Friday, April 18, 1997
In Phila., a pattern of murder statistics, a common thread
Victims: Young black men from poorer areas. Method: Gunshot.
By Clea Benson and Craig R. McCoy,
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Of the 414 people murdered in Philadelphia last year, two were killed
in Center City. A security guard at a Rite Aid near 16th and Chestnut
strangled the assistant manager with a necktie and fled with $5,000. A
homeless man was stabbed to death during an argument at Broad and Arch.
Two and a half miles north in Fairhill - a neighborhood with half the
population of Center City - 23 people were murdered in 1996. Most of the
victims were young men gunned down during arguments on narrow streets of
ramshackle rowhouses. Drugs often played a role.
The difference between Fairhill and Center City reflects the larger pattern
of murder in Philadelphia.
Murder is not stalking all of us. The killers are returning again and again
to the same tiny pool of victims - primarily young black men in the city's
poorest neighborhoods. And bucking a national trend, the victims are
increasingly dying at the point of a gun.
An Inquirer analysis of Police Department data shows that:
Black men age 15 to 29 are being killed in Philadelphia at a rate more
than 30 times the average for all Americans. Last year, 166 African Americans
in that age group were murdered in the city - 40 percent of all victims. That
works out to 241 per 100,000 people. The murder rate for the other 95 percent
of Philadelphians was 17 per 100,000. The national rate is about 8 per
People in Fairhill, Mantua, Hunting Park, Point Breeze and other crowded,
low-income neighborhoods live with murder rates 8, 9, or 10 times the national
figure. But nearly a third of the city's population live in neighborhoods -
such as Chestnut Hill and most of Northeast Philadelphia - where the rate is
dramatically below the nationwide average, and comparable to many suburban
There has been a relentless rise in gunshot deaths in Philadelphia. While
gun murders fell 11 percent across the nation between 1994 and 1995, in
Philadelphia they rose 16 percent. Last year, 8 out of 10 homicide victims in
the city died from bullet wounds, the highest rate ever. Of the young black
men who were murdered, 94 percent were killed with guns.
Philadelphia's ``clearance'' rate, the percentage of murder cases in
which police make an arrest, is above the national average. Still, like the
national rate, it is dropping. Last year, 70 percent of the city's murders
were deemed solved by detectives, down from 80 percent in 1990. Nationwide,
about half of all cases were solved last year.
Some major American cities have seen a stunning drop in murders in recent
years. In New York, the number dropped by more than half from 1992 to 1996, to
a total of 984. Houston saw a 49 percent decline over the same period; Boston,
Philadelphia's homicide detectives have seen no major change in their
workload. The 414 killings classified as murders last year represented a 4
percent drop from 1995. The city's murder rate has fluctuated in a narrow
range for the last five years. In the first three months of this year, there
were 117 murders.
Experts are uncertain why a few cities have seen sharp declines. Some
attribute it to new police tactics targeting petty criminals before they can
go on to bigger crimes. It's been suggested that when petty crime statutes are
enforced, neighborhoods have a stake in upholding standards of behavior and
begin policing their environment.
But many criminologists say the downswing is just one half of a pendulum's
arc. They note that some of the cities that have seen the largest decreases
are ones that saw the biggest increases in murders in the late 1980s, when the
explosion of the crack cocaine trade helped push killings to a peak.
Police Commissioner Richard Neal points out that Philadelphia is among the
safest of large U.S. cities, judging from FBI data on major crimes, such as
rape and robbery. When it comes to murder, Philadelphia is near the middle of
Try telling that to Angel Hernandez, a Town Watch leader in North
Philadelphia. In Hernandez's neighborhood, the brick facades of some houses
have been pockmarked by bullets. Gunfire, he said, is so common that ``it's
like the Fourth of July is an everyday thing.''
About once a week, in the parts of North Philadelphia, Kensington, and
Fairhill that Hernandez and others patrol at night, word of a fatal shooting
breaks through the static on their police radio scanners and they rush out to
where someone lies slumped in the street. Last week, this happened twice.
