In a recent mayoral debate at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Helen Gym, who had been an outspoken opponent of increasing the city’s policing budget in 2020, called gun violence the “single greatest threat to everything that we have ever hoped for in this city.”
Gun violence is ravaging Philadelphia, just as it is Rochester, Indianapolis, Columbus, Louisville, Austin, and six other major cities that suffered record-breaking homicides in 2021—a crisis that shows little sign of waning. Philadelphia has something else in common with those cities: Its officials have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into anti-violence initiatives that have failed to make a dent in the surging levels of violence. It’s a very American approach to a very American problem, as politicians pump money into opaque social initiatives that provide jobs to midlevel bureaucrats who fail to do anything at all.
“Everybody can get a grant, everybody gets paid,” said Jamal Johnson, a former Marine and anti-violence activist in Philadelphia. “It’s the new hustle.”
In a deeply blue city like Philadelphia, the Democratic primary is the de facto election contest. At St. Joseph’s, the debate was dominated by a single issue as candidates spent two hours explaining to an auditorium of students and city residents how exactly they were going to solve the gun violence epidemic. A number of candidates, including Gym, laid out a strategy to declare a citywide state of emergency, potentially triggering a windfall of state and federal funding to help triage the violence. Money, however, has not been a problem for the leaders of Philadelphia. Last year, Pennsylvania’s governor peeled off $50 million to stem the violence in Philadelphia. And the outgoing mayor, Jim Kenney, signed off on almost a billion dollars in the city budget to beef up the nation’s fourth-largest police force while also picking up the $208 million tab to support dozens of social services programs tailored to combat Philadelphia’s gun violence.
As gun violence has surged nationwide, dispensing massive sums of money to grassroots anti-violence organizations has become fashionable across all levels of government. The appeal, it seems, is that these feel-good initiatives offer something like the “thoughts and prayers” mantra invoked after mass shootings—a way for city officials to demonstrate that they’ve done something even if it has no measurable impact on the problem at hand.
After the devastating string of shootings last summer—including the killing of 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school and a mass shooting of African American shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York —Congress passed its first major gun reform legislation in decades, a bill that included $250 million for community anti-violence programs. The Justice Department followed suit with another $100 million in funding for similar initiatives in September. Doubling down on their investment, the Biden administration informed state and local leaders that they could roll over unspent federal stimulus money into anti-violence programs. These huge cash infusions have increased the funding for hundreds of grassroots anti-violence organizations in cities across the country.
Just to take one example from the past few days, officials in Akron, Ohio, announced another $1.5 million in funding for local anti-violence programs, the third such round of funding, bringing the total investment to $4.4 million distributed since last year. But while such aggressive funding has become commonplace, oversight is remarkably relaxed. In Jackson County, Mississippi, a 2019 audit of anti-violence spending found millions of dollars had been treated as a slush fund by local officials and program leaders who used “emergency status” designations to bypass oversight by county legislators. The anti-violence money was used to cover cellphone bills, car payments, elevator repairs, and a holiday celebration. “There continues to be a clear pattern of hubris and blatant disregard for appropriate process and best practices,” county legislator Crystal Williams said after the audit was made public—a sentiment that could very well apply to any number of other municipalities where pots of anti-violence money are spent with no strings attached.
Philadelphia offers a microcosm of the techniques now being deployed by governments across the country that have decided to respond to America’s out-of-control gun violence with outsize spending on anti-violence programs.
Setting a grim new milestone in 2021, Philadelphia reached its highest homicide count on record. There are multiple reasons for the spike in violence, including the presence of the nation’s largest open-air drug market nestled in the north Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington (a billion-dollar business, according to the attorney general), and the tidal wave of firearms now flooding the state.
In 2000, Pennsylvania counted fewer than 400,000 firearms sold by legitimate means. By 2022, sales had more than doubled to over a million guns purchased per year. While legal guns flipped illegally on the street remain a perennial problem for city police, the illegally manufactured firearms have become their own bailiwick, particularly the ghost guns that lack serial numbers or paperwork and which can be produced with 3-D printer schematics and make-your-own gun kits easily acquired from the darker corners of the internet. In 2021, police seized 571 ghost guns off Philadelphia streets—more than five times what had been recovered in 2018 and 2019 combined.
The stakes could not be higher. The city, with its population of just under 1.6 million people, ended 2022 with an astronomical 2,263 shooting victims, more than 200 of them children. And yet the solution in Philly, as in other cities, is to keep money flowing into mismanaged and unproductive anti-gun initiatives.
Last November, Philadelphia’s Office of Violence Prevention released its investigation into the Community Crisis Intervention Program (CCIP), one of the mayor’s much-touted organizations that took in $5.3 million in 2021 to stem the gun violence. “Staff are reportedly ‘not all on the same page’ and may not have a clear understanding of CCIP’s purpose,” the city’s report found, adding that “poor supervision” and “the lack of consistent and high quality training” had led some CCIP employees to believe that “the mandate CCIP has to reduce violence is unrealistic.”
