By Daniel Denvir, Samantha Melamed and Eric Schneider
Published: 09/26/2013 | 4 Comments Posted
Police cordon off the 2500 block of North Corlies Street in Strawberry Mansion after a man was shot fatally in March.
After the funeral for the year’s first murder victim, 16-year-old Jaymire Rustin, friends gather at the site of his killing on Carpenter Street. Two doors down, the house where his alleged killer lived was ravaged by a fire two days after Jaymire’s death.
Jaymire Rustin, a 16-year-old West Philadelphia High School student, became the city’s first murder victim of the year when he was shot once in the chest at a party just after midnight on New Year’s Day. An 18-year-old from the neighborhood is accused of killing Jaymire — reportedly over an argument about a cellphone.
Memorials soon crowded Jaymire’s Facebook wall, filled Twitter feeds, and were silkscreened onto hoodies and jackets. “Rest in paradise Jeezy, My lil bro forever. Sunrise: 02/20/96 Sunset: 01/01/13.”
“Jaymire: The good die young.”
The Rev. Michael White convened a candlelight vigil at a park on 57th and Baltimore on the Friday after the killing. The young pastor of Good Samaritan Baptist Church had never met Jaymire, whom friends called J-Money. He had learned of the killing from TV news, and made an emotional YouTube plea to find Rustin’s family and friends.
“You can be out here tonight with Jaymire tatted on your arm and pasted on the back of your jacket, but if your mindset does not change about how you live,” he said, “you put yourself into a predicament to fall as a victim to the same kind of crime.”
One young woman, who was sobbing, said the city’s killings were motivated by rage. “People not thinking. … And it’s stupid. Because of one emotion, you rode off of one single emotion and shoot — and then did something permanent to somebody’s family.” Jaymire’s brother was upset that his tragedy had become a media spectacle. “What you mean, ‘How we feeling?’” he asked a reporter. “We mourning right now. You all coming out asking us how we feeling? How would you be feeling?”
White pleaded with the mourners to stop the bloodletting that has terrorized Philadelphia for decades. “Young black men: There’s too many of us in the ground, and not enough of us in college,” he said.
Despite the efforts of thousands of pastors, cops, reformed gangsters, concerned parents and politicians, Philadelphia is consistently among the most violent big cities in a country with the highest murder rate of any wealthy nation on earth. And while rates of violent crime, shootings and gun homicides have fallen dramatically nationwide over the last two decades, in Philadelphia declines have been far more modest and often quickly reversed. In 2012, 331 people were murdered in Philadelphia, bringing the death toll to nearly 9,500 since 1988.
Why gun crime has persisted in some cities, like Philly, while declining in others, like New York, is a question that involves not just law-and-order strategies, but also deep-seated social and economic problems. The murder epidemic in Philly’s poorest black neighborhoods has been more than a half-century in the making. Likewise, ending it has been a decades-long preoccupation of law enforcement, which — in lieu of effective violence-prevention programs — has mostly relied on locking people up. Today, though, police and prosecutors are adopting data-driven tactics that home in on crime hot spots with concentrated foot patrols and target repeat offenders for aggressive prosecution. And new programs are dispatching ex-offenders to help turn the tide of violence in their own neighborhoods. There are early signs that such efforts may be working.
On July 1, Philly quietly recorded a milestone: Murders as of midyear were down 38 percent from 2012, on track to the city’s lowest homicide rate since 1968.
Politicians generally flock to positive front-page headlines. But no one rushed to take credit for this one. Murder rates fluctuate — and Philly’s could spike again.
• What does murder in Philly look like?
Jaymire Rustin’s murder — and all the others that flash on the evening news — seem senseless and incomprehensible. But taken together, they form a pattern.
