Phila. councilmembers visit Chester for antiviolence ideas

Members of Philadelphia City Council met with Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, Police Commissioner Steven Gretsky, county District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer and other local officials last Tuesday morning to discuss the success of a new anti-violence initiative the in city and how it might help turn the tide of gun violence in Philly.

“Night after night, we have these shootings in our city and something has to change,” said Philadelphia Council President Darrell L. Clarke following an informational meeting at the Laborer’s Local 413 Hall on Penn Street.

Philadelphia has been gripped with a surge of gun violence in the past two years, including a police-involved shooting Monday night in which an officer came within inches of being killed when a bullet grazed his ear.

As of Aug. 23, the city saw 347 homicides in 2021, according to the Controller’s Office – a 21% increase over an already extremely violent 2020 – and last month gained the ignoble distinction of having the highest murder rate per capita of the country’s 10 largest cities.

Chester, meanwhile, saw a 63% decrease in gun homicides in the first six months of 2021 versus January to June of 2020, and a 44% decrease in overall shooting victims, from 57 to 32, according to statistics previously provided by Stollsteimer’s office.

“Clearance rates,” or arrests for homicides, are also higher than they have been in years. Gretsky said Tuesday that of the 13 homicides in the city so far this year, seven have been cleared and two more should be closed soon. Chester is now looking at having the lowest number of shootings in a decade and the highest clearance rates since 2004, said Gretsky. He added that the department is currently understaffed and still achieving those numbers.

“When we get to full capacity, it’s over,” Gretsky said.

Deputy District Attorney Matt Krouse was not at Tuesday’s meeting, but previously explained that the “Chester Partners for Safe Neighborhoods” program is premised on a data-driven model developed by Swarthmore College alum David Kennedy.

The program, similar to one implemented years ago in Philadelphia, works on a “carrot and stick” mentality that begins by calling in influential people involved in crime, explaining that law enforcement knows who they are what they are responsible for, and giving them the ultimatum: “If you let us, we will help you; if you make us, we will stop you.”

The help may come in ways big and small, from simply getting a suspended license reinstated, or a present for someone’s daughter while they are in prison, to getting an offender into an educational or vocational program so they can improve teir lot in life legally.

Aside from arrests, “stopping” also takes many forms, including increased probation meetings, spotlights or noise machines set up at various corners, and stricter bench warrant and child support payment enforcement.

“The goal is to make it as uncomfortable as possible to be affiliated with the group,” said Krouse. “It’s not to punish them, it’s not to do anything outside of what already exists. But it is to dissuade them from that group affiliation.”

Kirkland said the city is also attempting to turn youth on to the idea of making a career of law enforcement so they have a stake in bettering their own communities. He used members of the panel Tuesday to demonstrate the generational loss that even a single fatal confrontation between three teenagers could have on the entire community with one death, two lifetime convictions, and six (or more) unborn children.

James Nolan IV, a former Chester police chief who now heads the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division, said the aim is not really to ever “win” against the “infinite game” of violence, but to do the least harm and the most good while playing. To that end, he said every department head needs to be on board with the program at their core as one philosophy, or it simply won’t work.

Reporters at the event seized on the fact that Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Chief Danielle Outlaw and District Attorney Larry Krasner were all absent Tuesday to pepper council members with questions about just how unified city government is, or could be.

“It’s all about collaboration and being able to work together,” said Clarke. “We say that all the time. That’s the one thing in the city of Philadelphia that we have to do. Some would say that we’re doing it now (but) we have to do a better job.”

Clarke said council members, the mayor and the D.A. are all elected officials beholden to their own constituents, not necessarily each other, and they can’t tell each other what to do. But council members do often go to other areas on their own to learn about things to implement in Philadelphia and relay that information, he said.

Clarke noted council recently passed a new budget that allocates $155 million toward gun violence initiatives and $400 million toward neighborhood preservation, and has an unprecedented opportunity to put federal and state dollars to work with a program similar to what Chester has done.

“We are positioned to do some good things, but if we can’t work together – and I mean everybody work together, in public, in private – we’re not going to achieve what they’ve achieved down here in Chester,” he said.

From the Delaware County Daily Times