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Crime is a hot topic in South Philly, but is there a connection to Krasner? Here’s what the data says

On Jan. 29, the gym at St. Monica School in Girard Estates played host to an “emergency meeting” to address the “rash of increasing crime in our area,” according to the official flier for the event. The meeting was so well attended that it was difficult to move about in the gym.

South Philly Residents packed St. Monica gym for an “emergency meeting” to address crime in the neighborhood late last month. | Photo by Tom Beck

It was at the end of last month when South Philly hit a boiling point with District Attorney Larry Krasner. On Jan. 29, the gym at St. Monica School in Girard Estates hosted an “emergency meeting” put on by Girard Estate Area Residents to address the “rash of increasing crime in our area,” according to the official flier for the event. The meeting was so well attended that it was difficult to move about in the gym, and the anger over the perceived rising crime was palpable, to put it mildly. But if there was one statement that got the loudest applause of the night, it was one made by attorney George Bochetto.

“With all the recommendations and suggestions that have been made tonight so far about how to improve the safety of our communities, one big one has been overlooked that hasn’t been mentioned,” he said. “We must get rid of Larry Krasner.”

The packed gym roared with both antagonism and glee, thrilled that its concerns regarding Krasner’s progressive policies were validated by a community leader. Those progressive policies include eliminating cash bail for nonviolent crimes, telling prosecutors to seek lighter sentences, dropping all marijuana possession charges and instructing his assistant district attorneys not to charge for prostitution if the alleged offender has fewer than two convictions.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of a double stabbing that happened outside of the Packer Avenue Chickie’s & Pete’s Feb. 9, dozens of residents gathered in Marconi Park the following day to further protest a “rampant” increase in crime, the event’s organizer, Anthony Giordano, told 6ABC

Jody Della Barba, president of GEAR, pins the perceived spike in crime squarely on the shoulders of Krasner.

“His idea of criminal justice reform is to ignore the laws on the books before someone goes to jail,” she told SPR. “The crimes in South Philly have gone up 10 times, at least.”

Before Krasner took office, Della Barba said, you’d see “isolated incidents” of crime.

“Now it’s every other day,” she said. “I’m afraid to walk over to my daughter’s house around the corner.”

Della Barba said she believes Krasner’s policies have made criminals commit more crimes because they don’t believe they’ll be punished by the DA’s office for doing so.

“They call him Uncle Larry,” she said.

Some media outlets have fanned the flames.

“Dozens of residents gathered in South Philadelphia to stand up against a crime spike plaguing the city,” read the lede to the 6ABC story about the Marconi Plaza demonstration.

“South Philadelphia has experienced its fair share of violence in 2020,” reads a CBS3 story about the same incident – without giving specific numbers.

Of course, it’s each person’s right to voice their concerns over crime if they feel unsafe in their community. But all too often, data that can help paint a clearer picture of the city’s crime woes unfortunately gets left out of the conversation. 

Data provided by the Philadelphia Police Department.

If you look at that data, you’ll find it’s true that violent and nonviolent crime did increase from 2018 to 2019 – but not by much. During that span, crime statistics provided by the Philadelphia Police Department show the total number of violent crimes rising less than 6 percent and nonviolent crimes rising by a mere 1.6 percent. But when the numbers are fleshed out, it becomes clear they’re not the perceived “rampant” increase in crime some are claiming it to be. In reality, it appears to be more akin to a minor blip within the normal realm of variation – at least for now. For perspective, look at how the nonviolent crime rate rose all three years from 2009 to 2011, just like it did from 2017 to 2019. If we were having this discussion in 2011, we might feel that we were in the midst of a crime spike. But alas, the crime totals subsequently proceeded to decrease each year from 2012 to 2017 (see the ‘Reported Total Nonviolent Crimes in Philadelphia’ graph below), showing that the perceived 2009-2011 spike was really just a relatively inconsequential uptick in an otherwise overwhelmingly downward trend from 2008 to 2017. The same could very well be happening now. These data phenomena can result in what’s called endpoint bias, something that oftentimes causes people to misconstrue data to fit their political and psychological biases. Of course, it might turn out that the recent minor blip could be the beginning of an actual spike, but it’s likely far too early to come to that conclusion just yet.