The victims tend to have something in common. ``You could say 90 percent of
the murders are because of a drug situation,'' Hernandez said. ``They're all
Philadelphia killings are concentrated in a narrow corridor of
neighborhoods like Hernandez's - poor areas where many people are crowded into
dense landscapes of decrepit rowhouses.
The Inquirer, aided by Temple University researcher Scott Snyder, tracked
this pattern using Police Department data on the 2,110 killings in the city
from 1992 through 1996 that police classified as murders.
The numbers do not include suicides, accidental killings and homicides
deemed justified by police.
``It's the typical pattern of a big American city,'' said criminologist
Stanley Turner, a retired Temple professor who specializes in homicide data.
``You have the central business district, and around it is a ring or doughnut
that is where the crimes like robbery, rape, and murder happen.''
Part of this crime doughnut is Fairhill, scene of the city's highest
poverty rate and its highest murder rate - 107.5 per 100,000 over the last
Meanwhile, outer neighborhoods such as Bustleton and Roxborough have murder
rates similar to those in the suburbs. Although the outer ring was not immune
to the violence caused by the city's drug problem, slayings there were often
related to domestic violence.
The discovery of jogger Kimberly Ernest's body near the intersection of
21st and Pine in November 1995 suggests that killers can leap out of the
shadows anywhere. But the reality is that they hardly ever do.
In Center City, an average of five people were killed each year in the
last five years. Some of those killings were committed apparently at random,
but others stemmed from disputes between people who knew each other. Ernest
was the only person murdered west of Broad Street in Center City in 1995.
In all areas of the city, women were much less likely to be slain than men,
and they often were killed for different reasons. Domestic disputes were the
most common motive in the 50 murders of women and girls last year. Men, on the
other hand, most often died during arguments outside the home.
Even in neighborhoods such as Mantua and Fairhill, not everyone is equally
at risk. Of the 130 victims in Fairhill between 1992 and 1996, 122 were men.
Of those, 80 were 15 to 29 years old.
The main problem in these neighborhoods?
``I'd say it's the drugs and the guns, especially the automatics,'' said
Police Inspector Jerrold Kane, head of the Homicide Division.
Kane estimates that nearly 40 percent of the city's murders are linked to
drugs. Sometimes, slayings are directly related to disputes over drug sales.
Narcotics can also play a secondary role, as in cases where an addict kills a
family member in a drug-induced rage. Many victims in drug-related murders are
not users or dealers themselves.
Still, many homicide victims do use drugs. The Medical Examiner's Office
reports that about 25 percent of all Philadelphia homicide victims have
significant levels of drugs in their systems when they die.
Sotero Ortega and his 17-year-old son, Hiroc, were driving down a
Kensington street in their Honda one evening in January when a car full of
teenagers suddenly bumped them from behind. The car bumped them again. Then
Ortega, 39, pulled over near Indiana Avenue and B Street to let them pass.
It was a fatal mistake.
The teens pulled over next to the Ortegas' car. Three got out. Two had
One bandit shot Sotero Ortega in the face and took the $29 he was carrying,
police said. The boys then pulled Hiroc Ortega out of the car, shot him, and
left him in the street, according to investigators.
Sotero Ortega survived. His son did not.
One of the alleged gunmen is 14 years old. The others are 18 and 19.
Killers are more likely to be younger, more likely to use guns, and more
likely to kill people they don't know than they were 15 years ago.
At the same time, the number of young victims has increased.
``As there are more and more younger killers and fewer and fewer older
killers, the whole character of homicide has changed,'' said James Alan Fox,
dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston,
who has studied the rise in juvenile crime. ``So have the weapons. Teenagers
have always been impulsive. When you put a gun in the hands of someone like
that, you have a dangerous individual.''
Guns are the most common murder weapon, and their use is growing.
Philadelphia and some other large cities are seeing an increase in firearm use
even as gun homicides have leveled off in many parts of the nation. Law
enforcement officials say they're not sure why.
