Murder, crime, and gun violence are out of control in Philadelphia. By now, that should be news to no one. Nearly 500 were killed in the city last year, and this year’s murder total is on pace to surpass even that bloody number. People are scared, frustrated, and fed up with a city government that is unwilling or unable to do anything to stop the slaughter.
So it is understandable, maybe, that City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier demanded that Mayor Jim Kenney issue an executive order declaring a “citywide gun violence emergency.” And it is understandable that City Council would pass a unanimous resolution calling on Kenney to do just that.
Understandable, but pointless.
Gauthier’s resolution passed in September 2020 and she has lately called upon Kenney to act on it. Councilmembers Bobby Henon and Kenyatta Johnson, themselves currently under federal indictment, were among the co-sponsors of the resolution demanding that someone else fix the crime problem. It contains a nine-point plan for dealing with gun violence that addresses everything but the real problem: too many criminals are on the streets, unprosecuted by District Attorney Larry Krasner, who would rather make a documentary about himself than fulfill the basic requirements of his job. Instead, we are told that the mayor must make a series of meaningless gestures that will do nothing to stem the flow of blood in Philadelphia’s streets.
Many of these proposed actions are just mealy-mouthed nonsense. The mayor is called to “rally corporations, healthcare and educational institutions to raise funds, increase research and innovation, and supply meaningful jobs to combat the gun violence epidemic” and to “consistently stand with and support community members in public as they confront the gun violence crisis in their neighborhoods.”
This is all feel-good pablum. “Standing with” people and “rallying” corporations and institutions is what a politician does when he’s out of ideas. Most of Gauthier’s resolution asks the mayor to undertake a performance for its own sake, not to act in any meaningful way.
Other parts are simply stupid and show the abject failure of the normal workings of government. A call to “partner with the Council of the City of Philadelphia to sustainably invest in gun violence reduction efforts over the long-term” is especially bizarre. “Invest” is politician-speak for “spend,” so what the Council seems to be asking is that the mayor work with them to spend money. If that is the case, why don’t they just pass legislation doing that? That is, after all, one of the main jobs of a legislature: appropriating funds. Instead, they just gesture at their jobs and ask the mayor to do it.
Kenney, to his credit, has rejected the idea, noting that he is already doing all of the tangible things that City Council is imploring him to do. But, if that is the case, we must also note that whatever he’s doing hasn’t actually done anything to reduce crime — gun-related or otherwise. Standing, rallying, and posturing don’t compare favorably to arresting, prosecuting, and jailing.
But even beyond its inherent uselessness, the call for an emergency declaration is a sign of how rotten the basic functioning of democracy is becoming in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s the hangover from the pandemic, but people have gotten a taste for declaring emergencies. Fearful people crave a strongman’s rule, but in a republic we are supposed to know better than that. We are supposed to trust in the people to elect a responsive government and in the government to do its job in a legal and orderly fashion.
Calling for an emergency decree is admitting that the normal government is not up to the task. There are times for an executive to rule single-handedly, but they are rare. The earliest days of the pandemic may have warranted swift response, just as a foreign invasion or natural disaster might. But none of these factors are at work in Philadelphia right now. City Council was in session until recently, when they began their summer recess. If they had wanted to do anything substantive about this problem, they had months to do it. Instead, they tell the mayor to do it and then throw up their hands in frustration that nothing is fixed.
Kenney and Krasner won’t fix the crime problem, and City Council doesn’t even try. For a city that gave birth to the American republic, we do a poor job of remembering how self-government is supposed to work. Lock up violent criminals and prosecute them to the full extent of the law, and there will be no need for phony emergency decrees.