Philly leaders continue pushing Kenney to do more for neighborhoods hit hardest by gun violence

A memorial on 60th Street in West Philadelphia

A memorial on 60th Street in West Philadelphia remembers those gunned down at a community gathering on July 4, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A July 30 deadline for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to lay out a plan to more aggressively work to stop the gun violence epidemic in 14 of the city’s hardest-hit zip codes came and went with little fanfare.

The detailed plan was requested by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier — whose West Philadelphia district has been rocked by shootings over the past year and a half — and Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, with the support of other lawmakers and activists who worry the city is on pace to reach a record number of people murdered this year.

Kenney responded to each of Gauthier and Rhynhart’s eight demands the day before the deadline with a six-page letter summarizing what the city has done and plans to do.

For example, across Philadelphia, residents have pointed to a lack of programming for young people as another gun violence prevention tool that fell through during pandemic lockdowns, which is when shootings began to surge. Gauthier and city leaders asked Kenney for a plan to expand rec center hours and programming in the 14 zip codes mentioned; Kenney said the city had already done that.

About 20 recreation centers in these zip codes are open on weekends with extended hours on the way, read the letter, and the city plans to launch additional programming for young people and adults in the fall.

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 convenience 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)

“And while I’ve not declared a state of emergency, something no other city suffering like ours has done, it certainly does not mean my Administration has not acted with due urgency to address this epidemic,” wrote Kenney.

Gauthier and some anti-violence activists have demanded Kenney declare a state of emergency as a way to express just how seriously the city is taking the gun violence epidemic. The mayor, however, has maintained the declaration would not free up funds or fundamentally change what is already in the works.

Still, with 319 people murdered as of Saturday and more than 1,200 shooting victims, Gauthier and others say Kenney doesn’t need to make an emergency declaration if he doesn’t want to, but the city should be doing more to make city agencies coordinate more efficiently when directing their resources to those at risk of picking up a gun or being shot.

Gauthier and Rhynhart responded to Kenney’s summary by asking him to move faster on existing plans — and by giving him a new deadline for additional information.

“Considering the volume of gun violence incidents happening on a daily basis, we need a plan to expand programming at recreation centers immediately,” they wrote in their response to the mayor’s letter.

Connecting people to work is another focus for the group lobbying the mayor. Gauthier called for the Commerce Department to direct another $5.6 million to workforce development that would help those most at risk of perpetrating violence, to which the administration pointed to several efforts to connect residents with work by 2023.

The administration says the PA Career Link System will place 4,000 residents into jobs; launched in 2020, the Workforce Solutions fund will place 200 people; and programs like the Fair Chance Hiring Initiative and PHL Taking Care of Business will place another 500 people.

Between the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity and the Department of Behavioral Health, the city had reached more than 6,700 people with its employment program First-Step Staffing since 2018, according to the mayor’s letter.

Keeping residents abreast of what is being done to curb violence is another focus.

Activists and leaders like Gauthier point to the city’s Opioid Emergency Response Group as a possible template. Gauthier and others are calling for the city to create a Gun Violence Emergency Response Team, which will update the public on a weekly basis and have a website with progress reports. Kenney’s current public updates, which started March of this year and only took shape after public pressure, are on a bi-weekly schedule.

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier addresses the media at a press conference
3rd District City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said that no one in Philadelphia should have live with trauma at a press conference at City Hall on June 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
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)

The city points to outreach on social media, including its PhillyAlive215 Instagram account launched in March, as proof that it is already doing more on that front, though the account only has about 200 followers. The city also promised a new website to track up to $1 million in grants distributed to community organizations for violence prevention efforts.

“The pandemic has impacted everything we do, and the ripple effects on society are causing spikes in gun violence in cities across the country,” wrote Kenney, dismissing accusations that he’s been dismissive of new ideas.

“This work is too difficult and too important to be weaponized to advance a political career or agenda,” ended Kenney. “I trust you agree.”

For Gauthier and Rhynhart, the six-page summary didn’t offer a progress report on where the city is reaching goals in the Roadmap to Safer Communities, which was updated in April. They also requested responses to the following, including timelines for implementation, by Friday:

  • A list of Free Library branches and rec centers in each police district with expanded hours, compared to 2019
  • A list of summer academic and enrichment programs for students developed by the city’s Office of Children and Families

“Our only goal is to prevent more Philadelphians from being murdered or injured in 2021, and we are suggesting concrete ways to do that,” said Gauthier and Rhynart, who want to meet with Kenney the week of Aug. 9.

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