Karen Heller: Philadelphia's murder rate is a deadly, costly epidemic

Mayor Nutter: African American men kill each other in "epidemic" numbers.
Mayor Nutter: African American men kill each other in "epidemic" numbers. (JESSICA GRIFFIN / File Photograph)
Posted: January 04, 2012

The new year began with a bang. Actually, several bangs, five that proved fatal. Plus, for good measure, a stabbing.

The last killing was unusual in that it didn't involve a gun, and that the victim was a 77-year-old man trying to break up an argument. Even so, it was typical in that the grievance was ancient and petty, beginning a decade ago over that most tribal of presumed possessions, South Philadelphia parking spaces.

There were 324 homicides in the city last year (eight produced by Kermit Gosnell's House of Horrors), the most in three years. Philadelphia also experienced the highest murder rate of the nation's 10 largest cities, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, 20.7 per 100,000 residents. By comparison, New York City's rate was 6.1, less than a third. What can we learn from New York?

Following this dismal year and holiday weekend, Mayor Nutter was sworn in Monday to his second term. Gone were the audacious, some might argue absurd, promises he made four years ago with his "new beginning." Back then, he hoped to slash the homicide rate from 30 percent to 50 percent in five years (no), halve the student dropout rate (nope), and double the number of four-year college degrees awarded to Philadelphians (uh, no).

This time, Nutter was wiser, more restrained, almost resigned to the city's woes. His address was not so much a new beginning as a call to try to right these wrongs.

"We will not leave anyone behind," Nutter said. His speech focused almost exclusively on rising crime and failing schools, the millstones around the city's neck in the drowning sea of its 25 percent poverty rate. Not that the 25 percent above that is doing much better. As Nutter said last week, "These issues are holding the city back."

At his inauguration, Nutter addressed the "epidemic not sufficiently talked about, much less tackled," of African American men killing each other.

Last year, 85 percent of the city's homicide victims were African American, almost all of them male. Four of five killers were African American males, demographically indistinguishable from their victims.

Guns were inevitably involved - four out of five times. "Here in Pennsylvania, we have no shortage of guns, and no shortage of people who are willing to use guns," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has said. "It's higher here than Chicago, Washington."

Unfortunately, Philadelphia is in Pennsylvania, home to an urban-phobic legislature that is consistently intransigent on tightening gun laws that might produce safer streets.

"The No. 1 issue for homicide in Philadelphia is generally classified as 'argument,' " Nutter said last week. Turf, machismo. "Drugs are not actually really high on this list," adding, "It's, 'You bumped into me.' It's anywhere from crazy to stupid."

Mostly crazy and stupid.

Also, deadly and costly. A third of the city's almost $4 billion budget is spent on "our criminal justice complex," the mayor said, "one-third of your tax dollars dealing with bad decisions and bad behavior. It's a waste."

(He didn't mention the quarter of the budget allocated to city employees' pensions and health care. That's why Occupy never made much of a difference here, except to make Dilworth Plaza look even worse. The government spends plenty on the poor as well as middle-class city workers, while serving up a slew of taxes that are the bane of the more comfortable. Just ask companies and taxpayers with school-age children that have fled.)

Nutter's top aides have begun meeting with city, state, and federal law enforcement officials to create strategies for fighting gun violence.

Philadelphia has never been in a better position to launch a serious dialogue and agenda. We've never had so many African American men in powerful leadership roles committed to change: Nutter, Ramsey, City Council President Darrell Clarke, District Attorney Seth Williams, acting School District Superintendent Leroy Nunery, and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison.

We have an epidemic. Too many African American males are leading brief, desperate, bloody lives in which illegal guns loom large while school and legitimate work play a negligible role. And they're dying at the hands of men who might as well be their brothers.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

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