When it comes to crime, how close is too close to Philly?

There is no border wall separating the city of Philadelphia from the greater Delaware Valley. The closest thing may be the curve of the Delaware River to the south, City Avenue in the northwest, or Cheltenham Avenue in the northeastern part of the city. So for someone to maintain that when it comes to violent crime, what happens in the city stays in the city would be misguided and foolish. 

In plumber terminology, it’s not a question of leakage, but how much.  

Most people agree Philadelphia is suffering from a homicide pandemic. Last year, it saw 449 homicides, up 40 percent from 1990, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. The violence has impacted all members of society. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that in 2020 children accounted for 195 of shooting victims, while women accounted for 229.

Philadelphia’s crime rate, which has been steadily growing since the 2010s, has only been worsened by COVID-19. The virus closed schools, ended sporting events, and shuttered countless small businesses — causing unemployment to surge across the metropolitan area. The outbreak’s biggest impact, however, has been on the justice system.

As the virus began spreading last year, Philadelphia leaders shifted already depleted resources from fighting crime to bolstering public health. Mayor Jim Kenney froze city programs aimed at thwarting gun violence at the height of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the police department scuttled its long-running Focused Deterrence Program, which concentrated on reducing recidivism among newly-released violent offenders.

Those actions only led to an escalation in crime. Kenney admitted as much recently, saying the increase would force the city to streamline its “antiviolence efforts and programs” in 2021. He argued city offices would have to “partner with community members” to resurrect the outreach services rendered untenable by COVID-19.

Philadelphia is not alone in this predicament. Chicago’s mayor recently stated that her city’s increasing gun violence was a “perfect storm created by coronavirus.” New York City’s mayor followed suit, claiming the spike in violence there is being fueled by dislocation caused by the pandemic.

Philadelphia’s crime spike, however, is worrying some suburban residents. For years, a sense of humor has pervaded communities like Narberth in Montgomery County. The borough, a liberal enclave, has long described itself as being “close to Philadelphia, but not too close.”

Now, many residents fear their proximity will result in a “spillover” effect with crime from the city spreading to neighboring communities.

Fred Harran, the director of public safety of Bucks County’s Bensalem Township, voiced the concern of many residents when he admitted last November that police were concerned unrest in Philadelphia arising from the presidential election would permeate into his jurisdiction.

“Philadelphia is our Achilles’ heel,” Harran said at the time. “We won’t let the shenanigans of Philadelphia impact the safety of our residents.”

Such fears are compounded by the limited availability of new crime data. In many cases, crime figures do little to reassure residents.

Upper Darby Township in Delaware County, a short ride on public transit from Philadelphia’s Center City, has witnessed its crime rate increase significantly in recent years. According to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Upper Darby, with a population of 82,950, had 386 violent crimes and six murders in 2016. That represented nearly a 10 percent increase from 2015, according to MacroTrends.

Similar data indicate the crime rate has grown since then. Between 2016 and 2017, Upper Darby’s violent crime rate increased by nearly one percentage point. The following year, the crime rate jumped nearly 13 percent.

And Delaware Valley Journal’s own reporting showed that homicides surpassed double digits in Upper Darby for the first time in more than 20 years.

While locations closest to Philadelphia tend to score higher crime rates, outlying suburbs such as Chester and Lancaster County–where residents assert distance serves as a “protective shield”–have become their own kind of crime magnet.

In Lancaster city, violent crime is nearly twice the national average (41.3 compared 22.7). Likewise, communities such as Chester and Coatesville have a considerably higher crime rate in 2021 than they had 2016.

For some, the rise in crime and fears that it will spread into the suburbs has forced a look into the distant past.

“In general, the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are much safer today than they were in years past,” states “City and Suburbs, Crime Trends in Metropolitan America,” a report published by the Brookings Institute in 2011. “Within metropolitan areas, older, more urbanized, poorer, and more minority communities have benefited the most from these trends, narrowing the disparities between cities and suburbs and underscoring that crime is not a uniquely urban issue, but a metropolitan one.”

Now, many believe this analysis is a reversed image of what’s happening in large cities today. While crime was never a uniquely urban problem, fears of it spreading into the suburbs create another, more unpleasant version of “narrowing the disparities.”