Tallying the ‘intangible’ and economic costs of violence in Philly

    Philadelphia has the highest murder rate of America’s 10 largest cities. One victim is shot here every seven hours. But there are other ways to measure the impact of violent crime, including its economic toll.

    Joel Seay and his family were having dinner last Easter in West Philadelphia, when two young men came to the door for his 18-year-old son, known as ‘Rell.

    “We were ready to go back in the house, the guys acting like they were ready to walk off the porch and the guy with the black sweat suit on, with the flames on his neck, he turned around and pulled a gun out and fanned it right across me, and put it on ‘Rell,” Seay said.

    “And next thing you know, I heard ‘pop pop pop’ and Jarell went down and I, I, I didn’t know …”

    Seay is still trying to figure out what happened. He thinks his son’s friends were involved in “beefs.”

    A weekly death count

    Dorothea Johnson-Speight, the director of Mothers in Charge, a not-for-profit group that counsels on gun violence, indicates tidings of the toll on a piece of paper.

    “This is the homicide sheet that we get once a week,” she says. “It’s faxed over to us from the Philadelphia Police Department.

    Johnson-Speight, who hears about every shooting-related death in Philadelphia, picks out an especially bad report from June.

    “So for that week, from the 14th to the 28th, which is actually 14 days, there were 14 murders,” she says.

    To get beyond the basic numbers, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress tried to calculate how violent crime affects eight major cities. It puts the cost to Philadelphia at $3.7 billion dollars a year in terms of courts, police, declining property values and other factors. By way of comparison, Chicago’s total cost was $5.3 billion while Boston’s was $932 million.

    The city has the second highest “intangible” costs of the eight cities reviewed. The group considers human suffering and lost income to be intangibles.

    Seay says that since his son died, he hasn’t worked.

    “Since Jarell died, I haven’t been stable enough to actually go out and keep my mind focused on creating,” he said.

    “There’s a cost to this issue of violence that far outweighs anything that we can imagine,” Johnson-Speight says.

    The report, she says, shines a light on those costs that are hard to calculate.

    “And maybe, some day, 20 years from now, we’ll look back on it. The cost to the children who live in these communities, that know the sound of a gun because they hear it so much,” Johnson-Speight says.

    Injuries rival war wounds

    Scott Charles, the trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital, puts it in the starkest terms.

    “When you think about the kinds of injuries we’re seeing here, in urban America, you’re talking about individuals who suffer the same kinds of injuries that you’re seeing in war-torn areas,” he said.

    And while the majority of patients survive, they often never fully recover.

    “Many times, they are paralyzed,” Charles says.

    Charles estimates it costs about $145,000 to treat a typical gunshot wound. The Center for American Progress study says a 10 percent reduction in homicides would save Philadelphia $17 million a year as well as raising property values $3.2 billion.

    John Roman, a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, does cost-benefit analysis of public policy programs around the country. He says the report is on to something.

    “One goal is to say to cities, ‘Look, right, crime really matters, crime is really the leading indicator about a place.’

    “When the budget gets lean, the place you don’t want to cut, is anti-crime efforts, whether that’s education or social services or mental health or drug treatment or police,” Roman says.

    Roman said he hopes the study will inspire leaders to create tax incentives for businesses to revive struggling neighborhoods.

    “The key is to make places and people, to put them in situations where life isn’t as stressful, where people don’t get to those breaking points,” Roman says.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.