Cherelle Parker won’t be sworn in as Philadelphia’s 100th mayor until the first week of January, but her critics and supporters are already debating what she’ll need to do to combat the city’s gun violence crisis.

Parker, 51, a single mother born into poverty who earned an advanced degree from the University of Pennsylvania before becoming a state and city legislator, speaks with an impassioned cadence when explaining her ideas for fighting crime: bringing in the National Guard, embracing community-based violence prevention programs, and, controversially, ramping up the use of stop-and-frisk policing.  

“I refer to it as pie: prevention, intervention, and enforcement,” Parker, a Democrat who was elected with 74.6 percent of the vote, said during a November news conference to announce her transition team.

Already, Parker’s frankness has stoked supporters and detractors. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who lost her father, two sons, a brother, and a cousin to violence, didn’t vote for Parker, but has strong beliefs about what the mayor-elect should and should not do.

“I don’t want her to bring back stop-and-frisk. That’s at the top of the list. I do not want her to bring in the National Guard. I want her to invest in social science-driven strategies,” said Johnson-Harrel, who created the CHARLES Foundation to steer youth from guns and violence three months after her son was slain in 2011.

“I just want kids to stop dying,” she said. “I want Black folks to get a fair shake. This city is run by Black folks, so why aren’t they looking out for Black folks?”

Others trust Parker, even to implement a stop-and-frisk strategy whose implementation, in some cases, has been found unconstitutional. That’s why City Councilmember Curtis Jones said he is not worried about the prospect of stepped-up police pat-downs in the city’s Black community.

“Cherelle Parker is like the aunt that can take you to the woodshed and not be viewed as hating you,” said Jones, chair of Council’s Public Safety Committee. “If she says we have to get a better control over our children, I know that that comes from a place of love, not a place of oppression,” he said. “So, she can say things to us at the family dinner that other people cannot say. I’m looking forward to that difficult conversation.”

Many, like Johnson-Harrel and Jones, are asking how Parker’s vision for public safety will take shape, and how effective it will be at continuing to drive down shootings to prepandemic levels. “We need to change the culture that makes a city able to average 350 murders for 50 years,” said Mazzie Casher, co-founder and CEO of Philly Truce, a conflict resolution organization. “If 85 percent of these shootings and victims are Black men, until we invest in a sustainable Black Manhood we’re going to have this problem.”

What’s behind Philly’s numbers

Parker is inheriting a city still in the grip of a gun-violence crisis that pushed the average number of homicides past 500 during the previous three years. But with 20 percent fewer slayings as of mid-November compared to the same time last year, the city could have some 100 fewer killings by year’s end. That would mean that Parker is inheriting a city with a problem, albeit one that is improving at a faster rate than its urban counterparts. In the 168 cities that consulting firm AH Datalytics tracks, murders are declining by an average of 12 percent.

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Philly’s reduced bloodshed, officials say, is the result of a network of city interventions launched during the pandemic to address the crisis at the community level, coupled with increased spending on police, and the ending of the societal upheaval wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it’s clear that shootings are declining in many big cities, said Jeff Asher, co-founder of AH Datalytics, teasing out why is not that simple: Is it the city’s crime-fighting strategies, or just the end of the pandemic?

“I don’t ever see any mayor or police chief stepping up and accepting blame when murder or gun violence tends to spike. So that makes me hesitant or skeptical to credit any mayor or police chief when those things go in the opposite direction — especially when there’s no obvious explanation,” Asher said.

“The trend through 2022 and thus far in 2023 looks like we’re heading back to where we were prepandemic,” he added. “Where we go from here, though, I think is anybody’s guess.”

Even with the 20 percent decline, Philadelphia still recorded more slayings by this November than it did in each year from 2008 to 2019. During most of that period — 2008 through 2015 — the city was led by Mayor Michael Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who embraced community policing, which included using data to redeploy more officers to foot and bike patrols in high-crime areas. They also, notably, used stop-and-frisk policing, a policy which some criticized as racist against Black people while others credited it with reducing gun violence.

Philly’s long history with stop-and-frisk

In 2007, the year before Ramsey became commissioner, there were 391 homicides in the city. By 2013, killings had plummeted to 246 — the lowest number since 1967 — and to 248 in 2014 before ticking up to 280 in 2015, his last year in office.

