Pennsylvania’s overall homicide rate of 6.1 per 100,000 is on par with most states. This fact makes the homicide rate in Philadelphia (18.3 per 100,000) all the more shocking as it continues to rise with no peak expected anytime soon.
In 2020, Philadelphia made headlines for a skyrocketing homicide rate, at one point ranking second to Chicago. While 2020 homicides can be partially attributed to a surge during the pandemic and following protests connected to George Floyd’s death, homicide rates have been rising for years.
In 2017, the number of criminal homicides reported in Philadelphia, including murder and manslaughter, was 327, an increase of about 16 percent compared to the year before. Since then, the number of homicides has increased to 512 in 2020, up nearly 37 percent compared to 2019. As of June 6, 228 people were killed in Philadelphia, up 33 percent from what it was the previous June.
Though the counties surrounding Philadelphia have seen sporadic increases and decreases in homicides over the last five years, the changes have not been significant. In 2020, Bucks and Montgomery Counties saw decreases in reported homicides while Chester and Delaware saw increases.
The homicides in Chester rose from 3 in 2019 to 9 in 2020, which is a decrease compared to the 14 reported in 2017. However, Michelle Bjork, spokeswoman for the Chester County District Attorney’s Office, disputed those numbers saying, “The data in the Uniform Crime Rate database is inaccurate because of how various police departments classify cases. We actually had only 2 homicides in Chester County in 2020 versus 3 in 2019.”
Delaware County, meanwhile, saw a 127 percent increase in 2020 to 66 reported compared to 29 in the previously year, an increase from the 46 reported in 2017. However, a majority of crime occurring in Delaware County can be attributed to Chester City, which is in very close proximity to Philadelphia.
Surprisingly, Buck County saw large increases in homicides reported in 2017 and 2018 followed by steep declines in 2019 and 2020. Matthew D. Weintraub, the district attorney in Bucks County, does not know what caused the drop. He speculates intensified focus on getting people impacted by drugs and addiction immediate treatment could have contributed to the decline.
“People know that if you commit a crime in Bucks County, A: you’re going to get caught and B: you’re going to get prosecuted with a crime of violence or murder,” Weintraub said. “And the other thing is that by and large, people in Bucks County are law abiding. And when this is combined with what we saw with COVID, there was less transient traffic coming from either Trenton, New Jersey or Philadelphia, or any of the places that are suffering these higher murder rates.”
As for after the pandemic Weintraub stated, “I am anxious because I watch the Philadelphia murder rate every day. I can’t build a wall between Bucks County and Philadelphia and say you can’t pass, but we certainly want people to feel safe here. They are safe here. And we want people to know that if they come from Philadelphia or other places where violence is more apparent, they will face consequences. If they commit the same types of acts in Bucks County, they will get caught and they will be prosecuted.”
The rise in Philadelphia homicides is a little easier explained, according to Thomas Hogan. He served as a local prosecutor, federal prosecutor, and criminal defense lawyer and was the district attorney of Chester County until 2020. He is currently researching the impact of prosecutorial policies on violent crime rates. The problem in Philadelphia isn’t a lack of resources, Hogan said, but leadership bent toward de-prosecution; he specifically cited current District Attorney Larry Krasner and former District Attorney Seth Williams.
In 2013 and 2014, homicide rates were fairly low in Philadelphia. However, an uptick started around 2015, according to Hogan, “when Seth Williams started de-prosecuting because he was in political hot water and was fighting for his political life. He moderately started to de-prosecute. And then when Krasner came into office in 2018 there was a huge jump; a huge decrease in the number of prosecutions and a huge increase in the number of homicides.”
The impact of Philadelphia’s homicide rate on surrounding counties will be positive in the short term, says Hogan, as individuals know they will face much harsher prosecution in a surrounding county compared to Philadelphia. Surrounding counties do not apply the same approach to progressive prosecution that occurs in the city.
“You’re seeing the same thing happening in St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco . . . There are about 18 cities that went heavily progressive on prosecution and instead of locking people up in any way, they are going to let them walk. In a place like San Francisco, you can actually do that without affecting the homicide rate because there are no poor sections of the city. But in a place like Philadelphia, if you do that, what you’re going to do is you’re going to increase violence until it gets out of control,”
The de-prosecution rate in Philadelphia is high.
“They have cut the number of new cases that the DA’s office approves for prosecution by 40 percent in the last 10 years. They have cut sentencing, just over the last five years, by 70 percent. And that includes drug dealing, convicting people of drug dealing and convicting people of firearms offenses,” he said.
Hogan is not the only one to point out a problem with Philadelphia leadership. “(Krasner) likes to use the excuse of the pandemic to explain the skyrocketing crime rates, the skyrocketing shooting rates, and the homicide rates and the serious violent crime rates. And that’s nothing but a cop out and an excuse because all of those statistics were moving in the wrong direction as soon as Mr. Krasner took over,” former U.S. Attorney William McSwain told the Delaware Valley Journal. “And he was essentially broadcasting to the entire city that he wasn’t going to enforce the law. And people hear that. People aren’t stupid. They’re going to get away with whatever they think they can get away with. And he was essentially inviting people to commit crimes because he wasn’t going to do anything about it. And the results of that sort of rhetoric and that sort of philosophy are entirely predictable.”
Detroit is a good example of Philadelphia’s future, Hogan said. “It used to be the fifth-largest city. And now it is the 24th largest city in the United States.” The three things that drive significant population decreases in a city are violent crimes, heavy taxation, and loss of an employment base. All three of which are occurring or have occurred in Philadelphia. “They are going to “Detroit” Philadelphia. It is going to end up a hollowed-out shell,” he said.