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Philadelphia Police Make Hundreds of Looting Arrests, Leave Many More Violent Crime Cases Unsolved

The city’s clearance rate for murder, whose victims are disproportionately Black, has hovered around 40 percent for the last several years.

A man confronts police during a protest of the death of George Floyd on May 31 in Philadelphia.Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

In early June, amid protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, police in Philadelphia quickly mobilized to make mass arrests for property crimes. More than 420 people—80 percent of whom were Black—were arrested and charged with commercial burglary, or looting, in the city during the first five days of June, according to a review conducted by The Appeal of charging dockets filed in the city’s municipal court system.

But the city’s law enforcement has historically been less successful in making arrests in or solving crimes of violence like murder and shootings, which disproportionately affect Black people in the city and nationally.

Since 2014, Philadelphia police have failed to make an arrest in more than 800 homicides, 5,100 rapes, 26,500 robberies, and 158,000 assaults, according to data published by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

Daniel Nagin, professor of public policy and statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, said that over-policing, coupled with a sense of being under-protected by police, can erode trust between authorities and the community.

“If you’re living in a community in which there’s overall trust in the police—they’re not viewed as an occupying force but overall being there to protect you and your property, and you’re not fearful of interactions with police—you’re more willing to cooperate with them,” he told The Appeal.

Since the mid-1980s, the clearance rate for murder in Philadelphia has largely declined. Between 2013 and 2016, it fell from roughly 70 percent to about 45 percent and has remained around 45 percent for the last several years.

At the same time, the budget for the city’s police department has risen more than 33 percent, adding nearly $190 million to hire, train, compensate, and outfit officers.

Despite only accounting for 44 percent of the city’s population, Black people accounted for nearly 80 percent of murder victims in 2016—the latest year for which data is available—and 82 percent of shooting victims.

Philadelphia does not publish data on the clearance rate of murders or violent crimes by the race of the victim, but other cities have found arrests are less likely when the victim is Black. Between Jan. 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019, Chicago police made an arrest in nearly half of all murders where the victim was white, but less than 25 percent when the victim was Black.

“When little more than, say, four out of 10 murders leads to an arrest or conviction, it truly fractures relationships and trust,” Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym said during a June 10 council meeting. “And that is truly a threat to public safety.”

Nagin also noted that police rely on community members to provide information to help solve serious crimes like murders, but when the trust breaks down between police and the community, witnesses can become less willing to come forward, resulting in fewer arrests, he said.

And tactics like broken-windows policing, which relies on large numbers of arrests for minor offenses, may erode trust in police within the community. Nagin said evidence of whether broken-windows policing actually helps to reduce violence is mixed. But “It’s not a question mark that the tactic has very untoward and undesirable impacts,” Nagin said.

A survey of Philadelphia teens in high-crime neighborhoods found more than 60 percent of respondents had a negative view of police, with nearly 20 percent saying they had a negative interaction with police and 16 percent feeling police were ineffective.

“We need fundamental reform of policing in the United States,” Nagin said. “It’s deeply corroded at its foundations, and that fundamental reform is necessary.”

Nagin has advocated reforming policing by creating more transparent oversight systems for police misconduct, reducing overall arrests, and prioritizing environmental changes like increased street lighting and blight remediation.

Advocates in Philadelphia, however, are calling for more transformative measures. “Abolishing the police completely is the most fundamental long-term goal,” Megan Malachi, an organizer and educator for Philly REAL Justice, told The Appeal.

“We have so many problems with gun violence in Philadelphia and so much of it is linked to poverty, linked to healthcare,” Malachi said. “Part of the abolitionist ideal is that we will be addressing the issues of why people have guns by addressing the underlying issues of poverty and economic justice.”

In instances of active violence, Malachi said individuals trained in violence de-escalation would be sent to respond rather than the “military-armed police.”

Malachi’s organization was one of seven groups, including Black Lives Matter Philly, to join the Black Philly Radical Collective, which issued a list of demands that include abolishing bail and police unions, and rejecting a budget increase for the Philadelphia Police Department. 

Malachi said abolishing the police department in Philadelphia would involve incrementally removing funds from the police’s budget and reinvesting in services that would benefit the broader community like schools and asbestos mitigation.

The goal, she said, is to shrink the footprint of policing in the community over time so that one day the department could be completely eliminated and replaced by new response mechanisms to deal with issues traditionally handled by police. This would include having people trained in de-escalation respond to issues like domestic violence and having social workers and mental health workers available to respond to homelessness, substance use, and mental health crises.

“When you’re calling the police because your family member is having a mental health crisis, it shouldn’t be someone with a gun who comes out,” Malachi said. “It should be someone who is prepared to handle your family member’s mental health crisis in a professional manner.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney had previously pushed for a $19 million increase to the police’s general fund. After the weeks of unrest, Kenney backtracked on that plan when he announced his proposal to reform the police department. 

“This has been a humbling experience for me and members of my administration. Many of us have realized that, as progressive and inclusive as we think we are, we still have a lot to learn,” he said during a June 9 city council meeting.

On June 17, the city council announced it would reduce the proposed budget of the police department by $33 million. Some of that money is earmarked for reinvestment in housing, adult education, and the city’s African American Museum. But the budget moves $14 million of the total amount to the office of the city’s managing director; more than $12 million is slated for crossing guards and nearly $2 million is slated to hire new public safety officers.

“We are in this fight for a long time,” Malachi said. “These demands are something that we really want to see happen in our city and all over the country.”