Data provided by the Philadelphia Police Department.

Despite this blip, the data shows that crime has plummeted since 2007. In fact, it’s down about 28 percent since then. 

Nonviolent crime shows a similar pattern. Last year’s nonviolent crime total was 19 percent less than 2007. Furthermore, nonviolent crimes have remained largely flat since 2015. In each year, nonviolent crimes fell within the realm of 48,000 to 50,000.

Additionally, Krasner’s spokeswoman, Jane Roh, said that the DA’s office created the DAO Public Data Dashboard for reasons like these.

“As the data show, our office prosecutes nearly every criminal case referred to us by the police,” Roh said in an email to SPR. “There is absolutely no basis for the concern that the policies of this office have a causal effect on crime.”

She added that “all crimes affecting people’s sense of safety are a priority we share with law enforcement.”

It’s also important to note that Krasner’s been in office for only two years, which means that the sample size of data isn’t nearly enough to come to a full conclusion about his effect on crime rates.

Anthony Voci, the DA office’s Homicide Unit Supervisor, cautioned against a groupthink mentality and urged residents to think for themselves.

“Just because 1,000 people or 500 people decide to show up and complain about something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true,” he told SPR in a phone interview, referring to the GEAR meeting. “I think in this world where information travels at lightning speed and we have social media, somebody puts something out there and then all the sudden everybody grabs on to it and just takes it as a base assumption and moves from there. But the reality is that violent crime and crime generally in the city of Philadelphia over the past two years – which happens to be the timespan of the Krasner administration – is relatively flat.”

Generally speaking, Roh said, Krasner’s relationship with the community has been more positive than negative.

“The DA has conversations with community leaders throughout the city of Philadelphia on a regular basis, whether at community events, visits with anti-violence organizations, safety walks and more,” she said. “The reception he receives is overwhelmingly respectful, because most community leaders are genuinely interested in working toward public safety solutions — not just screaming and yelling for the benefit of TV cameras.”

Data provided by the Philadelphia Police Department.

There is a caveat to the downward trend in crimes though, which lies with homicides. Last year, there were 355 of them in the city of Philadelphia – the most since 2007, according to the data provided by the PPD to the Review. At the current time of writing, there’s been 53 homicides in Philadelphia since the beginning of 2020. That’s up 23 percent since last year’s 43 homicides at this point last year. That’s certainly a problem – a big problem – and residents have a right to be upset. But pinning it squarely on the shoulders of Krasner is problematic when you take into account that those numbers have been trending upward since 2013, five years before Krasner assumed office.

Richard Berk, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is simply “no way to tell” if Krasner’s policies have caused an increase in crime in the city, he told SPR in an email.

“His practices may be contributing or they may not be contributing [to the rise in homicides],” said Berk. “I suppose some could argue that the number of homicides would be even greater were it not for his practices. So the answer for me is ‘can’t tell.’ ”

Voci, who started out as a prosecutor for the city nearly 30 years ago, said the rise in homicides isn’t all that unusual if you look at the historical data.

“I saw the ebbs and flows and peaks and valleys where we would go from the 200s to the 300s to the 400s and to the 500s once upon a time, and then it went back down,” he said. “Now it’s on a slow, gradual increase over the past few years. But to suggest somehow that the Krasner administration is responsible for that, I just think, is not only unfair, but I think it’s also unprovable if you look at the numbers.”

When Councilman Kenyatta Johnson was asked about a link between crime rates and DA Krasner’s policies, he left the door open to the possibility, but didn’t come down straightforwardly on either side of the argument.

“We need to review all city agency policies when they come to making sure that those who are perpetrators of crime are held accountable,” he said. “For me, everything is up for review and we’ll be taking a look at all the quality-of-life crimes and how they’re being addressed from all agencies of law enforcement.”

Roh said that, “homicides are at unacceptable levels, no doubt.”

“So are overdose deaths and drug trafficking, which is a major driver of gun violence,” she added. “In addition, economic inequality is historically high, and there is a direct line from poverty to gun violence.”