Some point out that it is relatively easy for Philadelphians, including
those in the drug trade, to get guns.
``What I see is a predatory drug culture, a very violent predatory culture,
that uses firearms,'' said Bob Wall, special agent in charge of the
Philadelphia division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
``Other states have more stringent [requirements for] permits,'' he said.
Among the guns for sale in Philadelphia are sophisticated semiautomatic
weapons, which account for a growing number of homicides.
Back when killers used revolvers, which usually hold five or six
cartridges, often the only bullet at a murder scene was the one in the
victim's body. Now, detectives spend a lot of time drawing little chalk
circles around the spent shells sprayed by semiautomatic weapons, which
sometimes are fed by clips of as many as thirty bullets.
``We get 20, 30, 40, even 50 pieces of ammunition when we go out to
scenes,'' one investigator said. And the victim is often wounded numerous
Last year, 735 gunshot victims were brought to the city's eight trauma
centers, hospitals that treat the most serious cases. One in four died.
James Moore, 23, was sitting on the stoop of his Southwest Philadelphia
house in the dark early hours of a November morning in 1995, talking to his
cousin and a neighbor, when Mark ``Cheese'' Vincent called to him.
``Come here,'' Vincent shouted, according to authorities.
Moore ignored him.
Vincent, 25, who had been trying to rob people on the street all night,
lunged at Moore and shot him in the head, police say. Moore died 10 days
Today, Vincent is serving life in prison for the slaying, and Moore's
mother, Darlena, still lives in the house where her son was killed, a brick
rowhouse with a big tree in the front yard.
``I died when it happened,'' said Darlena Moore, who moved to Philadelphia
after a childhood in the South. ``I wish a thousand times I had not brought my
children here to raise them in this city.''
On a boarded-up window on a vacant house next door to Moore's, someone has
scrawled ``RIP Kev,'' in memory of 17-year-old Kevin Billie, one of two other
young men shot on the same street in 1995, also in full view of neighbors.
Darlena Moore said she looks at the young men who value drugs and ``all
that shiny stuff that doesn't mean nothing'' above human life, and she wonders
why they, and not her son, are still alive. She's planning to move out of
``It leaves you numb,'' she said, ``because whatever happens, people don't
look at it and learn from it. They just look at it as long as it doesn't
affect them, they don't care.''
Many of the criminologists, social service workers, police, trauma
surgeons, elected officials, and others who are seeking answers to the problem
point out that murder is a manifestation of a deeper problem. Any solutions,
they say, must focus on the root causes.
``The deaths are the tip of the iceberg,'' said Chukwudi Onwuachi Saunders,
an epidemiologist from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
who recently finished a stint as a violence specialist in the city Health
Department. ``The bigger picture is, how many people are placed in a position
where they could use a gun? How many guns are manufactured?''
As the police and agencies such as the ATF pursue law-enforcement solutions
that include rounding up gun traffickers, others are taking a public-health
approach to violence - finding its sources and focusing on prevention.
One example is the work of the Youth Homicide Committee, a team of doctors,
city representatives, and advocates for children who meet regularly to review
the murders of people age 21 and younger. The committee studies the lives of
the victims and tries to determine what could have been done to prevent their
The committee is pushing for tougher enforcement of a city ordinance
requiring doctors to report all gunshot wounds, no matter how serious, so
advocates can develop a better picture of violence in the city.
Committee members also support a new requirement that first-time juvenile
gun offenders participate in an educational and mentoring program. And they
are pushing for a crackdown on school truancy and for more counseling services
for children who witness violence.
Still, some committee members believe that these are just baby steps.
``I'd say we're in the same shape we've been in,'' said James Mills,
director of the city Anti-Drug, Anti-Violence Network. ``I don't know that
attitudes are changing. You hope all the prevention you do with kids and all
the reality they see would help wake them up, but I've found there's still a
large percentage of them that don't hear anything.''
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