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Under the Gun in Philly

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eye on the news

Under the Gun in Philly

As murders mount and public pressure grows, city officials continue to look for answers in the wrong places. February 5, 2021
Public safety

In Philadelphia, a 25-year-old Temple University grad was shot and killed last month while walking his dog in the evening. The next day, police apprehended his assailant during an attempted carjacking in another part of the city.

The victim, Milan Loncar, was a resident of Brewerytown, a formerly drug- and crime-ridden neighborhood transformed into another “go-to” spot by real estate investors over the last two decades. Loncar’s assailant, Josephus Davis, 20, also a Brewerytown resident, had a long criminal record and had gotten out of jail two weeks prior on reduced bail.

Brewerytown was not always marked by crime and blight. Located on the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River, it was settled by German immigrants in the mid- to late nineteenth century, when it earned the title of “beer capital of America.” The area was also rich in factories and industry until the mid-twentieth century, after which a once- booming working-class neighborhood eventually slipped into a depressed area ravaged by crime, drugs, and unemployment.

City developers working to revitalize Brewerytown have followed a template established in the 1980s, when factories and warehouses in the city’s Northern Liberties neighborhood, once considered too dangerous to walk or drive through, were converted into concert venues and restaurants. Like Brewerytown, Northern Liberties had many relapses into violent crime during its long makeover. Like Northern Liberties, Brewerytown’s resurgence was celebrated with the “ironic” renaming of bars that seem to capitalize on its past.

The name of one such establishment—the Crime and Punishment Brewing Co.—has acquired ominous undertones since Loncar’s murder. The killing sent shockwaves through a city already on high alert. The city controller’s interactive map shows more than 141 nonfatal and 33 fatal shootings in the city as of January 27, 2021, a 31 percent increase over 2020. These numbers include another murder occurring near Brewerytown at 2100 Jefferson Street on January 19 that left two people dead after 16 shots were fired from two semiautomatic handguns, according to Philadelphia chief inspector Scott Small. On January 20, a nine-year-old girl died after she was shot in the head on North Bouvier Street. And 2020’s last homicide occurred on December 24, with the death by shooting of a 20-year-old man, Dyewow Nyshawn Scruggs, in the city’s Overbrook section.

After the deaths of Scruggs and Loncar, Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney Larry Krasner, a harsh critic of law enforcement, who claimed in a 2017 campaign ad that “policy and prosecution are both systematically racist,” came under criticism again for the surge in homicides. This time, the questions revolved around Davis’s criminal record, his follow-up bail reduction, and his eventual release. For years, Krasner has been diverting gun cases to Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, a court diversionary program.

The public outcry after Loncar’s murder followed a familiar pattern: intense but brief, mostly confined to social media, and quickly forgotten. Meantime, the problem of gun violence in Philly has grown so bad that even in tony, “super-safe” neighborhoods like Chestnut Hill, residents are having second thoughts about walking at night.

Looking at the city’s official communications, one might think that Philadelphia is doing everything it can. Phila.gov prominently displays “10 Things the City is Doing Right Now to Combat Gun Violence.” Included in the list are a crime-prevention and reduction plan; a program devoted to Group Violence Intervention; and a Community Crisis Intervention Program that helps city officials connect “at risk” violent offenders with appropriate services.

Shortly after the Loncar killing, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office announced that its Crisis Assistance, Response, and Engagement for Survivors Program had received a $1.2 million grant for the next two years to provide care and support for co-victims (surviving family members or spouses) of homicide. Yet the question remains: how will the city stem the gun violence that makes such grants necessary? The city’s ten-point plan for reducing gun violence has been in force since June 2016 and doesn’t seem to have had a significant effect on the numbers of shootings and homicides.

Perhaps the city is looking at the wrong causes. In an interview on Philadelphia’s NBC10, British criminologist Jerry Ratcliffe suggested causes for the homicide surge like fewer police officers on the street because of Covid-19, a shift away from community policing, and less proactive policing. Heritage Foundation research has connected gun violence with family-related factors like absent fathers. The Philadelphia city government’s official statements, however, tend to avoid such sensitive lines of inquiry.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

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