Eighty-three percent of alleged perpetrators in 2012 were black, as were 80 percent of the victims. Eighty-six percent of murder victims were felled by gunfire. Last year, the most popular firearm model was a 9 mm handgun. Most perpetrators and most victims had one or more prior arrests; a good deal had many. Killings are concentrated in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
North Philly’s 3-S community, named for Sterner, Silver and Seltzer streets between 25th and 27th, is one of those neighborhoods. Since 2003, there have been almost 200 shootings and 50 murders within a quarter-mile of 27th and Sterner. Far from the pop-culture perception of gangs and high-rolling drug dealers, the regular gunfire on these streets is the outcome of neighborhood feuds and a drug business that’s not making anyone much money.
One man, who asked not to be identified, says he lives in fear. A bullet recently flew into his rowhouse, ricocheted off a steel bar on the window and then against a 75-gallon aquarium before it dropped to the floor of the living room where his partner, daughter and granddaughter sat terrified. “It’s a select few,” he says, “that like to run up and down the street terrorizing the neighborhood.”
The young men who hang out on the corner perpetrate much of the violence — and attract the rest of it, through feuds with other corners. “Guns are stashed all over the place,” the resident says. “A little kid can go over and find a gun in an alley, or in a lot. Because if you got seven or eight guys hanging on the corner, they may not have guns on them, but those guns are maybe 15 to 20 feet away — no farther than that.”
Police posted a “No loitering” sign. Drug dealers ignored it. Police erected a spotlight, but it was soon broken.
Carrying guns, says a young man who grew up a few blocks south of 3-S in Strawberry Mansion, “gave me a sense of power … I could play God. With this in my hand, you had to obey me. Either you do what I say, or you have to deal with my wrath.”
In the 22nd Police District, which includes Strawberry Mansion, “Crack is the big issue,” says Capt. Roland Lee. It’s different from the open-air drug markets in Kensington that attract addicts from all over the city and suburbs looking for heroin and oxys. “It’s homegrown,” he says, and hard to shut down. “The low-level guys are replaceable.” The way Lee sees it, at least 75 percent of the shootings in his district are “narcotics-related, some way, somehow. It could be a deal gone wrong, or over territory, someone makes too much money, jealousy.”
Citywide, police classified just 10 percent of murders in 2012 as drug-related. But an untold number of killings labeled as personal disputes took place on drug corners. Often, those crimes are linked to feuds between small gangs whose territory may be just a block or two long. Police classified 48 percent of murders as argument-related.
“It’s all beef, to me — if you want to be technical,” says Terry Starks, a former North Philly dealer. He says his neighborhood’s drug economy has collapsed. “That breeds tension when you got people arguing over $15 sales, because he been standing out there all day on his feet, cold.”
The man from 3-S remembers a different sort of dealer in his childhood. A dealer might watch out for the neighborhood and hold cookouts for kids. The dealers that now attract gunfire to his block are broke.
“The sad part about it is that they not making no money,” he says. “You stand on the corner, you fighting, and you killing each other. … We can hear them asking each other, ‘Let me get a half of that sandwich.’ What kind of drug dealers are you? You need to change your occupation. … They’re working for sneakers and to smoke blunts.”
In neighborhoods like this, guns are easy to find and quickly drawn.
Lee says guns on the streets are higher caliber now than ever before. “When I first started it was the .38 specials and then it was the 9-millimeter. Now I’m seeing a lot of .40s and a lot of .45s,” Lee says. “But those guns that are being used in crimes are not necessarily new weapons. Some are older — the average is 11 years old. A lot of guns are passed around from person to person for years.”
The former drug dealer from Strawberry Mansion found his first gun at age 13 in an alley. “It’s kind of cliche,” he concedes, but “that’s when my whole life turned around.” Not, he notes, for the better. Now, if someone wants a gun, “All you got to do is ask.” It’s like asking, “‘Do you know where the Walmart at? Do you know where the restaurant at?’ It’s as simple as that.”
• How did we get here?
That gun, and how it came to be stashed in that alley, could be traced back to a previous crime, a previous gang, a previous generation that ruled the corner.
