock for a basketball game or how to get a field set up for summer sports.

“And now our trainings are active shooter training, shelter-in-place training, mental health first aid, de-escalation and conflict resolution training, trauma-informed care,” she said. “Our recreation leaders might have signed on to provide recreation to young people. But what they become is  social workers … it’s a huge challenge for us.”

Dozens of Philadelphia nonprofits run summertime programs for neighborhood children, some using grant funding from the city and some working from private grants.

Johnson says parents are more likely to send their children to these less-publicized programs than they are to take the city option.

“If we were able to somehow increase safety for our kids, some of those kids might even return to the public settings,” he said. “But right now it’s just too dangerous out here.”

Still, city officials say summer activities are an important place for children to get free meals, keep up their reading ability and learn life skills that will help them in the future.  They’re encouraging parents to sign their children up this spring.

If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.

This article is part of The Toll: The Roots and Costs of Gun Violence in Philadelphia, a solutions-focused series from the collaborative reporting project Broke in Philly. Find other stories here and follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.

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