Sep 26, 2023 - News

The dangerous work of Philadelphia's anti-violence patrols

Illustration of a handgun casting the shadow of a bullhorn on a red background.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Philadelphia violence interrupters say they're beefing up security measures after volunteers were threatened during a peace walk in Kensington.

Why it matters: The patrols are organized to help de-escalate conflict in some of Philly's most dangerous neighborhoods, but the organizers say the recent targeted threat makes it harder for them to recruit volunteers.

Driving the news: Grassroots anti-violence groups Stop Killing Us and Philly Truce have asked for more police officer escorts after the incident on Sept. 17.

Catch up fast: A police escort noticed a masked man on a bicycle trailing the group of anti-violence volunteers while they patrolled Kensington more than a week ago, Jamal Johnson, founder of Stop Killing Us, tells Axios.

  • The masked individual rode around in circles for a while before approaching Johnson and another volunteer around 1am, near their base camp at the corner of A Street and Indiana Avenue.
  • He shouted that volunteers needed to immediately leave the block otherwise "they were going to pull up and clear us out," Johnson said.
  • Johnson told Axios that he filed a police report the next day, believing that volunteers risked becoming victims of a drive-by shooting.

The big picture: The coordinated walks, which are a part of "Operation Hug the Block," began last month as a way for activists to prevent and raise awareness of gun violence in Philadelphia. They plan to continue the patrols until the November election.

  • "We want to send a message to politicians. There's still a lot of carnage and crime going on out there," Johnson said.

By the numbers: While the city eclipsed 500 killings each of the last two years, homicides are down nearly 20% this year.

How it works: Organizers patrol dozens of the city's most violent blocks, many of which are afflicted by gangs and organized drug trafficking, between 10pm and 4am.

  • They set up a pop-up base camp in the neighborhood while volunteers patrol surrounding streets, using bullhorns to get their message out to residents. They also paper the block with fliers.
  • Philly Truce co-founders Mazzie Casher and Steven Pickens tell Axios they view their measures as "visible deterrence" and a "low-cost supplement" to an understaffed police department.

What they're saying: City council members denounced the recent threats in a statement and pledged to join organizers during an upcoming peace patrol.

  • "Our commitment to anti-violence must extend beyond words," they said.

A police department spokesperson confirmed to Axios that they're working to identify a suspect in the recent incident.

What we're watching: The volunteer groups say they want to see the city implement a program that would put groups of full-time civilian patrollers in several neighborhoods.


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