One in the series “Under Fire,” about Philadelphia’s recent unchecked gun violence.
Philadelphia this past week surpassed another bleak milestone of bloodshed, as 10,000 people have now been killed or wounded in shootings in the city since 2015, the year police began routinely posting gun-violence statistics online.
The mark was eclipsed during a week in which the city’s shootings crisis continued at an unrelenting pace. In the first eight days of July, 77 people were struck by gunfire, including a 63-year-old woman injured in a double shooting in Kensington, a 30-year-old man killed in a quintuple shooting in East Mount Airy, and a 16-year-old fatally shot in a North Philadelphia homicide that also left a 15-year-old wounded.
Even in a city that has for decades been plagued by violence, the epidemic of gun crime has hit a new level unmatched in recent memory — a pace that began last summer and has been unsettlingly persistent in the months since.
One example: Just past the midway point of 2021, only one day has passed without someone getting shot. But there have been 30 days in which 10 or more people have been killed or wounded by bullets — an occurrence that was a relative rarity as recently as two years ago.
The sustained surge has overwhelmingly hurt Black and brown communities and is evident by nearly any metric. The city’s midyear homicide total in 2021 — the vast majority of which were gun killings — was the highest in at least 60 years.
City leaders — including Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and District Attorney Larry Krasner — have each repeatedly blamed the spike on structural factors exacerbated by the pandemic, including Philadelphia’s high levels of poverty, underfunded schools, and joblessness and underemployment. City health officials released data last week showing a “strong relationship” between zip codes with high levels of gun violence and chronic unemployment.
Criminologists also point out that homicides and shootings have surged across the country over the last year, a volatile time marked by COVID-19 lockdowns, an economic crisis, a national racial reckoning, and an accompanying debate over law enforcement’s role in society — all as gun sales skyrocketed nationwide. In Pennsylvania, state police reported an unprecedented volume of background checks for firearms purchases over the last year: nearly 1.5 million in total.
David Abrams, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who tracks crime statistics, said it is “really tough to disentangle” all the possible factors — especially because at the same time other types of offenses, such as robberies and assaults, decreased in many cities, including Philadelphia.
“Shootings and homicides took a different pattern from most other types of crime in mid-2020, and that to me is a big, big challenge here,” he said.
Kenney said during a virtual briefing Wednesday that he hoped the city would benefit from a fuller resumption of services as the pandemic wanes. He also has high hopes for non-policing antiviolence initiatives funded in the city’s new budget, including $20 million in grants for community organizations, and a strategy called Group Violence Intervention, which aims to engage with potential shooters and victims by offering access to social services. He said that initiative “can interact more freely now that the pandemic is subsiding.”
David Muhammad, executive director of the nonprofit National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, said he believed the sudden shutdown of such intensive, in-person violence interruption efforts in cities last year due to COVID-19 was among the biggest factors contributing to the surge of shootings nationwide.
Still, the mayor said that even though the worst effects of the pandemic may be in the rearview mirror, the trauma and fallout “are still with us, and probably going to be with us for another five, seven, 10 years.”
Oddess Blocker, 47, is familiar with lingering trauma.
Her son, Albert Thomas Lee Jr., 27 — known to his family and friends as Albe — was fatally shot last year in Point Breeze, caught in the crossfire of an ongoing neighborhood conflict she said he had nothing to do with.
A 2016 graduate of Kutztown University, Lee worked at Edible Arrangements for years, his mother said, and had recently joined the local electricians’ union. Despite Lee’s growing up in a neighborhood — like so many in Philadelphia — where generations-old group rivalries have led to retaliatory shootings, Blocker said her son had worked hard to choose a different path.
“He was the kid that went to college, went to work every day,” she said. “He always went left when everybody else went right.”
On July 5, 2020 — two days after a 24-year-old man was fatally shot on the 2400 block of Oakford Street — law enforcement sources believe gunmen seeking revenge went to 17th and Wharton Streets and opened fire. Lee was there and was struck several times. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Another man was struck in the back but survived.