“Police do have the right, with reasonable suspicion, believing that crime has occurred or is about to occur, to stop and question an individual if you believe that person is armed, could have a weapon that could harm you, you can conduct a pat down, a frisk,” Ramsey said shortly after retiring during a 2016 interview with Talk Radio 1210 WPHT. 

“Stop-and-frisk is not always a bad thing,” said Rickey Duncan, CEO of the NOMO Foundation, which provides mentoring programs for teens, and a member of Parker’s transition team. “It’s bad when it’s used in a bad way and bad people use it. But it’s designed to keep us in a safer space. With the overwhelming violence that we have in Philadelphia, I don’t find it to be a bad thing.”

Mayor Jim Kenney pledged to reduce police stops that many viewed as racial profiling, and steadfastly refused calls from the City Council and others to support increased police stops.

Parker said she’ll keep anti-gun violence programs launched under Kenney, including Group Violence Intervention, as well as the community and park revitalization programs started by Kenney and City Council President Darrell Clarke. Parker has also pledged to add 300 additional police officers to the force — which would still fall far short of closing the vacancy gap of the nearly 1,000 officers.

While Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, like Kenney, is cool toward deploying the National Guard to crack down on violence in the city’s drug-plagued Kensington community, Parker said it’s a viable tool to consider.

Effective public safety, she said, means, “having law enforcement there as guardians and not warriors. It is ensuring that we’re focusing on mental and behavioral health. It’s addressing quality of life issues, like lighting in neighborhoods, the cleaning of commercial corridors. We are going to need to put to work every department in the City of Philadelphia to come up with a holistic strategy to reduce crime, because the Police Department alone will not be able to do it.”

Parker said she believes that reducing the Police Department vacancy rate will be contingent on removing some barriers to hiring, including “outdated” testing requirements, and appointing an inspirational police commissioner to replace Danielle Outlaw, who resigned with little praise in September after three-and-a-half turbulent years.

On November 21, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Parker was planning to hire Kevin Bethel to be the city’s police commissioner. Since 2019, Bethel, 60, has served as head of security for the School District of Philadelphia, where he’s been lauded for implementing restorative justice practices. Before that, he spent 30 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, retiring as a deputy commissioner in 2016.

“When the leadership of the Police Department is identified and announced to the public, and the police commissioner, when he or she begins to unveil the public safety plan and crime reduction plan for the City of Philadelphia, I think you are going to see more people expressing interest in wanting to work in our department,” Parker said.

Interim Police Commissioner John M. Stanford, a 22-year veteran of the force who applied for the permanent job, said that, despite the shortage of officers, in addition to homicides being down 20 percent, nonfatal shootings are down 26 percent, while the homicide clearance rate is at about 60 percent — all testaments to improvements in how the shooting and homicide investigators work together and use technology to relay information to officers. 

“I’ve never seen in the history of this department information go from investigations out to patrol as quickly as we’ve been able to see that done over the course of the last year,” Stanford said.

What Philadelphians want from their new mayor

In the weeks leading up to her inauguration, Parker is working with a transitional team of nearly two dozen advisors. She’ll get additional input from business and faith-based leaders, and elected officials.

Chantey Love, who founded Every Murder is Real (EMIR) after her brother, Emir, was murdered in 1997, is a steering committee member advising Parker on trauma services for people affected by violence. She believes Parker’s job has been made easier by the financial support Kenney’s administration has given to community groups, including hers, that help teens and others at risk of becoming victims and perpetrators of gun violence.

City Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, whose North Philly district includes Kensington, said she also wants to see Parker work with grassroots organizations as Kenney has done. “I’d like her to provide resources to groups that are actually doing the work on the ground connecting with our young people about gun violence,” she said. “We have not tapped into that constituency good enough. So I would like us to really focus and target that young generation.”

Casher, of Philly Truce, said that Parker should work on creating a prison-to-community pipeline: The city, he said, should hire and train the thousands of Philadelphians released from incarceration each year to work in anti-crime efforts, such as community peace patrols accompanied by police officers.

“We’ve got to start using the problem against the problem, making these guys part of the solution,” said Casher. “In my mind, that’s part of how the culture is going to shift.”