But a review of the historical record shows it really goes back further, to the early 20th century, when the first of two Great Migrations swept millions of impoverished black people out of the Jim Crow South and into Northern cities in search of jobs and less repressive environs. In Philadelphia, working-class whites violently opposed the arrival of blacks in their neighborhoods, while middle-class whites fled to segregated suburbs. And so, the hyper-segregated metropolis was born. The black ghetto sat in its isolated center. There, job opportunities were few and the murder rate was high.
The murder rate fell during World War II, as black Philadelphians found work opportunities. By the early 1950s, African-Americans had a homicide rate 12 times the white rate, but that gap was narrowing.
But by the late ’50s, black youth gangs in West Philadelphia were preoccupying city leaders; the murder of a University of Pennsylvania international student in 1958 by a group of black youths made international headlines. Crime and race became bitter flashpoints in the city.
Gangs had multiple generations: Midgets, juniors, seniors, old heads.
“They had their own institutions, as they saw it. They had their own leadership hierarchies: leader, the runner, the assistant, the war chief, consul,” says Harold Haskins, a gang-outreach worker during the 1960s who documented the 12th and Oxford gang in the classic documentary The Jungle. Youth gang members had little interaction with drugs aside from alcohol, he says. They had guns, but not as many as today, so street fighting was still a popular way to settle disputes. 3-S resident Wayne Jacobs was from Camac and Diamond streets, “known as a fighting corner.” They “resolved most things with our fists,” he says.
The deindustrialization of Philadelphia and the growing economic inequality that followed pummeled the black ghetto. Between 1967 and ’77, the city lost 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Even the timing of murders changed as a result. From the 1950s on, murders in Philly spiked on weekends. But as more young men went unemployed in the early 1970s, a greater share of killings took place on weekdays.
As jobs evaporated, an informal economy emerged in poor black neighborhoods: selling liquor by the glass at the kitchen table on Sundays, selling prepared meals to neighbors, hosting card games — and selling drugs.
Illegal entrepreneurs, vulnerable to robbery, increasingly purchased guns; nationwide, handgun sales quadrupled between 1962 and ’68. The murder rate began to climb in Philly.
Things came to a head in 1969, when 45 youths were murdered in gang violence (up from just one in 1962) as .38s and rifles replaced homemade zip guns on the streets of the city.
A polarized Philadelphia elected Police Chief Frank Rizzo, who had a reputation for brutality against the black community, as mayor in 1971. Things got much worse in the 1980s, with the development of crack cocaine and multi-shot pistols to replace the old-fashioned revolver as protection in a tumultuous drug marketplace.
Murder was never so easy. Nationally, the murder rate has fallen since 1991 — but failed to drop to anything approaching historic lows. And it has stayed persistently high in Philadelphia. “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six” became the credo of permanent urban warfare.
• Can Philly stop the killing?
Changes in the murder rate over the past century are generally attributed to social and economic forces. Police efforts — including increasing the size of Philly’s force to an unsustainable 8,500 in 1979 — have had little lasting effect in areas like North Central Philly.
That neighborhood’s 22nd Police District leads Philadelphia in homicides. Now, the 22nd has become Philly’s laboratory for testing crime-prevention and crime-fighting methods. The District Attorney chose the area to roll out a new targeted prosecution program. Criminology professors are focusing experiments there with help from the police district. Everyone from Family Court judges to top brass at the city departments of Health, Commerce and Licenses & Inspections is zeroing in on the 22nd under a federal violence-reduction grant. And a new anti-violence program is deploying some of the very men who used to run the corners to turn the neighborhood around.
Perhaps as a result, crime in the 22nd has declined this year: Through the end of August, murders in the district were down 26 percent, and shootings were down 31 percent. Bryan Lentz, who heads the District Attorney’s Gun Violence Task Force, says, “The good news is there’s a lot going on there [in the 22nd]. The bad news is that it’s a lot harder to link one particular activity to reductions in crime.”
The earliest of those experiments occurred in 2009, when Philadelphia’s new police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, allowed Temple University criminologists to use two classes of graduating cadets to see if foot patrols deployed to the city’s most dangerous corners could reduce violent crime.
