Philly Homicide Spike Draws Innovative Response

By Jeff Deeney 01/30/12

"Interrupters" are a welcome alternative to near-martial law in a city where drug-related killings are soaring.

A scene from The Interrupters. Photo via

A Daily Beast story by this reporter details the major spike in homicides in Philadelphia since the new year: 32 in under a month. This number far outpaces much larger cities and puts Philly on track—if the trend continues—for one of the bloodiest years in recent memory. Two types of “hot spotting” interventions are practiced; the first is the standard issue police response of flooding the most violent areas with authority, enforcing near-martial law until order is restored. The other, more innovative approach is "Philadelphia Ceasefire"—a new social program based on the violence intervention model profiled in the much-praised documentary, The Interrupters. Make no mistake; to speak of urban crime “hot spots” is invariably to talk about the drug war. Philadelphia’s homicide spike is largely driven by the drug trade—as such spikes have been for many years.

The two neighborhoods targeted by both law enforcement and violence interventionists are North Central Philadelphia and the Badlands. The former area is predominantly African American, with a dense patchwork of crack corners; the latter is a mainly Puerto Rican barrio that's the primary distribution hub for heroin and PCP. Philadelphia has seen a score of law enforcement operations target these areas over the years: "Safe Streets," "Sunrise" and "Prevention Point" are just a few. Each follows the same pattern: Lock down dope corners by parking police cruisers around the clock and flood the general area with patrols. This method is effective at restoring some order in the short term. But martial law is expensive, the city is perennially cash strapped, and once the homicide headlines have cooled off the cops always leave. Dope corners then roar back to life and it’s business as usual in North Philly.

The Ceasefire model is very promising; you can read more about its innovative peer-based public health approach here. But the model may work less well in Philadelphia than in Chicago and Los Angeles, where gang-based organized crime superstructures make it easier to predict when retaliatory violence will flare and to dispatch “Interrupters” to quell it. Philly doesn’t do gangs; every corner has its own drug crew and this hyper-local, fractious network of micro-crime organizations makes predicting when and where guns will pop off more difficult. But with adamant resistance to drug policy change in even a Democratic White House, programs like Ceasefire—that seek to mitigate the impact of drug-fueled violence—may be the best we have.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.