On the front line
Shots fired. It’s the third time tonight the call has come across the radio and Lt. Pat Kelly is becoming concerned. "They’re moving us around out here."
Standing by a take-out Chinese spot just a block from the reported shots, two men eye the lieutenant’s car as he pulls up. The question is the same one being asked by half a dozen other cops now descending onto this part of the 19th District.
“Did you see anything?”
One man tells Kelly that he may have heard something but couldn’t be sure from which direction it had come. The other man repeats three times that he just walked outside.
"OK. Relax," assures Kelly. "We’re just trying to find out what's happening."
Spanning six square miles on Philadelphia’s western edge, the 19th District is on the front lines of the daily battle against gun crime in this country. With an average of 40 gun-related homicides a year in this southwest Philly district alone and hundreds of illegal gun seizures, the 19th represents a picture of violence familiar to many of America’s inner cities.
It’s a place where gunfire has become so common, these questions so routine and attitudes toward police so entrenched, that most people barely lift their heads to answer the officer’s questions.
Kelly has been with the Philadelphia Police Department for 21 years. He worked narcotics in the '90s — undercover — participating in more drug buys than he can count. "Drugs and poverty go hand-in-hand," he says. "It's despair, that's what has a big effect on people."
A gunshot is a priority one call. It means lights and sirens and running red lights. It also means Kelly, his tactical squad and sometimes a few line cars, all converge on one area. These calls have been coming in all night but the police keep coming up empty handed.
Over the radio, a fourth call comes in. It’s more of the same: gunshots heard near Lansdale Avenue.
"I'm going to call dispatch," says the lieutenant while shutting off the siren. "Maybe find out where these calls are coming from. Could be we're chasing our tails out here."
There’s a part of all police work that’s responsive like this, what the officers call Whack-a-Mole. It means jumping from call to call, always on the heels of the violence. But it stands out on a larger scale, too. And it goes some way to explaining the fractured state of some of the 19th District’s neighbors.
In the '90s, larger street gangs, organized and equipped, controlled these streets. But as the police targeted known leaders, the gang control splintered, dividing territory and neighborhood allegiances. It’s not uncommon now to see a gang from 50th Street fighting a gang from 51st. Though even the term gang seems a poor description to the cops of the 19th.
"These are like neighborhood gangs," an officer in an undercover car informs me. "They're cliques or crews. Young kids mostly."
Cell phones, like the fracturing of the larger gangs, have changed the nature of the drug trade in these neighborhoods as well. What once existed on street corners and drug houses has moved more and more to private sales on the borders of the city, where buyers from the suburbs feel safer and less conspicuous. It's reduced not only the need for conventionally structured gangs but also the need to hold actual territory in the city.
Kelly says drug-related violence used to happen in spikes.
"But now it's just arguments," he explains, pointing in the direction of known gang territory. "I mean, there used to be a reason behind it: the drugs, crime, money. Now it’s like you can’t have an argument over a game in the park without a shooting. Nobody gets into fistfights these days. Used to be somebody wins, somebody loses, but that was it, you carried on with your life. Now, nobody loses, they just find a gun."
Each gun, bullet, jacket and casing has been individually analyzed and compared. It’s wrong to apply the term reverence to the work they do, but watching a technician sitting at an electronic microscope comparing barrel striation marks for hours, it doesn’t feel far off. These people know their weapons.
“We confiscated those,” said Walsh, tapping an armor-piercing .50-caliber round sitting on his desk, “and it’s not nearly the craziest thing we’ve ever gotten in here.”
It’s easy when discussing gun crime to become distracted by the unique and sometimes bewildering weapons that Americans can obtain. It’s a huge problem, one that diverts resources, attention and political capital away from the real issues.
But for Philadelphia, like the rest of America, the main problem is not these weapons. The problem is and always has been handguns and how they end up in criminals' hands.
“People want to demonize assault weapons,” explains Walsh. “But in 2012, 63 percent of all our crime guns were semiautomatic, high-capacity handguns. Twenty-four percent are revolvers.
"That’s 3,189 confiscated weapons that were pistol-sized. And then we got 7 percent shotguns and 6 percent rifles. In that 6 percent last year we took in 25 AR-15’s and 55 SKSes, Chinese military carbines designed like the AK-47 but without a detachable clip. And 20 of those came from a single collector. He shot his wife.”
Many of these guns could have been prevented from ever falling into criminal hands in the first place. According to FIU statistics, for most pistols recovered in Philadelphia today, the average time from when the gun was legally purchased to the time it ends up as a weapon in a crime, or time-to-crime, is seven to 10 years. It’s a span that suggests most of these guns were not straw purchased. The typical time-to-crime for a straw-purchased gun is between 6 months and a year.
“These are guns that are laying around in people’s closets,” says Walsh. “Unfortunately, people treat their guns like shoes in this country. We hear it all the time. We’ll get guns in the lab and people will say they haven’t seen the gun in four years. I don’t know how you can legislate it but if people kept their guns and ammo locked up and acted more responsibly, less guns would make it to the street. I mean, we have to be more responsible with our cars than we do our guns right now.”
Guns used in crimes confiscated last year by PPD.
The percentage of all crime guns that were semiautomatic, high-capacity handguns.
The percentage of guns that are revolvers.
More on Philadelphia gun violence can be found here: Universal background checks bill at a standstill in Pennsylvania
Gun Week: Following the trail of our bloody streets
Boston, Philadelphia, New York City: Three very different cities with a common problem. Gun violence has destroyed the lives of countless individuals and families on our streets and wrought devastation across vibrant neighborhoods, searing itself into their fabric.
Over the next week, Metro will examine the impact that gun violence has had on those cities as well as our country in the aftermath of the recent massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary, Aurora, Co. and the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard. We will look at what each city and the country is doing to combat the age-old problem as well as change the deadly culture that, on a daily basis, leaves its bloody imprint on our communities. – The Editors