The studies found that violent crime fell by 23 percent, at least in the short term. The 22nd District and others now make foot patrols a regular part of their policing strategy.
A reporter stopped by the precinct to meet the patrolmen — and received a warning. “We don’t usually let people do walk-alongs or ride-alongs without body armor, because we’re not really that popular in the city,” an officer said.
Lee, who started his police career at the district but has only been back as captain for a year, sees the issue of police “popularity” in the neighborhood, where distrust for law enforcement runs high, as his most vital challenge. He thinks foot patrols are starting to help with that.
For the 6 p.m. shift, officers pile into a van, then get dropped off at points around the district to walk their beats. Sgt. Bisarat Worede says that all of the neighborhoods are difficult to manage — Temple, with its students and parties; Brewerytown, with its burglaries; or North Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, like Strawberry Mansion, where shootings and drug dealing are pervasive. “It’s all a challenge,” Worede says. “There’s no typical night in this neighborhood. You try to get into the mindset of, ‘expect anything and everything.’ You don’t want to get into a routine, because that’s when you might get surprised.”
On a warm evening in March, Brian Nolan, a former Wildwood, N.J., cop and Mitch Farrell, a former fireman, are on their second day alone on the streets. Their beat is from Oxford to Jefferson, 22nd Street to 24th. It includes the two 18-story high-rises of the Blumberg projects, where the stairways smell of urine and are littered with tiny plastic bags that once contained drugs.
Nolan and Mitchell climb the stairs, offering greetings to residents they pass in the stairwell. Not much is happening. “Usually by the time we go up, they’re all inside,” Nolan says.
Worede worries about the new guys. “You’re in the academy, it’s a controlled environment. And now you’re out here,” he says. It’s hard to prepare them for “someone who’s not your instructor yelling at you, or seeing someone actually bleeding.” This is the third class of foot patrolmen that he’s overseen. He encourages them to chat up residents, play a little basketball with the kids. “The hardest thing for me is just convincing people we’re here trying to help.”
One police source who works in the district is sympathetic to the young men he chases across the city, and understands their reticence. He recalls that when he was growing up in an Irish neighborhood, his little brother watched a robber escape from police. His mother told the child to keep his mouth shut.
“They have no other life. If they cooperate with the police, they have to go back to that neighborhood,” he says. If “you go to relocate people, it’s not just one person. It’s generations. The families are so entrenched in these neighborhoods, for them to cooperate — you know?”
Murders in Philadelphia are often tangled with ties of family, friends and neighborhood. When suspects elude capture, police say, they rarely leave the city. Being “on the run” from North Philly usually means crossing the Schuylkill River, and hanging low in West Philadelphia.
“When someone gets shot, you have a window to clear that job. Because once they realize they’re going to live,” they won’t talk, says a police detective.
The city dabbles in neighborhood transformation with programs like PhillyRising, which organizes residents to plant gardens and clean vacant lots. But without resources to enact more widespread change, the law-enforcement solution has been to lock up more young men for longer.
Now, for the first time, Philly prosecutors are putting those offenders into context. District Attorney Seth Williams reorganized his office into geographic bureaus in 2010 — previously, units focused on specific types of crime — and began focusing on bringing down the most dangerous offenders in the most dangerous neighborhoods.
Mike Barry, chief of the Central Bureau, which includes the 22nd District, says his team’s understanding of the communities they serve and their adoption of a data-driven approach has enabled them to chip away at North Philly’s hot spots. But, he admits, “there are areas within our hot spots, especially this summer, that have started to re-show activity. When you create a vacuum and get rid of a problem, sometimes other people will step up.”
Barry also cites the benefits of GunStat, a program the DA launched in 2012 to get police, detectives and prosecutors all collaborating to identify repeat offenders who might otherwise be able to slip through the cracks of the criminal-justice system — and demand higher bail and longer prison sentences. The program launched in the 22nd and has since expanded.
