Looking for answers

Already this year, more than 100 people have been killed on the streets of Philadelphia, outpacing last year’s grim toll and bringing the city national attention as a hotbed of urban violence. Eighty percent of these murders were carried out with handguns, and many of the shooters, as well as the victims, have criminal records.

As the city’s mayoral race heats up, all five candidates are proposing measures to curb the gun violence, from Michael Nutter’s “stop, question and frisk” approach to Chaka Fattah’s “carrot and a stick” tactic. We turned to some of Penn’s own violence and urban environment experts to find out why this epidemic is happening and what can be done to stop it.

Susan Sorenson
Professor of social policy

The problem: “Beware of the politician—or professor, or community advocate—who claims to have the answer for Philadelphia. If there were one or two causes of violence, we likely would have figured that out a long time ago, but it’s not that simple. Many smart people have tried, with little success, to identify what drives fluctuations in violence.”

The solution: “In addition to short-term fixes focusing on law enforcement intervention, Philadelphia needs to create more opportunities for meaningful work, dramatically improve the public schools and focus on adults who are making handguns available to adolescents and others who are prohibited from having them. To build healthy and safe neighborhoods, Philadelphia leaders need to be able to bring communities together—they need to be able to articulate a positive vision of life in the city that can unite Philadelphia.”

Lawrence Sherman
Director, Jerry Lee Center of Criminology and professor of criminology and sociology

The problem: “No one knows why homicide rates rise and fall in short time frames. But homicide has been rising steadily for 5 years in Philadelphia, with ever more guns seized by police every year.”

The solution: “What we are doing about it at Penn Criminology is to hire new faculty who have been helping to forecast which convicted offenders on probation will kill or be killed. We are also using these analyses to help the probation department set priorities among its 52,000 offenders, and to test a new prevention program stressing better psychological services and rehabilitation for those probationers most at-risk. We will know in another year or so how the test turns out. Meanwhile I have proposed to the city and the U.S. Congress that they increase funding for probation officers, so the caseload of 185 offenders per probation officer can be substantially reduced.”   

Amy Hillier
Assistant professor, city and regional planning

The solution: “Environment is part of the answer–-not the whole answer, but part of the answer. Young people in Philadelphia are growing up in neighborhoods saturated with messages that say they don’t matter. Every day, they are exposed to inadequate schools, run-down housing, trash-strewn lots, alcohol billboards and poor quality food. They look around them and perceive that society doesn’t care about them or expect much from them.

We need to offer these young people real alternatives to life on the street. We need to give them access to the best schools and to jobs that will allow them to earn enough money to support a family some day. And we need to saturate them with messages that their lives are precious. Would we expect anything less for our own children or our Penn students?”

Charles Baras
Assistant professor of epidemiology and lead epidemiologist in Penn’s Firearm and Injury Center

The problem: “It’s always difficult to pinpoint specific factors that carry the lion’s share of the blame for gun violence in Philadelphia, but a few generally seem to rise to the top. Illegal drugs likely relate to violence brought about by trafficking and, to some degree, actual usage of illegal drugs. Trafficking of “Philly heroin,” a very potent brand of heroin that is also an unfortunate source of pride for some in the city, has seen a recent resurgence and may be part of the trend in gun violence. Alcohol is also possibly related and some think that “stop-and-go” outlets where alcohol is purchased but consumed illegally off premises are also likely important.”

The solution: “A great many efforts are now underway in Philadelphia to reduce gun violence. We are overdue for these and, truth be told, we are far behind other cities in having such programs in place. Our current NIH-funded studies of gun violence in Philadelphia are specifically designed to test the competing effects of many of the environmental factors I just mentioned. Stay tuned for our first research papers and reports to the City of Philadelphia in the next several months.”

Originally published April 26, 2007.

Originally published on April 26, 2007