A Progressive Approach to Crime in Philadelphia

The primary election in the Philadelphia mayoral race is next week, and numerous Democrats have a shot at victory. There’s the wealthy businessman Jeff Brown, best known for opening a bunch of ShopRite stores around the city; former city councilmembers Cherelle Parker and Helen Gym; former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart; and real estate developer Allan Domb. The primary will almost certainly decide the overall race in such a heavily Democratic city.

The race’s early leader was Brown (at least according to his own internal polls), who spent heavily out of his own pocket on advertisements promising to clean up the city. But his campaign suffered a major blow when the Philadelphia Board of Ethics sued a super PAC and nonprofit supporting Brown, accusing them of illegally coordinating with him to “to circumvent the city’s campaign contribution limits.”

The last and thus far only public poll found the race is virtually a dead heat between Parker, Rhynhart, Gym, and Brown. Gym is the most progressive candidate in the race, and she has consolidated the support of the bulk of the Philly left, particularly the Working Families Party, which has invested heavily in the race. She’s also got endorsements from prominent national figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, who are holding a rally for Gym this weekend. If she can pull out a victory, it could provide a lesson for how progressives can win in crime-wracked big cities.

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As David Weigel writes at Semafor, crime has dominated the entire campaign. It’s no wonder: Philadelphia has suffered a serious homicide crisis since the pandemic hit. Homicides soared from 353 in 2019 to 499 in 2020, and hit 562 in 2021—an all-time record for the city, and considerably more than the same figure in New York City, which has five times Philly’s population. (Still, one should note even that figure is far below the rate in cities like St. Louis and New Orleans.)

Homicides dipped a bit in 2022 to 516, and have fallen a further 15 percent in 2023 thus far. But that is still disastrously high. As a result, Gym’s campaign has not been as critical of the Philadelphia police as it likely would have been in 2020, when Philadelphia cops were brutally beating, tear-gassing, and pepper-spraying peaceful protesters during the George Floyd uprising.

Gym has made clear that she would not decrease the city’s $800 million police budget, but she has also argued for more humane and indirect crime-fighting techniques. “The mayor, for me, is about preventing crime, not just reacting to it,” she told the Prospect in an interview. “The violence in our city is deeply rooted in the disinvestment that has gone on for decades, that has left people without stable housing, that has held people down in high-turnover, low-wage jobs, that has resulted in massive health disparities, wealth disparities, and income disparities.”

Gym has thus put something of a criminal justice frame around her ambitious agenda outside of law enforcement. Most prominent is her plan to spend $10 billion on Philadelphia’s notoriously dilapidated schools, but she also has ideas to revitalize the city’s reeling public-transit system and slow down notoriously deranged Philly drivers. (One hundred twenty-five people died in traffic collisions last year, 59 of them pedestrians.)

Gym has argued for more humane and indirect crime-fighting techniques.

Gym would also expand the use of non-police rapid response programs. On the one hand, she would expand mental health crisis units, a program she sponsored on the council, to relieve the burden and danger of cops (with little or no training in mental illness) dealing with someone having a mental breakdown. “I fully intend to bring our non-police mobile mental health crisis units to 24/7 use citywide,” she said. On the other, she wants to bring back tension-defusing organizations that showed much promise before the pandemic. “We’ve talked about the importance of getting trained mediators, gun violence interrupters, on the street.”

When it comes to police and courts, the election hasn’t had the kind of old-fashioned, bloodthirsty war-on-crime rhetoric that is routinely heard from, say, New York City Mayor Eric Adams. In a January debate, the other candidates tried to tar Gym as supposedly being in league with police abolitionists, but were also careful to say they would not increase the police budget, or bring back stop-and-frisk policies (with the exception of Parker).

In so doing, the candidates are certainly taking into account the success of District Attorney Larry Krasner, a nationally renowned criminal justice reformer who fended off a right-wing challenger backed by the police union in 2021 by nearly 40 points, in part by running up tremendous margins in most Black neighborhoods where crime is bad. It seems the median Philly voter is genuinely worried about crime, but still quite skeptical of the police and courts—not only when it comes to the cops’ violent abuse of the citizenry, but also the ability of the courts’ traditional harsh punishment to actually cut down on crime.

Ironically, perhaps the most broadly damning critique of the Philadelphia Police Department concerns its atrocious performance on its most important duty: catching killers. As Tyler Tran at the district attorney’s office explains, for years, considerably less than half of homicides have ended in culprit arrests. (Include nonfatal shootings, and the arrest rate drops to about 1 in 5.) Even when people have been arrested, in dozens of cases police have been credibly accused of trying to frame them, and Krasner’s office has exonerated more than two dozen people who were wrongfully convicted.

Given that roughly a third of homicides are typically solved immediately because the culprit is obvious, Philadelphia murderers who are even slightly careful about covering their tracks are highly likely to get away with it. This both deepens the social injury, as the friends and family of the victim feel (rightly) abandoned by society, denied even the closure of the killer being brought to justice, and also tends to spark a desire for revenge. As The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported, tit-for-tat feuds, often fueled by social media, are a major driver of the homicide crisis—sometimes catching up people who are totally uninvolved.

“The most lawless thing about Philadelphia is that people actually get away with it,” Gym said, citing the need for more detectives and up-to-date forensics. It will take time to restore the reputation of the police among city residents whose distrust is extremely well earned. But the only way I see to achieve that is by enacting the ideas of reformers like Helen Gym. Trust is earned, and de facto legal impunity for police is no way to earn it.

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