Hohenstein: Cooperation is Key to Ending Gun Violence

The people of Philadelphia are living in fear, and they are looking for answers. The Inquirer recently reported on a Pew survey that found 70% of Philadelphians view community safety as the primary issue affecting the city. Here are some more numbers from the Philadelphia City Controller’s report on gun violence clearance rates and case outcomes that came out in 2020: just 37% of fatal shootings were cleared by the PPD. At the same time, the number of individuals arrested for illegal gun possession increased by more than 100% between 2015 and 2020. While gun possession arrests have drastically increased, conviction rates — the share of cases prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office that result in conviction — for gun possession declined. Between 2015 and 2020, the share of illegal gun possession cases resulting in conviction fell from 65% to 42%.

The bottom line from the facts and figures is that our neighbors all across the city do not feel safe or protected by those of us that are entrusted with their wellbeing. Different communities have different relationships with law enforcement. For some the police mean security. For others cops and the system are something to be feared and distrusted. The solutions we craft need to incorporate these divergent attitudes and combine respect with common sense of change. And make no mistake, we need to provide solutions that are different from what we are doing now. If we don’t, fear will continue to control us.

I believe that our gun violence is rooted in the discord from our leaders. The angry and desperate young men who make up most of the victims and perpetrators know that the people in power aren’t talking with one another. The common theme is to insist on the moral superiority of your own cause and insult people who disagree. The cause of a criminal justice reform movement that calls for compassion and understanding cannot move forward when it’s supposed champion, our DA, is heavy handed, close-minded, and fails to respect people’s lived experiences. The cause of law and order is not served when the police union opposes any changes, even those that make common sense, protecting their own instead of the community they are bound to serve. The conflicting messages and lack of coordination among those who must be part of the solution is like the scarecrow at the crossroads in the Wizard of Oz, providing neither direction nor leadership.

Through the sound and fury of political posturing, there are two proposals that I think deserve examination. One, being reviewed by City Council is Councilmember Cherelle Parker’s proposal to provide 300 additional community police officers. These would be the walking beat and bike cops that many people in my neighborhoods have long asked for. They are cops who will have a closer relationship and build more trust with the community they are serving. At the same time Council considers funding this measure, it will still need to address shortages from officers leaving the force, leaves of absence, and those needed to testify in Court.

The second proposal is one that just passed the PA House of Representatives regarding concurrent jurisdiction between the Philadelphia DA and the State Attorney General. While I disagree with how this proposal was handled in Harrisburg, and the fact that common sense adjustments to it were rejected along party lines, the underlying concept is one that deserves attention. I hope that this idea can overcome its partisan presentation in the legislature and, with the different people involved in its implementation putting aside their pride and parochialism, everyone can begin cooperating with one another with a measure of humility, because no one has all the answers.

Community policing is most effective when everyone – business owners, community members, elected officials, and police officers come to the table. One way I have seen those relationships flourish in my district is the Police District Advisory Council (PDAC), an organization run by police officers and volunteer stakeholders from within the community. Through working with the PDAC, we are able to address complex issues with all responsible parties present. Most recently, I helped to schedule a meeting between multiple area schools, local law enforcement, and concerned neighbors to address ongoing quality of life issues. I encourage everyone to find out when and where their local PDAC and PSA meetings are and attend.

Real solutions can only come with the recognition of a common goal: safe neighborhoods for our kids and families. That is what all our leaders, myself included, need to focus on: what are the policies that make everyone safer and how do we move quickly to put those policies in place and into practice? Again, if we do nothing, fear and insecurity will only continue to grow like weeds in the spirit of our city.

A final suggestion I have is that we begin with listening to the kids. By all accounts, young people are disproportionately both victims and shooters. They are also the collateral victims, left orphaned and alone when parents, siblings, and friends are killed. At a recent gun violence rally, a teenage girl spoke of her loss when her sister was killed in front of her. She has experienced something no child, no person, should have ever have to go through and she had to beg to be heard.

Our children are speaking truth to power. We need to be humble and listen.