In Philadelphia, a 'disturbing' black murder rate

The three teens are in good schools, college bound, and full of adolescent bravado. Each also knows someone who was shot and killed on the streets of Philadelphia.

That kind of up-close encounter with violence and murder is not the norm for teenage America. But this is Philly, which has the highest homicide rate for African-Americans among the nation's biggest cities – and a place where the risk of being killed is especially high for blacks under age 18.

The possibility of a short life and a violent death weighs on African-American teens like Andrea Williams, Sierra Daniels, and Christopher Fuller, though they seem to shoulder the burden as if it's just an extra load of books. Andrea worries most about her younger brother and sister, afraid one of them will get hit by a misguided bullet fired by someone bent on revenge or protecting turf or just venting anger.

"Sometimes I hate to walk down the street with them, because I couldn't live without my little brother and sister," she says.

Nationally, the murder rate for African-Americans is more than three times the average: 19 black murder victims per 100,000 people versus five for the general population.

In Pennsylvania, the disparity for black homicide is even more pronounced: 30 per 100,000, or six times the national average, according to a study released last month by the Violence Policy Center (VPC), a gun-control research group in Washington.

Those numbers are "disproportionate, disturbing, and undeniable," says the VPC report, which analyzed crime data from 2004 in its study. Moreover, almost 80 percent of black murder victims in the US were shot and killed with guns, the study found.

Philadelphia follows the pattern. The vast majority of black murders in the city – 3 in 4 – are from gunfire, according to police.

Overall, murders have been on the rise – 406 last year. Of those, 317 were gun-related, compared with 233 four years ago. And it's the city's black residents and neighborhoods that feel the effects most acutely.

"We all want it to change, but how is the hard part," says Margo Davidson of the Caring People Alliance in North Philadelphia, where Andrea, Sierra, Christopher, and other teens can spend their afternoons after school. "We do the thing that we know how to do: We have a safe place for kids to come after school. We do family therapy and counseling, help people with [finding] jobs. But it's not enough. There are too many guns on the street and not enough jobs for young people."

Too many young people, says Ms. Davidson, are milling around after school with nothing to do except what the streets offer: guns and drugs.

That's one thing everyone – residents, police, and social workers – agree on. Another is that there's a subculture in "the 'hood" in which guns play a major role. They're used for protection, to generate income, to give a sense of power, and, all too often, to settle slights and disputes. As Andrea and others attest, their prevalence also infuses fear into a community.

"If you're in the 'hood, as long as you have a gun you can get some money," says Joselynne Jones, who helps run the Caring People Alliance. "You can stick someone up, sell the gun ... protect somebody for money. It's a vicious cycle that starts with a gun."

In the face of these grim statistics, the funerals, and the mourning, there are signs of a fresh determination to break that cycle and protect Philly's youths from stepping down that violent, gun-riddled path. The people, joining with police and city leaders, are pushing back.

A nighttime oasis

At 10 o'clock on a bitterly cold night, a bundled-up Carolyn Walton unlocks the Dixon House Community Center in South Philadelphia. "I hope we don't get any kids tonight because it's too cold for any child to be out," she says.

Ms. Walton works for what's known as the Curfew Center. Along with other initiatives to combat youth violence, the center was set up at Dixon House by city and community members last July in this neighborhood of row houses.

The number of homicide victims between the ages of 10 and 17 had been growing steadily in recent years. By 2006, citywide, about 10 percent of the 406 homicide victims were younger than 18, according to the police department. In South Philly, 24 percent of homicide victims were under 18.

"Last summer, every night all night, you could hear gunfire," says Jean Gillen, the receptionist at the Curfew Center who lives on the next block. "These kids can get a gun faster than they can a pencil or a book."

After meetings with city officials, the community asked the police to start enforcing a curfew that had been ignored for decades. Mayor John Street agreed to enforce it, but only on one condition: that the community step up to help the police deal with violators. And so the idea of the Curfew Center was born.

"It has a twofold purpose: first, to get the kids off the streets and stop the mayhem, and then provide the kids and/or their families with supportive services," says Cheryl Weiss, executive director of Diversified Community Services, which runs Dixon House.

It's here that police bring curfew violators, and staff like Kareem Davis talk with them about why they're on the streets.

"A lot of the kids who come here are juniors and seniors in high school, and a lot of them want to go to college," says Mr. Davis. "But people in the schools don't know that, the parents may not, and the kids don't know to take the right courses to prepare for college."

