Philly saw a record number of homicides last year, with 562 total homicide victims, compared to 499 in 2020 and 356 in 2019. While the homicide rate has decreased more than 10% so far in 2022, with 216 homicides so far this year compared to 241 at the same time last year, total violent crime is up about 7%.
Most of that increase has been driven by a whopping 58% increase in armed robberies, with 1,294 gun robberies reported this year compared to 819 over the same time period last year, according to the Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD’s) weekly crime statistics.
“Residence are feeling dismayed, obviously. There’s a general feeling of fear, whether it’s perception or reality just because of the numbers we’re seeing,” Outlaw said at the 2022 Police Executive Research Forum (PERF)/ Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) Annual Conference in San Francisco earlier this month. “Our homicides have been trending slightly downward, but…we’re still seeing a vast number of shootings.”
The city is seeing an increased number of guns on the street, whether they were purchased legally and stolen, purchased legally and sold to criminals, or homemade.
Additionally, the past two years have presented a number of difficulties to large, metropolitan police departments: first with COVID-19 and criminal processing backlogs; then with anti-police protests and rhetoric, including calls to defend departments; then with staffing shortages, according to Outlaw and other police chiefs who spoke at the conference.
“We’re neutral. Law enforcement, neutral. Politicians come and go, and when it’s all said and done, law enforcement is still here. We’re the ones that [are] still standing,” Outlaw said. “We, as a profession, have done things to get in our own way, so I can understand the calls for reform accountability and…rethinking public safety and how and why we do things — totally get that. … But does it make sense to say, ‘We want you to have more training, and we want you to have more equipment, and we want you to anticipate the trends and patterns of the future,’ and then defend us at the same time? Absolutely, that makes no sense.”
She continued: “That calls for investment. So, now…the polls are saying it: ‘We want to see you. We want more cops on the street. We want to feel safe.’ That requires funding.”
The police commissioner said she believes that in order to successfully address violence, the PPD, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office, and other areas of the criminal justice system in Philadelphia need to continue “to advance communications across the board.” That way, repeat offenders are not released on bail after being arrested and “everyone knows this individual … is a bad person, is a violent person with a criminal history, and this isn’t someone that should be out for x, y and z reasons.”
“The court system shut down for at least a year. There’s backlogs, so some people that at this point would have been a convicted felon never got a chance to go to court,” Outlaw explained.
While “a very small percentage” of people in Philadelphia are “driving a large proportion of the violent crime,” the PPD is seeing those same individuals “getting out on bail or being part of this revolving door,” the police commissioner said.
Many of the individuals contributing to gun violence in Philadelphia are out on open gun cases due to court backlogs or out on bail.
Outlaw added that the “pandemic exacerbated a lot of the social inequities that we saw around access to health care, access to housing, access just to food, when…the administration shut down the schools because of COVID.”
“[W]e lost a lot of our warm touchpoints, specifically around young people, because we’re seeing that our shooters have gotten younger, and our shooting victims have also gotten younger,” she said.
The PPD is relying on local, state and federal partners to help make up for staffing shortages amid the increase in violent crime. The department is losing staff to suburban departments, even if those departments offer lower salaries, because officers face less scrutiny or the volume of work in Philadelphia, Outlaw explained.
The Department recently waived a requirement mandating Philadelphia police officers had to live in the city for at least a year before applying. It also recently lowered the age requirement to start training to become an officer in an effort to attract new officers and retain current ones.
Individuals still working in law enforcement after the past two years are “finally having an opportunity to look back and kind of reassess and say what worked and didn’t work,” Outlaw said.
“As it relates to gun violence, the last two years for all of us [have] been something unlike we’ve ever experienced before, whether it’s gun violence in communities, the assaults, increased assaults that we’ve seen against police officers, COVID illness, COVID deaths — I mean, you name it. The once-in-a-lifetime things that typically would happen separately all happened at one time over the last two years.”
She police commissioner added, however, that she “absolutely” believes Philadelphia is “going to be in a better place a year from now.”