In promoting GunStat, prosecutors often roll out the profile of the program’s unwitting poster child, a man from North Philly named Shaheed Springs who, despite nine arrests and numerous charges of drug and illegal gun possession, robbery and shooting, had previously evaded conviction. Lentz says prosecutors “prioritized him for resources and attention.” The DA made sure the judge knew the full extent of Springs’ record this time, and brought in numerous police officers and community members to testify during sentencing. Ultimately, Springs was sentenced to 7½ to 17 years in prison for gun charges. Sentencing guidelines, according to the DA’s Office, call for nine to 16 months.
“We’re doing our job by getting to know the people we’re prosecuting on a much deeper level,” says Barry. As of midyear, homicides in the 22nd District were down from 22 in 2012 to seven. “It’s not much of a stretch to say that whatever we’re doing is working, and that it saved 15 lives.”
He cites another major change (one that has some civil-rights advocates concerned): the return of grand juries to the Philadelphia courts. “The vast majority of our most serious cases go [through grand juries] now.” A grand jury replaces a preliminary hearing at which a judge would decide whether the prosecution has enough evidence to go to trial; witness intimidation at such a hearing can kill a case. But because grand-jury testimony is not public, Barry says, “there’s a lot less recantations of testimony, a lot less failures to appear.” Of course, those witnesses still have to appear at trial. If they recant, he says, “we have the transcript. … If they [change their testimony] while your client’s in the room, it certainly raises some flags.”
Still, murder remains a problem that is simply too big for police to control. Last year, police made arrests in just 171 of the 331 murders committed. The number of convictions will be even smaller.
• A solution from the streets?
GunStat meetings take place around a massive shiny conference table in the District Attorney’s Office near City Hall. Terry Starks’ reality, on the streets of North Philadelphia, is about as far from that as you can get.
He remains skeptical that hot-spot policing will work.
“It’s like a project,” Starks says. “They study their opponent and, you know, they catch them at the damnedest times.”
He thinks he might be able to do better. Today, Starks works for Philadelphia CeaseFire, a program run out of Temple’s School of Medicine that formalizes, funds and professionalizes the longtime ghetto practice of squashing beefs, or creating gang truces. “Squashing is basically defusing — or conflict mediation is what they call it — but we call it squashing,” says Starks. “When you can squash a conflict, it’s supposed to be done with. … People still hold up malice in their heart but, like an old person told me, sometimes you gotta cut your losses in order to move forward.”
Starks, who in a previous life was a gun-toting drug dealer, is not a police officer’s idea of a crime fighter. But some experts believe his criminal past and current street credibility are precisely what endow him with the power to convince young men to stop shooting each other. He knows all about violence and retaliation — and what it takes to break the cycle. He was a victim of an attempted murder when his business partner robbed him and shot him four times in the chest with a .38 handgun.
“This’ll blow your mind,” Starks says. “I could’ve retaliated. But I see him every day. He took the money and bought a church. And he’s a pastor.”
But squashing beefs is often not simple. Eighth and Diamond, where Starks grew up, is home to just the sort of longstanding street-corner feud that’s at the root of many Philly murders. There has been “a rivalry for the last 24 years with our neighborhood and Seventh and Jefferson. So we trying to get in and get with the guys down there, the older guys. They try to come up with some sort of truce, but, you know, it’s like the younger guys don’t listen.”
Philadelphia’s slowness in embracing violence-prevention initiatives is a reflection of a national predilection to view murder as something that cannot be controlled. When Attorney General William French Smith announced a nationwide campaign against violent crime in 1981, experts said there was little the government could do. Even the FBI Uniform Crime Reports included a disclaimer in 1980 that prevention was basically impossible. So many killers knew their victims that murder was “largely a societal problem beyond the control of … law enforcement.”
