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Philadelphia sees murder rate of 1 per day

A bloody, bullet-filled weekend left 11 people dead across the city, where drugs and disrespect have trumped brotherly love and the murder rate is on pace to be the highest in a decade.
Philadelphia Homicides
The casket of Jovonne Stelly, who authorities say died trying to get her children out of a cross fire, is taken from the Victory Christian Center in Philadelphia on April 3.Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A bloody, bullet-filled weekend left 11 people dead across the city, where drugs and disrespect have trumped brotherly love and the murder rate is on pace to be the highest in a decade.

Philadelphia has seen more than one killing a day this year, totaling 127 as of Monday afternoon. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — whose populations are much larger than Philadelphia's 1.5 million residents — have had fewer homicides this year.

The spike over the weekend was partly blamed on the first warm weather of the season. But rain or shine, Philadelphia police say the chronic problems remain the same: poverty, lax gun laws and a culture of intimidation that keeps witnesses silent and leaves shooters on the streets.

"It's the community's decision right now," Capt. Benjamin Naish said. "They are the people that must stand up and get angry and say, 'Enough is enough.'"

They have, in a way. But the countless candlelight vigils, anti-violence rallies and community meetings have done nothing to stop the murder rate, which is 17 percent higher than last year at this time.

Officials, too, are at wit's end.

"Do something!" District Attorney Lynne Abraham admonished Mayor John Street at one news conference.

Mayor criticized
Abraham and others have criticized Street for a perceived lack of urgency in responding to violence that killed 406 city residents last year — a nine-year high.

This year, Street has pledged to have 1,000 community activists and clergy trained in conflict resolution. He has paired a tougher juvenile curfew law with stricter enforcement, an effort mayoral spokesman Joe Grace said has reduced shootings by teens in one targeted area.

The city also is spending $3 million to hire 400 parents as truancy officers to keep children in school.

The efforts are commendable, but juvenile crime is a small part of the problem, said Lawrence Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center for Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. None of the murder victims over the weekend was a juvenile.

Most of Philadelphia's killings are by gunfire, most involve young black men and most are the result of arguments, often over drugs but sometimes over trivial insults or perceived slights.

Last month, city officials announced plans to assign 80 additional police officers to a particularly violent neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia, where nevertheless 28-year-old Jovonne Stelly died March 25 trying to get her children out of the crossfire, authorities said.

The next day, police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson announced that top police brass would begin working in uniform in high-crime areas for four hours, one night a week. There were two murders that day.

Guns and unemployment
City officials' repeated calls for tougher gun-purchase laws have gone unheeded at the state Capitol, and Philadelphia does not have the authority to pass its own firearms legislation.

While stricter gun laws would help, so would fewer truants, higher employment and lower poverty rates, Capt. Naish said.

"The commissioner has said a thousand jobs could go further than a thousand police officers," Naish said.

The five Democrats hoping to succeed Street, also a Democrat, have proposed crime plans. Nearly all recommend hiring hundreds of new police officers to buttress the current force of about 6,600; one plan includes spending $15 million to post more surveillance cameras around the city.

At Stelly's funeral, state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams told the hundreds of mourners that he grew up on the streets that have turned into battle zones.

"The question is, to the politicians of America: What do they do? What can they do?" Williams said. "The answer, truthfully, is: I'm not sure."

Williams, who is black, then asked the black men present to stand. Invoking the names of Stelly's four motherless children, ranging from 6 months to 9 years old, Williams had the men repeat a promise to "protect the women and the children of our 'hood."

"I will be an example that these babies can look up to," the men vowed. "I will no longer be a predator in my own back yard."