The staff at the Curfew Center call parents to bring their kids home. If the parents come, they're interviewed in case they need services like job training. But when parents can't be contacted – whether they're out working, or partying – the center provides the kids plenty to eat and a room with cots to sleep. In the morning, the staff takes them to the Department of Human Services (DHS), the city's primary social-service agency.

On an average night, police bring in four or five teens. But when it first opened, the staff dealt with as many as 19 in one night. On that bitterly cold night last week, police did bring in two boys, ages 15 and 16, at 4:30 a.m. They were from New Jersey and said they'd missed the train home. Since no one could be reached to pick them up, they were brought to DHS in the morning.

Since the Curfew Center opened, the percentage of murder victims in South Philly under age 18 has dropped from 24 percent to about 15 percent, according to Inspector Stephen Johnson, commanding officer of Philadelphia's South Police Division. "We have made some significant strides," he says. "But we need to do much more."

Inspector Johnson would like to see the legislature impose more limits on who can carry a gun – a move he knows is controversial in a state with many rural areas. A decade ago, the city made it almost impossible to get a permit to carry a gun, he says. But gun advocates brought legal challenges, and in 1996, Philadelphia was required to abide by the same gun-control laws as the rest of the state – adding significantly to the number of guns on the street.

With more curbs on gun ownership, Johnson says, fewer guns would be in the hands of adults, and the trickledown effect to youths would also be lessened.

"You have people living in an intense urban area. You have so many disputes that would normally be resolved by talking or even by a fistfight," he says. "But you don't have that now. People feel omnipotent because they have a gun and they feel as though they don't have to back down in some scenarios."

The teenagers' reality

Sierra, Andrea, and Christopher all say that if they ever needed a gun, they'd know how to get one.

It wouldn't be hard, either. Sierra's older brother already has one, and she worries a little about his "anger issues." She lost a good friend two years ago, she says, to an argument and a gun. Sierra's not even sure what the dispute was about. "It makes me sad 'cause he's not around anymore," she says. "But it really didn't make me change anything."

The three teens are speaking, safe and warm, at the R.W. Brown Community Center in North Philadelphia. They are explaining why guns are so prevalent in their community, but all say they want nothing to do with them.

"I could get one, but it wouldn't feel right," says Andrea. Some kids she hangs out with carry them, though.

"But I don't follow what they do," says the teen, who wants to become a pediatrician. "They try to get me to, but I won't."

For Christopher, guns are a constant worry. He feels protective of his sister, who he says is a beautiful girl. "She knows a lot of guy friends, and sometimes they get too rowdy and I have to put them in their place," says Christopher. "That's when I get scared, because I don't know them. I don't know if they've got a gun."

The three have their own ideas about how to reduce gun violence. They suggest that parents should do more to "crack down" on their kids, and they say kids should do more to control their anger. They also say the legislature should do more to make guns harder to get.

"I don't think people understand how much guns affect our community," says Christopher, who wants to be a teacher. "There's a lot of guns and a lot of stray bullets flying around every day."

"Yeah, it needs to stop," says Sierra. "If it doesn't ... it's going to get worse. People need to learn how to work together again."

A gun as 'my friend'

Many of the staff here also know the gun culture firsthand. Last year, Margo Davidson's brother, who was known as Shorty, was killed. During the trial, she was struck by two things.

First is that the man convicted of killing her brother "kept referring to the gun as 'my friend,' " says Ms. Davidson, one of the top staff at the Caring People Alliance.

The second is that the accomplice in the murder – a young woman who had known "Shorty" and had pointed him out to the shooter as someone who "had money" – had ruined her own life. Her desire for money to buy drugs led to the fatal shooting.

"Knowing that, at 18, her life is over simply because of that poor decision takes the tragedy beyond the death of our loved one," says Davidson. "It also affects the families of the shooters – it has a ripple effect on the whole community."

Next steps

The Caring People Alliance plans to apply to the city to open a Curfew Center for North Philadelphia, like the one at Dixon House in South Philly. It's a big undertaking, relying on volunteers – more than 50 – for staff. The city provides funds to pay a site coordinator, a receptionist, and an intake worker. But most of the people working the overnight shift are local volunteers like Terrence Sealis.

"What makes me come out?" says the soft-spoken maintenance worker who is raising his teen daughter here. "It helps give a chance of a future for some of the teens out here. I try to come three times a week."

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