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Someone once suggested an accurate title for the history of the Wild West could be “Teenagers With Guns.”
The same is true in Philadelphia, where we have neighborhoods that are the modern equivalent of Dodge City: lawless enclaves where young men rule the streets with lethal ruthlessness. In 19th century Dodge City, the weapon of choice was a Colt 45 revolver. In 21st century Philadelphia, it is a sleek 9 mm handgun. Guns, then and now, were cheap and readily available.
When you have teenagers with guns, the bodies do pile up.
As our latest interactive map shows, in the 10 years between 2003 and 2012, there were 3,442 murders and 15,277 shootings in Philadelphia, staggering numbers that far outpace the cow towns of the 1880’s.
As the chart above shows, the vast majority of these incidents involve black men, both as victims and as perpetrators.
Of the 15,200 shootings, for example, 12,000 of the victims were black males.
This is not surprising. Though the map reveals the details and extent of the carnage, its long been known that this problem predominates among black males.
What is surprising is how young so many of the victims were. Thirty-three percent are between the ages of 15 and 20. There were even several hundred 14 year olds on the list. The median age of the victims was 26.3.
The data shows the who and the where of shootings and murders, but not the why. Police know they often involve trivial disputes – a fight over a girlfriend, a real or imagined slight, a turf war involving drug dealers, all wrapped into a macho culture that emphasizes toughness. “Young men awash with testosterone,” is the way one researcher put it.
In the culture of the streets, violence quickly begets violence. The adage “an eye for an eye” comes to mind, though it can quickly morph into “an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye….”
As Daniel Denvir reveals in his recent pieces in the City Paper, much of the violence in Strawberry Mansion can be traced back to a single shooting of a 17-year-old in 2003. The killing of Calvin Alexander set off a cycle of shootings that has reverberated through the neighborhood for years.
The police, seen as outsiders and interlopers, are rarely asked to arrest and prosecute the perps. In these neighborhoods, justice is strictly DIY.
The fact that the perps often know the victims partly accounts for the geographic concentration of shootings and killings. There were 59 along just a two-mile stretch of Kensington Ave. during the 10 years covered in the analysis – clearly an offshoot of the vigorous drug dealing done there.
There were 60 shootings or killings along a 15-block stretch of 60th Street in West Philadelphia during the same period, which could be a manifestation of turf war among rival gangs in the neighborhood.
Retaliation is the name of the game.
Jerry Ratcliffe, the Temple crime expert who analyzes data on crime and also advises the Philadelphia police, did a study of shootings in Philadelphia during the period from 2001 through 2005. He and his researchers found that if there was a shooting on one corner, it elevated the likelihood of a shooting happening close by within the next two weeks by 30 percent. “Sustained problems of near-repeat shooting,” was the way Ratcliffe’s study described it. An eye-for-an eye in action is another way to put it.
“The data would very much suggest that there is an element of retaliation going on, a not insignificant amount,” Ratcliffe said, adding there is a high incidence of people being shot within a two block radius of their home.
The clusters are also evidence of the prevalence of gangs in Philadelphia.
Ratcliffe and others say they are not like gangs of the past, which typically were well organized, had a large number of members and controlled big swaths of turf. There are no gangs like the Crips and Bloods in Philadelphia. Many ‘gangs’ literally control just one corner. They often wear tattoos that announce their membership – a ‘6’ and ‘0’ on their arm for a member of the 60th Street gang is one example.
What we have in Philadelphia are what reporter Frank Rubino called “New Wave” gangs. As Rubino wrote: “While they tend to be smaller and less regimented that their forbearers, they are greedier, better armed and nearly as prolific.”
The proliferation of gangs and the persistence of retaliatory shootings are what drive these homicide and shooting numbers to a large degree.
Police say the homicide rate has gone down recently because they are quick to move into areas where someone was shot to tamp down the chances of retaliation. In the same way, the controversial stop-and-frisk policy employed by police is designed to keep guns out of the hands of would-be perps.
Police say these measures are having an effect. Obviously, there is a long way to go.
If crossing the street onto the wrong block can get you killed, if being the brother of someone who shot a rival gang member makes you a target for retaliation, if standing near a basketball court where a shoot out can send a stray bullet your way, clearly the situation is not under control.
One gang member, explaining how things work to a researcher, put it this way:
“It’s all about if you hurt somebody that I love, then I’m going to hurt somebody you love. If you make my mama cry then I’m going to make your mama cry.”
In this city, this way of life has produced a vast river of tears.
— Tom Ferrick