CeaseFire, which was founded in Chicago, views urban gun violence as a public-health issue: Norms of retaliation, post-traumatic stress and gun-toting make for an endless cycle of shooting. The program has sent outreach workers into Philly neighborhoods for the past two years and hired its first Interrupters, who de-escalate potentially dangerous conflicts, this year. In Philly, the program is focused on the 22nd Police District, where many murders trace back to beefs, and on a crime hot spot in Swampoodle, just across Lehigh Avenue from the 22nd, in the 39th District.
“You can mediate 20, 30 or 40 conflicts in a month,” says Temple University professor Caterina Roman, who works with the CeaseFire program in Philly. “But the hard work is also — you really need the team approach. Maybe these guys who are carrying the guns and doing the shootings are thinking, ‘I want a way out.’ The outreach workers are doing intensive behavior change to help the person that’s on their caseload understand that, really, there is another way out.”
Quinzel Tomoney, who now runs CeaseFire’s 22nd District program, says most young men on the corner are too caught up in the streets-level arms race to see the big picture. He was one of them: Over the years, he carried illegal 9 mm handguns, .40-caliber guns and Glocks. “I carried it because I knew the game I was in, it bring police, stick-up boys. And that’s what it was: to defend myself,” says Tomoney.
He says sometimes the motive was a beef, sometimes not. “You have stick-up boys, and you have people that just want to murder you. People envy you that bad that all they want to do is to kill you. They won’t even rob you. They’ll just kill you and just leave you.”
Recently, he ran into an old acquaintance who recalled that his friends had wanted to kill him. “I’m glad we didn’t run across you, ’cause we probably woulda killed you, or you woulda killed one of us,” he told Tomoney. “Man, we were sick individuals, do something like that.”
• The big picture
Almost everyone on the North Philly streets says things might change if only there was something for kids to do: recreation centers, sports leagues, adequately resourced schools. Harold Haskins, recalling the youth participation in making The Jungle in the 1960s, says that, just from that project, many gained the self esteem and curiosity necessary to find jobs and leave the streets behind.
As it stands, no one is declaring victory in Philly’s war on murder.
In March, Sgt. Worede of the 22nd District looked forward to the warm weather with some anxiety. “It’s been quiet,” he said. “Usually that means it’ll be that much busier in the summer.” But as of Sept. 24, Philadelphia had witnessed 179 murders in 2013, a 41 percent decline from the same time last year. Violent crime overall has fallen 7 percent as of Sept. 15.
No one yet knows why violent crime is down so far this year or if the trend will hold. But, indisputably, its root causes remain. Philadelphia still has the highest poverty rate — 27 percent — of any of America’s largest cities. The institutions like public schools and welfare programs that sustain the poorest residents are in a state of deep, budget-cut-induced crisis. And tighter restrictions on guns, which many argue could combat violent crime, have proven a political impossibility.
For now, the odds are still stacked against Philadelphia teens like Jaymire Rustin: The leading cause of death for Philadelphians aged 15 to 24 is homicide (52.4 percent). For the rest of the state, it’s automobile accidents.
It’s possible that no particular law-enforcement or prosecution strategy could have stopped Jaymire’s death this January. And figuring out how to stop the next young Philadelphian from reaching for a gun remains an elusive goal.
Days after Jaymire Rustin’s New Year’s Day killing, an ominous sign of the retaliation that often follows murders, and that precipitates many others, soon appeared on Twitter. After one person tweeted that alleged killer Kamonne Jordan should be freed, another responded with a succinct threat. “Bitch you stupid for saying ‘Free’ the nigga that killed #Jaymire, he gne die tho!”
Jordan’s home, only two doors from where Rustin was killed, caught fire and burned early in the morning of Jan. 3. Fire officials say they do not know what caused the blaze.
This report was co-authored by Eric Schneider, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. Schneider can be reached at ude.nnepu.sas@dienhcse. Casey Thomas of Axis Philly also contributed to this report.
A photograph posted earlier today of a streetside memorial was incorrectly identified as being where Shaheed Jackson was killed on the 1300 block of North Dover Street. The memorial is on the 1200 block of North Dover Street.
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