On November 26, the day after Thanksgiving, a young man was shot and killed in Philadelphia. The murder was typical: five shots, no witnesses, no arrest, no suspects. But for Philly, this was an especially significant homicide—the city’s 501st murder for the year, its most ever.
No demographic, social, or economic shift caused this spike in violence. In 2014, Philadelphia recorded only 248 homicides. Since then, the city’s population has remained stable. Its median household income increased slightly. The Democratic Party continues to control all the levers of government. The city remains composed of economically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. “Root cause” problems such as poverty or racism couldn’t have caused this massive increase in homicides, because whatever root causes exist have been around for a long while.
The political leadership of Philadelphia is responsible for these deaths. In 2015, Philadelphia elected progressive mayor Jim Kenney. In 2017, the city elected radical district attorney Larry Krasner. Kenney has presided over a revolving door at police headquarters, with four different chiefs or acting chiefs serving since his election. The number of homicides has risen every year since 2015.
The first bad move was de-carceration. Kenney and Krasner promised to empty the jails, and they delivered on their promise. The jail population in Philadelphia dropped by more than 40 percent in the last five years. In the midst of freeing low-level, nonviolent offenders, Philadelphia also managed to set free a cohort of drug-dealing, gun-toting felons. The ensuing violence was predictable.
Next, Kenney and Krasner undertook large-scale de-prosecution. They declared that certain crimes, such as prostitution and retail theft, would not be prosecuted, and they approved fewer charges for such serious crimes as drug trafficking. They convicted fewer defendants across the board. Even when they convicted defendants of serious crimes, they agreed to sentences that victims and other prosecutors questioned.
For their next act, Kenney and Krasner succeeded in demoralizing the police. If cops took a tough stand, whether it was against people trespassing in a Starbucks or protesters blocking highways, Kenney and Krasner didn’t back them up. One could be forgiven for supposing that Krasner spends more time and energy thinking about ways to criticize members of the Philadelphia Police Department than he does trying to stop violent criminals from killing civilians. Kenney and Krasner figured out that it was easier to sideline the police psychologically than to defund the police department, which might have political consequences. With the police hobbled, shootings soared, and solving the killings became harder.
Kenney and Krasner also managed to co-opt the means of communication. You would think that in amid this massive surge in violence, the Philadelphia Inquirer would be running blaring headlines blaming the mayor and district attorney for losing control of the city. The Inquirer never flinched from criticizing prior mayors and district attorneys for comparatively minor issues. But the paper has generally held its tongue. As the city approached its homicide record, the Inquirer ran a long story in which Krasner blamed the police. Kenney then called a press conference where he blamed the rest of the state for Philadelphia’s homicides. The Inquirer has hardly treated the new homicide record as the blockbuster it is. Meantime, the national press can’t get enough of Krasner, touting him as the future of prosecution, even giving him a fawning multipart special on PBS in the middle of an election season.
Kenney and Krasner have sent a message to the streets that the criminal justice system in Philadelphia is closed for business. Criminals are not tone-deaf—they listen to what Kenney and Krasner say. When that message hits the streets, shootings and homicides are an inevitable result—victimizing all Philadelphians, especially blacks, and rendering the city’s poorest neighborhoods even more dangerous.
Philadelphia can serve as a cautionary tale for other cities. Follow its recipe and your city, too, can achieve an historic number of homicides. Kenney and Krasner are now the deadliest mayor and district attorney in the history of Philadelphia. That is their legacy to the City of Brotherly Love.
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