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Philadelphia leaders outline roadmap to combat "public health crisis" of gun violence

These cities saw murders increase in 2018

Philadelphia — Months after declaring Philadelphia's gun violence a public health emergency, the mayor has presented a roadmap of broad goals to address the problem.

The initiatives unveiled Thursday by Mayor Jim Kenney take a public health approach to gun violence. The roadmap aims to tackle poverty, invest in community groups, fund innovative policing tactics and use data to target resources where they are most needed.

Police data show there were 351 homicides in Philadelphia in 2018 — the most homicides in the city in over a decade. Though homicides in large U.S. cities largely declined between 2017 and 2018, Philadelphia was among those that stood apart from the downward trend. 

Most of the shootings result from conflicts between people who know each other, city leaders say, and police have attributed the spike in recent years to increasing drug activity. Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Vanessa Garrett Harley, the city's deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety, called the violence a "public health crisis."

Overwhelmingly, the victims tend to be young, black men in neighborhoods struggling with poverty, according to city leaders. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country. According to data released by the city, 75 percent of shooting victims and known perpetrators are black males between the ages of 16 and 34.

Kenney ordered his staff to come up with strategies to address the crisis in September, and to present a proposed plan to him within 100 days.

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A police officer stands guard outside a home where a woman was murdered on Woodstock Street in Philadelphia, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. Philadelphia saw murders reach a 12-year high in 2018. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

"I asked for a plan that looks at violence through the lens of public health, one that relies on data and science to identify the most effective strategies to address these issues," Kenney wrote in a letter describing his instructions. "I asked for a plan that focuses on violence as a symptom of the larger crisis of pervasive poverty in Philadelphia."

The plan calls for providing more programs and opportunities for at-risk youth and families, improving coordination between city agencies, strengthening community partnerships and reducing the accessibility of firearms. It also calls for improving re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated people. The majority of the victims and perpetrators of gun violence have had contact with the city government and the criminal justice system, according to city data, which city leaders say can allow for government agencies to use data to predict and prevent gun violence and target services to those who need it early on.

According to city data, 70 percent of shooting victims and known perpetrators had a prior criminal arrest within 10 years prior to the shooting incident, nearly 20 percent of victims and 25 percent of perpetrators were incarcerated in Philadelphia prisons within two years, and 27 percent of victims and 40 percent of perpetrators had been involved with the juvenile justice system.

Kenney said the new approach provides a more holistic approach to reducing gun violence, "markedly different than initiatives that rely on policing."

"We must get away from the mindset that policing is the only answer to this problem," Kenney said,

Policing, however, will be a part of the larger strategy. The plan calls for the implementation of "Operation Pinpoint" within the Philadelphia Police Department, which will call on police and civilian data analysts to target the most violent offenders and the areas most affected by crime. Officers will be "literally knocking on people's doors who we think may be shooters or victims and letting them know we are concerned," according to Philadelphia police chief Richard Ross.

City leaders believe the plan will dramatically reduce shootings and homicides in the city over the next five years. Kenney said he has earmarked funds for the initiative in the city's proposed budget that will be presented to the council in March.

City Councilman Curtis Jones lauded the set of initiatives, saying "for the first time in a long time, we have a game plan."