In the year since, Blocker has sought to find ways to remain positive. But the loss of her son is still deeply painful — especially because no one has been charged with his killing.
“I just want justice for my son,” she said. “I don’t want him to be just another Black man that was murdered, because he was so much more than that.”
Even those families who have had some semblance of justice are left with overwhelming grief.
Teharra Tate, 41, lost her 17-year-old son, Tyshiem Chainey, on March 26, 2017, when he was shot several times on a residential block in Cobbs Creek. Days later, police arrested 17-year-old Ma-King Stewart, who had mutual friends with Chainey.
Police said Stewart went on a days-long robbery rampage before killing Chainey. He pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to at least 20 years behind bars.
But there’s little satisfaction for Tate and her five children, who find themselves missing their son and brother on holidays and birthdays, or crying together when one of them has a dream about “Shiem.” They’re reminded of him when they go by John Bartram High School, where he attended, or when they see a Five Guys burger joint, where he’d held an after-school job.
For Tate, the relentlessness of gun violence in the city has made it hard to take time to grieve for her son, killed two months before his 18th birthday. In the four years since his death, more loved ones — a nephew, a friend’s son, a neighbor — have been fatally shot.
“It’s ongoing every day,” she said. “When do you have time?”
Lee and Chainey were like so many of the city’s gun-violence victims: young Black men from neighborhoods long deprived of services and opportunity.
Nearly 94% of the 10,000 people shot since 2015 were Black or brown, according to the city’s data. Three-quarters of the victims were Black males.
And though those under 18 have generally made up a small share of the victims, the number of youths killed or wounded has risen sharply in the last two years. Through Thursday, 21 of them have been fatally shot in the city in 2021 — more than the annual total in five of the last six years.
The 10,000 incidents were the result of criminal activity — such as homicides, aggravated assaults, and robberies — and generally do not include accidents, suicides, or shootings by police.
The data do not identify victims or say where they’re from. But the locations of the shootings show just how concentrated they’ve been in pockets of Kensington, North Philadelphia, and West Philadelphia — communities that for decades have suffered from a lack of quality schools, job opportunities, and systemic disinvestment.
Erica Atwood, director of the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said that gun violence is a symptom of those conditions, and that the city must address them both in the immediate and the long term. The Kenney administration has touted what it’s called $68 million in antiviolence funding for a wide array of initiatives, including jobs programs, libraries, and violence-interruption strategies.
“Until we are willing to play the long and short game around the issue of gun violence,” Atwood said, “we’re going to continue in this cycle.”
Police, meanwhile, have continued to contend that gun violence has spiked because would-be gunmen are not being held accountable, a barely veiled critique of the city’s courts and Krasner, the reform-oriented top prosecutor.
But Krasner has defended his office’s record and said data show many of the types of cases cited routinely by police are gun-possession cases without proven links to shooting incidents.
Accountability for actual gunmen has also been consistently low because of the Police Department’s foundering clearance rate. As The Inquirer reported in 2020, police over the previous five years had charged suspects in only 21% of the city’s shootings.
City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose West Philadelphia district is among the hardest hit by gun violence, said she agrees with Kenney and Atwood that diverting resources toward improving economic conditions is a necessary step in reimagining public safety. But she doesn’t believe the mayor’s administration is taking an “emergency approach” to preventing violence this summer.
Conflict mediators should be “flooding” hard-hit neighborhoods and hospital trauma centers, she said, and recreation centers should be open 24 hours a day and staffed with social support personnel. Instead, some aren’t fully staffed yet, and a third of city pools — disproportionately in poorer neighborhoods — don’t have enough employees and remain closed.
“We need people who have credibility in our community and with young people to mentor young people and to get between some of these conflicts,” said Gauthier. “That is an effective violence-interruption strategy. There are people who can bring calm to our neighborhoods in a way that, frankly, police don’t.”