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Philly’s Gang Violence Strategy Doesn’t Work. Here’s Why.

Philadelphia implemented the “focused deterrence” model of gang policing, which includes the promise of critical social services. The reality is much different.

Spencer Platt / Getty

In the spring of 2013, Philadelphia joined a growing cohort of cities in implementing a gang suppression strategy known as “Focused Deterrence,” in which cities offer social services to alleged gang members in tandem with civil and criminal sanctions. Following any South Philadelphia shooting, the DA’s office offered social services to — and implemented sanctions against — the suspects and other gang members.

Focused Deterrence has been hailed as success by city officials in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where it was implemented, which has long been besieged with gun violence. A Temple University evaluation found that shootings in the neighborhood dropped 35% in the program’s first two years. “It’s a commitment to not only stopping shootings, but also having individuals who are likely to perpetuate them get help,” says Caroline McGlynn, head of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Gun Violence Task Force, which oversees the program.

Focused Deterrence works like this: law enforcement compiles a list of alleged gang members, which changes frequently; McGlynn describes the list as a “moving piece of intelligence.” Individuals on the list are summoned to a “call-in” where district attorneys and police officers inform them that if they or any of their fellow gang members engage in a shooting, for 30 days they will hit them with an array of punitive measures such as increasing bail, boosting their families’ names to the top of the list to have their utilities shut off if they are in arrears, prosecuting any outstanding warrants, and requiring more frequent parole or probation check-ins if they are under supervision. Alternatively, a social worker offers an “out” via education and employment if the young men agree to disassociate from the violence.

Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence operates on a shoestring annual budget of $130,000 — a small percentage of the annual $60 million the city spends on anti-violence programs. Cities like New York CityOakland, and New Orleanshave launched similar programs in recent years involving complex multi-agency relationships.

“Yes, we can say shootings went down,” said Caterina Roman, the Temple criminal justice professor who led the recent evaluation. “But I’m not going to stand up there and say this is the greatest model.”

Partly because crime statistics in the short time frame captured by the Temple study are statistically noisy, it’s difficult to determine a cause of South Philadelphia’s decline. Indeed, in the period after the data used for Roman’s study, shootings have fluctuated in South Philadelphia, according to information provided to In Justice Today by the Philadelphia Police Department. The number of shootings jumped to 96 last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013, the first year of Focused Deterrence. This year shootings dropped 21 percent versus this time last year.

Former Philadelphia Police Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who was heavily involved with the Focused Deterrence rollout in 2013, questions the marriage of increased law enforcement pressure and social services. Speaking about the strategy generally, not the current program in Philadelphia, he says: “When that young person says to social services, ‘I want out,’ do you really have the resources to help that person? If you don’t, you’re minimizing the trust you have with the community.”

Reuben Jones, the former director of social services of Focused Deterrence, recently declined to reapply for the position because of his concerns that the city did not deliver the employment and education assistance it promised. Jones led social services from 2013 to earlier this year, serving as its sole fulltime caseworker. Since his departure on September 29, the position moved to the city’s new Office of Violence Prevention; there are now two caseworkers.

Managing social services for potentially hundreds of young people is an enormous task for just a pair of employees to handle. During a July 2016 court hearing a member of Philadelphia Police Department’s gang taskforce, Officer Matthew York, testified that there were upwards of 1,500 individuals on the list.

The job “compromised” his principles, Jones told me. “My role was to connect the guys to the resources that were available,” he explains, “Unfortunately, though on paper it sounds great — the city has all these resources — for all practical purposes they weren’t there.”

Jones, who himself is previously incarcerated, says that despite his limited resources he made significant headway with his clients. Corroborating this, mentee Lamere Nathaniel says that he knows at least 30 people who Jones helped get a job. “Sometimes he would use his own car and waste his own gas to bring where we needed to go,” he says. Another mentee, Keith Davis, also praised Jones: “He’s is a convicted felon himself so he came from the same life that I came from. And he is where I’m trying to go. Any time that my head is out of it I can call him to get back on track.”

But the only formal employment pipeline Jones had to offer his clients was a city-funded 90-day gig at Goodwill. “The goal was that there was supposed to be something sustainable after that, but there never was,” Jones says. He hustled to find businesses who would employ his clients and he asked the mayor’s office to use its clout and resources to encourage such hiring. “My constant battle was, ‘Hey, let’s get the unions involved,’” he says, “or, ‘Can we get the business community involved?’ That fell on deaf ears.”

Julie Wertheimer, the city’s chief of staff for criminal justice, responds that she recognizes the need to increase social service and employment opportunities, and that there are citywide workforce development initiatives in the works, some tailored to people with criminal records, to be unveiled soon. She also notes that she doesn’t think this strategy will work in every neighborhood.

Jones’s critiques are echoed by others around the country. The head of social services for the Baltimore’s Focused Deterrence program similarly left in protest in 2015. David Kennedy, criminologist and architect of the strategy Focused Deterrence is based on, Operation Ceasefire, acknowledged in phone interview with me that by and large “the social services element had been a miserable failure.”

And the type of gang database used by Philadelphia in its Focused Deterrence program is increasingly coming under fire in cities across the country, such as Chicago, for being both racist and inaccurate. Advocates say that these databases label people gang members just because they committed crimes in areas labeled “gang territory.”

Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, calls the promise of services “window dressing” to sell a strategy of Focused Deterrence to the community that ultimately isn’t sustainable. “Yes, if we do an intensive intervention we can disrupt things and will get some drop off in shootings,” he says. “But the time horizon tends to be fairly short.” According to Vitale, Programs such as Cure Violence — where former gang members are tasked with mediating disputes, without law enforcement — is a better model to follow. (A version, called CeaseFire, operates in a few neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.) “I agree the violence is concentrated,” he says. “The universe of people who are engaged in the violence is not huge, it’s somewhat identifiable. [But] targeting them is not being precise. It’s basically throwing a net over all young people of color, and that just seems like a recipe for more mass incarceration.”