As Philadelphians begin to consider the vast range of mayoral candidates campaigning to succeed Jim Kenney, the outrage against rampant gun violence in the city persists as strongly as when the mayor’s almost eight–year administration began. Communities work to simultaneously protect themselves and heal from the effects of gun violence, with many local leaders committed to facilitating this process in any way they can. Residents' livelihoods are shaped by the daily threat of violence in the city, giving rise to strong opinions on how the city should respond. 

While Philadelphia has maintained a longstanding reputation for violence, its past records were shattered in 2020 as total shootings across the city increased by 34%. As residents were urged to stay in their homes to reduce the spread of COVID–19,  60% reported that they did not feel safe outside in their neighborhoods at night, a result of surrounding violence in 2020. This trend only exacerbated the history of violence that has plagued the city for decades, requiring a drastic and immediate response.  

Just before the explosion of violence during the pandemic, in 2019, Kenney announced a major police initiative for reducing gun violence. Operation Pinpoint was implemented alongside a budget increase of $47.5 million to the Philadelphia Police Department. The technology and policing strategies implemented under Operation Pinpoint work “to identify, collect, analyze and disseminate information that officers and commanders need to target the worst violent offenders and areas.” First, the PPD determines a “targeted individual,” one suspected of a violent offense, and then works to determine their “known associates,” tracking these identified social groups through a map visualization. A 2022 analysis of PPD spending deemed Operation Pinpoint “PPD’s primary crime fighting strategy,” but noted that no independent evaluation of the program has been conducted or planned in the three years since its inception. 

Despite the city’s monetary and policy focus resting heavily on the police department, non–punitive anti–violence organizations continue to dutifully serve communities fractured and traumatized by violence. House of Umoja has operated as one of the city’s most effective anti–violence organizations since 1968, when Queen Mother Falaka Fattah and her late husband David Fattah welcomed their son’s gang affiliates into their home. In doing so, they created a family–based model focused on nurturing and educating young men to prevent cycles of violence from repeating.

The Umoja family model is based on Fattah’s belief that “no one is born a violent person. Everyone is coming looking for protection and love, and guidance.” House of Umoja serves as the foundation of these essentials and has instilled in thousands of young men the African cultural values of “peaceful togetherness rooted in mutual respect.” A Philadelphia Psychiatric Center study found a 3% rearrest rate among Umoja family members, compared to a rate of 70–90% recidivism for those in conventional juvenile facilities. 

PPD’s continuing and ever–increasing funding as Philadelphia’s largest city government expenditure (despite minimal evidence of significant results) causes West Philadelphia anti–violence organizations to question the efficacy of city–level response. Fattah states, “In terms of the budget, a budget is a moral document as well as one in terms of providing resources. A budget can determine where your values actually lie.” By all accounts, the city budget indicates that police department operations are considered more valuable than any other anti–violence strategy. 

Fattah points to the disproportionate police stops directed towards Black Philadelphians as a cause for the deep mistrust and lack of communication between PPD and local residents, stating that police–focused policies “are provocations for additional violence and lack of trust” that are “working against the solution.” Instead, Fattah recommends, “You've got to be talking a block by block situation, and you have to be looking at nurturance and guidance for behavioral change.” Punitive action and increased police presence in neighborhoods most harmed by violence perpetuate historic trends of over–policing in predominantly Black Philadelphia neighborhoods, a pattern that has created antagonistic relationships between the public and police.

The critical role that community organizations play in curbing gun violence was recognized in the budget of a state–level grant package from the office of former Gov. Tom Wolf (D–Pa.) in Sept. 2022. The investment allocated $100.5 million to community–based anti–violence work, with awards of up to $2.5 million distributed among local organizations. State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D–Philadelphia) stated clearly that the package represented a “three–pronged strategy” focused on the goals of “Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution.” 

While the grants represent a moral and financial investment in the communities most affected by gun violence, the three stated goals exclude the mission of the Anti–Violence Partnership of Philadelphia and six other victims’ services agencies across the city. AVP maintains a direct line of communication with schools in the West and Southwest Philadelphia communities the organization serves in order to respond to students in need of mental health intervention. 

Schools independently identify students whose lives have been damaged by violence, and then AVP counselors and therapists come to provide clinical mental health services based on students’ needs. “They’re meeting the kids where they are,” explains AVP executive director Natasha Daniela de Lima McGlynn. “They’re meeting with kids individually or in a group. We are making sure that we can meet them and make mental health services accessible.” 

McGlynn feels that the city’s failure to focus on the needs of victims contributes to repetitive cycles of violence. Besides the recent creation of the Office of the Victim Advocate, whose impact remains to be seen, McGlynn says, “I don’t think the city understands. I don’t think the city is addressing the trauma, the aftermath.” 

Emphasizing the importance of remaining united in addressing the issue of gun violence, McGlynn states, “While violence in this city is disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities, it is affecting everyone. Because a homicide [or] a loss of a life extends beyond the immediate family, their friends, their neighbors; they were part of communities and part of systems.” The trauma of a single act of violence reverberates through these systems, necessitating focused work on healing Philadelphians who have been victimized either directly or indirectly by neighborhood violence. Not an issue to be divided along racial lines but one to be recognized for the devastation it causes for all Philadelphians, McGlynn stresses, “These are human lives."

Fattah explains, “The solution comes not just from how we are being policed but how we are living.” Living under the threat of gun violence reduces quality of life in incomprehensible ways, especially for those who have been directly impacted. In June 2022, the Kenney administration announced their $184 million dollar anti–violence fund dedicated to organizations outside the police department, but less than half of this was new spending. 

“We are being responsive to something that the scale and magnitude doesn't even compare to what it was pre–pandemic. So whatever funding that we received in the past is going to be inadequate,” McGlynn says. Even organizations with direct relationships to PPD and the district attorney’s offices, such as AVP, have yet to see any budget increases from the anti–violence fund or in response to mounting violence since the pandemic. 

Though funding continues to pose an obstacle, McGlynn feels that what she really needs from the city is accountability.  “We started to see the uptick in violence in 2020,” she says, “and I think the time is over for us to keep pointing fingers and deflecting responsibility; we have to hold ourselves accountable.”

In looking forward to the next mayoral administration, Fattah expects, “Whoever becomes the mayor, I would hope that he would have an open door to the grassroot community,” engaging beyond “just handing out money” to cultivate a nuanced understanding of neighborhoods where violence is most rampant. 

“Violence that I know about comes basically from lack of communications, miscommunications, disorder. And so I think that it's important that whoever is occupying that position of influence needs to keep his ear not just talking out of his mouth but listening,” Fattah urges. It is imperative for Philadelphia’s mayor to understand how residents’ daily lives are shaped by the violence that surrounds them. This understanding can only be developed through direct communication and engagement with community members, not through increasingly targeted and technologically complex policing tactics. 

Current mayoral candidates have made public statements about their strategies for combating gun violence should they be elected. Most are promising that they would declare a state of emergency in the city, echoing a call that many of the candidates made during their time on city council. The range of ideas is impressive and encouraging, demonstrating the candidates’ intention of focusing on community needs, but as Fattah warns that Philadelphia desperately needs a mayor doing more than “talking out of their mouth.”

As candidates progress down the campaign trail, their true ability to respond to the expressed needs of Philadelphians in the midst of an epidemic of violence remains to be seen. This will be the true measure of who should be our next mayor.