The link between economic inequality and homicides has been studied extensively by Martin Daly, a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University in Ontario, who authored a book on the subject, entitled Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide. Daly’s research has shown that economic inequality predicts murder rates better than any other variable.

This is the problem with mass incarceration, Roh argued in an email sent to SPR. It renders people unemployable thanks to having criminal records and a general lack of work experience, which perpetuates poverty and, ergo, crime.

“It is too early to declare, but we believe in the near future researchers will learn that decades of mass incarceration is one of the causes of the cycle of violence we are currently experiencing,” she said. “There is also no question that if we had sensible regulations on firearms, these murders would literally not have happened. You don’t see this level of violence in nations that do have the political will to control and regulate firearms – when you make it easy to end a life with less than a second’s thought, these totally avoidable tragedies become inevitable.”

Voci said that unlike the Krasner administration, previous district attorneys didn’t focus on mass incarceration.

“I think it was something that they just accepted as the norm,” he said. “What Mr. Krasner did is he took a good look at the social science as it related to incarceration, crime in the city and in this country, and what he found was that the old system wasn’t working…so let’s see if there’s a different approach that we can take.”

That different approach includes seeking lighter sentences, which saves the city money on incarceration costs. The goal is to take the money that would’ve been spent on incarceration and instead use it for community projects and social services that will eventually lead to less crime.

The lighter sentences make sense, he said, when you consider that research shows people who commit violent crime typically “age out” at some point, usually in their mid-40s.

“So if you have a very young person in their early 20s who commits a crime, rather than send them to prison for the rest of their natural life…let’s put them in prison for 20, 25 years,” he said. Instead of having that person who has aged out of violent crime in prison for an additional 10 or 15 years and paying $45,000 a year to incarcerate them, that money can be put back into the community in ways that prevent crime.

“Let’s take the $450,000, redirect it into the community and do something positive with that money instead of just paying for three hots and a cot for a guy who doesn’t need to be incarcerated anymore,” he said.

Most of the gun violence, Voci said, stems from either drugs or trivial arguments.

“I’m just stunned at the inability of people in our city to resolve what seems to be extremely minor, meaningless beefs, grudges, slights and insults that somehow are responded to [with gun violence],” he said. “And drugs is a big net that you would cast over a lot of these murders. It’s a killing over drug territory, it’s a killing over drug debt, it’s a killing because somebody was under the influence of drugs and made a very bad decision in terms of how to respond to a situation or a circumstance.”

In addition to inequality, another possibility for the rise in homicides could be the unseasonably warm weather Philadelphia has had over the last 15 or so years thanks to climate change. The official annual average temperature in Philadelphia has been higher than the city’s 20th century annual average for each of the last 15 years, according to a report from the Philadelphia Inquirer last month. 

Couple that with a 2018 New York Times report, which includes Philadelphia among 10 major cities studied for the correlation between temperature and murder rates. According to the report, warmer days tend to result in more murders. The data says there were 2.6 shooting victims per day on average when it was under 50 degrees Fahrenheit, 3.4 on “pleasant” days when it was between 50 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit, and 4.4 on days that were warmer than 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The effect was similar among all the other cities (San Francisco being the only exception), but was especially high among northern cities like Philly, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and Milwaukee.

Furthermore, the New York Times report argues that the rise in violence during warmer weather can mostly be attributed to people being outside more. In Philadelphia, the report says, outdoor gun violence rises as temperatures increase. Indoor gun violence stays roughly the same no matter the temperature.

As you can see, when the entirety of the data is taken into consideration, it paints a clearer picture. The rising levels of homicides in the city pose a threat to the safety of Philadelphians not just in South Philly, but across the city. While it’s certainly possible Krasner’s policies have caused an uptick in crime, the data suggests that it would be presumptuous to single out the city’s top prosecutor for being the sole reason, or even a reason, behind the city’s homicide trend just yet.

“Everyone deserves a reasonable expectation of safety no matter where they live in Philly, but fear based on falsehoods and ‘fake news’ doesn’t make us safer,” said Roh. “They make people less trusting of law enforcement and of each other, and when people don’t trust the system enough to report crime and cooperate with investigations, we are all less safe.”

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