A rise in violence needs a better response

Attorney General Eric Holder
Attorney General Eric Holder
Posted: June 28, 2012

A man was shot to death in North Philadelphia, another in University City, and another in Mantua. One was fatally stabbed in South Philadelphia. Two men fired guns into a crowd of about 100 playing basketball in Logan; four were wounded.

All together, the latest weekend of relentless carnage left four dead and at least 13 injured. The mayhem continued Tuesday in Lawncrest, where firefighters found a bound and burned body.

The bloodshed didn't respect neighborhood boundaries. Killers didn't care if their victims were at a block party or sitting in a quiet bar. Violence is so out of control that Philadelphia's homicide rate is up 23 percent from last year.

Yet the best the federal government can do is come up with money for 25 cops? The grant could have been more pitiful, but thankfully, Mayor Nutter lobbied the Obama administration aggressively to set aside larger grants for big cities.

Crime is robbing Philadelphia of its ability to fund the very things that can prevent such bad behavior in the long term, like education and economic development. Convert violence into dollars, and Philadelphia spent $736 million in 2010 to fight it with police, prosecutors, judges, and prisons, according to the Center for American Progress.

A criminal can get an illegal gun in Philadelphia more easily than in New York, where the murder rate is declining. That's partly because the Pennsylvania legislature bows to the will of the National Rifle Association, protecting criminals whenever towns try to protect themselves from gun violence. The NRA killed Philadelphia's assault-weapons ban, and now it is pushing a bill to undermine small but significant steps taken by 30 communities to require lawful gun owners to report when their weapons are lost or stolen. Guns, many of them illegal, were used in 88 percent of the city's homicides between 2007 and 2011.

Nutter promises to put 400 new cops on the street next year. The police's quick apprehension of a man accused of torching a playground in South Philadelphia's FDR Park shows that the city can sometimes tackle lawlessness. The courts plan to impanel secret grand juries so witnesses can come forward safely. Good moves are in the works. But no one thinks that's enough.

It was nice that Attorney General Eric Holder used Philadelphia to announce grants to hire or call back 1,000 cops in 221 communities this week. But a handful of cops is a far cry from the 100,000 police Bill Clinton put on the streets in the 1990s. That era — before a cut-anything-that-moves mentality took hold in Washington — saw advances in crime mapping. Hospital emergency rooms got better at saving gunshot victims, turning potential homicides into assaults. Zero-tolerance policies cracked down on everything from vandals to aggressive panhandlers.

But nostalgia, which the author Luc Sante calls contempt for the present, isn't going to help Philadelphia. American cities need a new creativity and a Congress that understands it costs a lot more to let violence have its way than to pay to fight it.

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