Earlier last year, before the city controller, Rebecca Rhynhart, resigned to run for mayor, her office reported similar findings in an analysis of Philadelphia’s anti-violence effort as a whole. One key finding was that just 17% of the programs are designed to reduce immediate short-term threats of gun violence, while more than 4 out of 5 of the initiatives only aim to see results after three years of operation. “All of these buckshot and scattershot efforts are ineffective. And while this is common around the country, it is particularly true in Philadelphia,” David Muhammad, the leader of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, told The Philadelphia Inquirer after Rhynhart’s report was published.
Part of the problem in Philadelphia boils down to the government’s urgent need to spend money to show that it’s “doing something” despite a lack of viable programs that meet the city’s bare minimum requirements for funding. Several of the programs founded in the wake of the current mayor’s first major funding campaign against gun violence in 2020 are still waiting to launch, as they use their grants to hire staff, build offices, and pen their mission statements. When one of the mayor’s subsequent campaigns sought to spend $22 million on new grassroots programs, only $13.5 million could be handed out because so many of the organizations that applied were incapable of intervening in crisis hotspots or working directly with the population most likely to commit shootings.
The difficulty in spending money on anti-gun and anti-violence initiatives that actually work is a common predicament in areas of the country besieged by violence. In Mississippi, where the 59% increase in the rate of gun deaths between 2011 and 2020 made it the state with the second highest rate of firearm killings in the country, Gov. Tate Reeves says he has millions set aside to fund a proposal to outfit teachers with guns and training to try to stem shootings in and around school grounds.
While mass shootings only account for a small fraction of overall firearm homicides, giving guns to teachers at least creates the appearance that local and state officials are trying something new to combat gun violence. Already, seven states have passed laws allowing school staff to carry guns, including Florida, where staffers complete 132 hours of firearm safety (plus 12 hours of diversity training) before being armed by the state. “The plus side to that is that old saying, ‘When seconds count, cops can sometimes be minutes away,’” Alex Coker, an active shooter response trainer, told Fox13 in Mississippi.
Yet arming educators has an uneven track record, with reports of one teacher accidentally dropping a loaded pistol while doing a cartwheel on the playground and another unintentionally firing a gun and injuring three students during a firearm safety demonstration. Over a five-year period, there were more than 100 similar occurrences of school employees mishandling firearms, according to the Giffords Law Center. “The downside,” Coker noted, is that teachers could accidentally discharge their gun, or the employee goes “from being a hero to a zero, because you missed and you hit little Susie or Johnny.”
Some cities have found tangible success in reducing gun violence with Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS), a crime deterrent approach that’s used by law enforcement to target small cohorts of people, often just a few hundred individuals, who commit the bulk of violent offenses. Here, investigators pursuing gangs and others suspected of violent activities connect the targets to social service groups that present work programs and other opportunities that serve as alternatives to prison.
The social service groups tapped for GVRS are vulnerable to the same problems found in other initiatives where oversight is lax, but several cities partnering with well-vetted collaborators have seen significant decreases in the number of shootings and murders. In 2022, Baltimore endured the eighth straight year of at least 300 homicides across the city, yet in the Western District where the mayor’s office piloted a GVRS program, homicides and shootings were down 33%—results good enough for the mayor’s office to make plans to scale the program citywide. Elsewhere, in Boston, New Orleans, and Oakland, GVRS campaigns have contributed to similarly sharp declines in shootings and homicides. In Cincinnati, a similar program saw homicides drop by more than 41% among those groups targeted by law enforcement.
In the same mold of GVRS, Philadelphia Ceasefire was a two-year program that Temple University researchers studied in 2017. The program reduced the number of shootings in a small section of North Philadelphia by as much as 30%. But its funding has expired since then and the city has decided to deploy its resources in other less-evidenced-based efforts to limited success. In the fall, one of the city’s celebrated programs, Guns Down Gloves Up, had its $392,000 grant suspended by the city when they learned that Nashid Akil, the police captain who founded the program, along with nine other police department employees, had paid themselves $76,000—despite a grant agreement that ensured Akil would receive no payment, according to public financial records. The program is now under investigation by both the police department and the office of the inspector general, and Akil was suspended for unrelated chronic absenteeism from the police force.
With four months to go until the Democratic primary, it’s possible that more than a few of the candidates currently in the running will decide to drop out. No doubt they’ve all heard the lamentations of outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney. After two police were shot at a holiday event this past Fourth of July, Kenney told reporters he’s all but counting down the days until he’s out of office. “I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time,” Kenney said. “I’ll be happy when I’m not here, when I’m not mayor, and I can enjoy some stuff.”
It can’t make the job any easier to know that the anti-gun violence programs the city has poured money into haven’t even begun to make the city safer.
Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and the author of The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided, forthcoming from Penguin.