The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Addressing gun violence means considering solutions other than policing

How Philadelphia addressed violence before embracing tough-on-crime policing

Police stand near a vandalized statue in May 2020 of former Philadelphia mayor and police commissioner Frank L. Rizzo. (Matt Rourke/AP)

In response to the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Philadelphia City Council announced that it was reducing the police department’s 2021 budget by $33 million to finance a police oversight commission, body cameras and implicit-bias training for police, and to install therapists to assist police in mental health crisis emergency calls. The budget also appropriated approximately $26.35 million toward health care, affordable housing, anti-poverty initiatives, job training and the arts.

Expanding these social services is essential to solving the problem of racial violence in policing and addressing the wave of gun violence rocking Philadelphia and so many other cities. In fact, in Philadelphia, government officials have long overfunded police and underfunded social welfare programs, resulting in high rates of poverty-induced crime and incarceration, while delivering neither safety nor opportunities for low-income, Black and Latino Philadelphians.

Over the past 50 years, “juvenile delinquency” and gun violence have been persistent issues in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. A half-century ago in North and West Philadelphia, blighted neighborhoods were in free fall as poverty, inequality and gang violence exacerbated the stresses of urban life. Like other cities, Philadelphia was hit hard by post-1960s deindustrialization, depopulation and a dwindling tax base. In 1969, the city was named the “gang capital” of America, while also being among the largest cities in the country with a poverty rate above the nation’s average of 12.2 percent.

As inequality, blight and violence destroyed the lives of Black and Latino families, Philadelphians debated what kinds of solutions would actually address the root causes of the problems. In the 1970s, community activists argued that they needed investment in education, recreation, job training and access to mental health care for troubled youths. Sociologists like Lewis Yablonsky agreed that these kinds of programs would best help end poverty and curtail gun violence.

The city experimented with this approach. Safe Streets, for example, was a bipartisan, community organization created in 1969 by Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter (R) to rehabilitate young people from gangs such as Zulu Nation and the 8th and Diamond Streeters, instead of incarcerating them.

From 1969 to 1976, the mission of Safe Streets was to be a “one-stop juvenile center” where police officers, former gang members and community activists worked together to teach teenagers “responsibility and concern for themselves and society.” The organization chose North and West Philadelphia as locations for its centers because gang activity was most entrenched in those poor and working-class neighborhoods of color.

In its early stages, Safe Streets saw 35 to 50 young people come daily to each center, where they met with youth workers and developed one-on-one relationships. They also gained access to resources like academic tutoring, job training, neighborhood cleanup projects, sports and training in newspaper writing and publishing. Willard Scott, a Black businessman who volunteered to teach gang members how to be mechanics at his West Philadelphia garage, immediately saw how his mentorship shaped the boys’ behavior and work ethic: “I couldn’t believe how nice they were, how hard they’d work.”

Since many of the youths who were “directed” to the centers were considered “troubled,” Safe Streets provided group therapy sessions and annual trips to the theater and to the Pocono Mountains to rehabilitate and provide positive recreation for attendees. The organization viewed these activities as opportunities to reduce gang violence and end turf wars between rival gangs. By 1975, up to 400 young people were attending the centers and gang-related homicides in Philadelphia had declined by over 50 percent since the program launched.

For seven years, Philadelphia invested over $160,000 annually in Safe Streets. But although the city’s leadership recognized that poverty and a lack of support systems often induced crime, it chose to more heavily finance “tough-on-crime policing” and juvenile incarceration. In 1970, the city budgeted $104.1 million for the police department, prisons and the courts.

Yet, it was not clear that more resources for police actually prevented crime and violence. One critic of the strategy was police officer Heywood Matthews, who told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1971: “The city just isn’t doing its job. So long as we have slums and no recreation, we’ll have gangs. These kids want … a decent education, a decent home, a steady job … but they’ll never get it so long as the power structure remains apathetic.” Matthews volunteered with the Safe Streets program.

But instead of listening, the city opted to follow the lead of federal policymakers, seeing police, prisons and courts as the solution to problems with guns and gangs. Philadelphia was one of many cities to receive grants from the federal government’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) that gave $215 million to state and local governments for policing.

Under the leadership of Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo, the police department petitioned city officials to increase spending on tough-on-crime initiatives, including the purchase of a military-style, armored tank. The city council ultimately awarded the police department an LEAA grant of $19,733 to increase surveillance in the city’s neighborhoods through a closed-circuit television system linking the city’s police districts.

New police policies of stop-and-frisk, illegal house raids and even public strip searches became the norm. Community members reported rampant false accusations and arrests, verbal and physical assaults and the targeting of people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, political activists and protesters at peaceful demonstrations.

When Rizzo became mayor in 1972, he continued the tough-on-crime approach. For example, he imposed a two-week moratorium on prosecution for the possession of illegal firearms, to be followed by mass arrests. Although the city recovered 58 rifles and revolvers during the moratorium, some gang members refused to disarm. Ultimately, anti-gang activists Falaka and David Fattah of the West Philadelphia organization Umoja arranged peace talks with about 500 gang members to prevent future gun violence between rival gangs.

Although tough policing appeared alongside immediate reductions in crime, it actually increased police abuses against everyday citizens. Between 1970 and 1978, there were 469 “police-involved shootings” in which 60 of those shot were juveniles, 162 individuals died and 297 people were wounded. Many residents argued in town halls and courtrooms that the police had too much power, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) to investigate patrol officers and detectives who were accused of street harassment, excessive force during traffic stops and beatings during interrogations.

Pouring money into policing deprived organizations like Safe Streets of funding. When the organization closed in 1976 due to a shortage of government money, approximately 89 percent of Philadelphia’s $236 million budget for fighting crime went to the police department, prisons and the courts. Programs committed to rehabilitating “juvenile delinquents” received only 3.7 percent of budgetary spending.

But as more data became available, it became clear that more police funding didn’t result in less crime. Disinvestment, deindustrialization and depopulation made crime more concentrated in the city. By the summer of 1977, more than 11,900 jobs in construction, factories, services and government had disappeared, the unemployment rate teetered between 7.1 and 8.8 percent, and nearly 250,000 people moved out of the city. With Philadelphia losing business, property and sales taxes from job flight and White flight, the city’s tax base struggled to finance public services, police and the fire department.

By the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down” economics policies of lowering taxes and cutting government services for lower- and middle-class people exacerbated these patterns. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” helped deepen racial inequality by targeting low-income people of color for drug-related crimes, rather than White suburbanites, resulting in the racially concentrated mass incarceration that exists today.

Philadelphia spends a smaller percentage of its budget on police today than it did in 1976, when police funding accounted for 19 percent of the city’s budget. However, like New York and Chicago, Philadelphia’s budget still allocates tremendous amounts of money to the police. For fiscal year 2022, the city’s budget was approximately $5.27 billion, with $727 million going to the general police budget, plus an additional $14 million to equip all officers with Tasers over the next five years.

In this moment, like in the 1970s, cities like Philadelphia face a choice: see gun violence as something that can be addressed by a tough-on-crime approach, or adequately invest in communities to eliminate the social inequality that produces poverty-induced violence. The lesson of the 1970s and the success of Safe Streets, combined with the failures of tough-on-crime policing, offer a clear answer.