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July 24, 2014, 1:20 pm

Amid violence, officials lament straw purchases

As with most major American cities, Philadelphia’s crime problem is one that has many layers of contributing factors, from the flow of illegal guns onto the streets, to the high rate of students who drop out of school.

With 2012 drawing to a close, city officials were asked what they thought were the strategic and tactical victories in local law enforcement for the year, what can be done better and where efforts should be focused in 2013. Certainly, with 318 murders on the books as of Tribune press time, most of them committed by previously convicted felons with illegally obtained handguns, the issue of straw purchasing and gun violence remains a top priority.

“We’ve made some progress, but murders are up slightly,” said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. “In 2013 we’re going to be doing more targeting of specific areas where gun violence is prevalent. There will be some re-deployment to step up the presence in those communities.”

Recently, Gov. Tom Corbett signed a measure re-establishing a five-year mandatory sentence for people convicted of multiple straw purchasing, i.e. buying handguns for people who, by law, cannot buy them. The Philadelphia Police Department has an ongoing initiative with the federal government’s department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms called the Violent Crime Reduction Partnership. Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross said that even though there has been a spike in homicides over the last months, there have been reductions in other areas that equally impact the city.

“We made strides in the area of part one crimes; the side of all of this that generally doesn’t get told. We’re never going to be happy with the number of homicides, even if we’re successful in bringing it down to 200 or less. No one should be victimized by crime,” Ross said. “We’ve seen reductions in property crimes, robberies, aggravated assaults that don’t involve a firearm and residential burglaries, which spiked last year.”

Ross said the number of shooting victims for 2012 dropped 7 percent, which represents a few hundred people over the year. He also said the department continues to collaborate with Philly Rising, Gun Stat and the federal government on programs like the Violent Crime Reduction Partnership.

“We can and have reduced violent crime, but if we’re going to see long-term effects we’re going to have to deal with our economic problems,” Ross said. “In some of our neighborhoods the underground economy is what sustains many of the residents, so even if we have a program in those communities, unless something substantial is going to replace the underground economy, we’re just a band-aid on the problem. That’s not because the people in these neighborhoods are inherently bad, but if you drop out of school and you know people who are slinging and you have no income, what course are you going to take? It’s hard to change things in an environment that doesn’t experience an overall change. We have to address the underlying causes.”

As stated, one of the city’s successes in 2012 was the Violent Crime Reduction Partnership. In November federal officials announced the results of the collaborative effort. Between June and September of 2012, the U.S. Attorney‘s Office charged 92 defendants in 77 indictments. The cases involve a variety of violent crimes, many of which are subject to lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

“This surge of federal resources in Philadelphia — as well as others underway in additional cities — has shown that we can enhance our ability to work with local law enforcement in areas where they‘re most needed so that we can better protect these communities,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a press release. “In these times of budgetary challenges — when police departments and other agencies are confronting growing demands with increasingly limited resources — the need for coordination among federal, state and local law enforcement authorities has never been more critical.”

District Attorney Seth Williams said his office and the Police Department did well in working together on targeting the most violent criminals through GunStat. Police and assistant district attorneys identify the most violent repeat offenders in small areas based on their probation status and other factors like gang affiliation and then keep a close eye on them. Since it started, more than 70 percent of the 473 targeted suspects remain in custody rather than having them released. In 2012 98 percent of those convicted of illegal gun charges have been sentenced to prison.

But Williams said the city needs to do more in other areas, such as reducing recidivism.

“We don’t do enough investing in early childhood education, preparing children for school so they don’t fall behind and drop out in high school. A high school drop out is eight times more likely to end up in prison,” Williams said. “We need to work harder on truancy for the same reason and we don’t do enough to lower the recidivism rate or reducing gun violence. I think the political will doesn’t exist to stop the gun violence because of the people who are being shot — that’s just my opinion but I think it’s true.”