Opinion: How one city is reducing violence – and solving more crimes

Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Shootings and murders fall as a community-driven program in Pennsylvania takes root.

After a Philadelphia rapper and a friend were shot to death in Chester, Pa., in February, police there took a new, aggressive approach to finding those responsible.

They walked around neighborhoods they believed the group behind the shootings frequented. They handed out fliers asking for help in catching the people who orchestrated the slayings. And they spoke with residents who expressed outrage at the violence and surprise at seeing uniformed officers outside their cars.

Seven weeks later, the alleged shooter and two people who police say helped lure the victims to their deaths were in custody. One of the suspects had called detectives and pleaded with them, saying “please don’t kick down my grandmother’s door. I will turn myself in tomorrow,” according to court filings.

At a time when Philadelphia and other big cities, such as Atlanta, are seeing a surge in homicides and fatal shootings, Chester, Pa., is experiencing the opposite. Homicides are down 63% this year compared with 2020, and fatal shootings are down 43%, according to police statistics.

Investigators in Chester are also making more arrests in homicide cases this year, a clearance rate of 50%, the highest since 2004.

Prosecutors are reluctant to attribute those trends to a single factor. But they believe one of the biggest reasons for the change has been the Chester Partnerships for Safe Neighborhoods, a program that, above all else, opens a clear line of communication between residents and investigators working with the district attorney.

Activists and community leaders agree. They praise the program and are relieved that resources are being diverted to a city that has long felt abandoned.

“It’s just community engagement,” said Matthew Krouse, Delaware County’s deputy district attorney. “Because the majority of the 35,000 people that live in Chester are tired of being held hostage by the violence.”

The partnership — modeled after the Focused Deterrence program used in other cities — launched in November.

Law enforcement officials met with prominent members of some of the city’s most violent groups and took a “carrot-and-stick” approach. The “carrot” was access to programs including free trade-school degrees, rental assistance, and even counseling for trauma. The “stick” included arrest, prosecution and jail time.

While it’s certainly not a novel idea, the concept is being used in other cities as well, such as Boston.

In Chester, the message is apparently resonating.

Inmates at the county jail were recorded on prison calls telling their friends to “put the guns down,” prosecutors said. Defense attorneys, in meetings with prosecutors, presented text messages from their clients, promising the same thing.

Jean-Pierre Brice, a Chester native and the partnership’s community resource consultant, said that face-to-face meeting made a strong impression on the city’s residents. The conversation was honest and frank – and it came straight from the source.

“No one was saying this to them before. It was just, ‘You’re going to jail,’” Brice said. “They’re offering themselves to the community for you to see how this works and how it can help. And that’s never happened before.”

The initiative isn’t just benefiting people involved with crime. The program is partnering with different groups in the city to provide services and bolster struggling projects, including resurrecting the city’s dormant 3 v 3 Biddy League basketball tournament and sponsoring membership for kids in the Boys & Girls Clubs.

The efforts have drawn the attention of longtime Chester boosters, including Cory Long, a former city official who runs Making A Change Group, a youth-development organization.

“People in the community know when people aren’t just trying to lock everyone up,” Long said. “They may not vocalize it, because it may not be the most celebrated thing to work with law enforcement, but it’s beginning to matriculate throughout Chester.”

There is also a renewed sense of peace in the city as the shooting numbers fall, Long said.

“People in this city love their community and they want solutions,” he said. “And this attention has been a strong part of the solution to help curb it.”

The newfound attention from the district attorney isn’t exclusive to community groups.

“We’re all looking at that same goal, which is to bridge the gap between community and law enforcement,” said Chester Police Commissioner Steven Gretsky.

“Some of the people involved in this, committing this crime, they feel like they never had anyone reach out to them. It was ‘You’re cops, we’re the bad guys, and whatever happens happens.’”

The conversation, according to Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, is now being steered in a different direction.

“Gun violence is just a symptom of poverty and the only way we can eventually cure this problem is if we can bring good jobs, a good quality of life, the American dream to everybody in the city of Chester,” Stollsteimer said.

“We can do our piece, and we’re ready.”

Vinny Vella writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. This story is part of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It originally appeared here.

A case study: How the program works

The program in Chester, Pa., is modeled after the Focused Deterrence program used in other cities.

  • Under the program, the police and representatives from the community engage with those at high risk of committing violence. They convey clear incentives for avoiding violence – and outline deterrents for engaging in violence.
  • Incentives include access to various services, such as job training and drug treatment.
  • Deterrents include explaining the enhanced penalties that someone will face if they commit a violent crime.
  • The idea is to make the local community a partner in steering someone away from committing a crime while improving relations between the police and the community.