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March 31, 2023

Philly mayor's race 2023: How the candidates say they will stop gun violence, opioid abuse

The candidates running for Philadelphia's highest office were invited to explain their solutions for crime and the ongoing public health emergency; these are their responses

2023 Election Mayoral Race
mayor candidates crime Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

How to address crime, particularly the city's homicide rate, is a major part of each Philadelphia mayoral candidate's platform headed in the May 16 primary election. Six candidates outline their plans for PhillyVoice, along with how they will address Philadelphia opioid crisis.

In 2021, Philadelphia hit a sobering new record: 562 homicides.

Though the number killings in a calendar year dipped slightly to 516 in 2022, concerns about the city's murder rate have led some mayoral candidates to pledge to declare a state of emergency as soon as they're in office, triggering new working groups or interagency coordination.

But gun violence is often bound up in another citywide crisis: the ongoing opioid epidemic. The drug market, particularly in Kensington, is also a public health emergency in some candidates' eyes, and deserving of comprehensive solutions.

Six candidates for mayor in the May 16 primary election shared their solutions with PhillyVoice via email, including David Oh, the former councilmember at-large who is the lone candidate on the Republican ballot. Warren Bloom, Amen Brown, Jeff Brown, James DeLeon, Cherelle Parker and Delscia Gray did not respond to requests to participate, but this article will be updated if any of these candidates opt to submit answers to our questions. (Editor's Note: Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Derek Green dropped out of the mayoral race after this questionnaire was published. The candidates' responses were lightly edited only for style and formatting.)

What will you do to reduce gun violence in the city? 

ALLAN DOMB: I have proposed a comprehensive plan to improve community safety, rebuild our broken safety infrastructure and provide opportunity and education to reduce the lure of crime in the future. In my plan, which begins with 10 action steps I will take in my first 100 days, I detail how I will declare a crime emergency on my first day in office, build a public safety cabinet that includes state and federal authorities, and crack down on illegal guns and targeting the most violent.

Gun violence continues to wreak havoc on our communities and causes too many families to suffer. As mayor, I will reduce gun violence and homicides by 50% by the end of my first term. I will do this by focusing on the most violent areas and expanding community policing in neighborhoods with the highest crime rates. To ensure that people's rights are protected, police will receive increased access to regular training, such as illegal straw purchasing training, and supporting additional focused deterrence programs that save lives and deliver positive change.

But it is not enough to focus on illegal guns used in the commission of a crime. I would ensure anyone caught with an illegal gun in any situation or in possession of a gun while committing a crime will be arrested and prosecuted. If for any reason Philadelphia's district attorney refuses to prosecute some gun crimes, I will work with state and federal law enforcement partners to remove those cases from his jurisdiction. Lives and the very future of the city cannot and will not be the subject of political and ideological gamesmanship. 

I will also work with federal and state authorities to stop illegal guns from being brought to Philadelphia in the first place. I will work with state leaders to dramatically increase the penalties for straw purchasers and with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to get dangerous firearms off our streets, crack down on bad actors illegally selling firearms and apprehend individuals involved in illegal firearm trades.

DEREK GREEN: The most pressing issue facing our city is the threat of gun violence. Families and residents do not feel safe in Philadelphia – that's why the first plan I released was a public safety plan to address gun violence. My plan to reduce gun violence has four pillars: presence, accountability, opportunity, and investment. Presence means ensuring every eligible police officer is out working their patrol, and offering hiring bonuses to recruit officers who look like the communities they serve. Presence also means developing relationships with residents outside of patrol, so I will look to require community service hours from all officers in the communities they serve. Accountability means finally addressing the mountain of unsolved and uncleared gun crimes in Philadelphia. By partnering with federal prosecutors, I will augment the work of the district attorney in holding violent offenders accountable. I would also hold our current leadership accountable, and I would not retain Commissioner Outlaw. 

But reducing gun violence requires addressing the systemic causes: poverty, and lack of economic opportunity. That's why the second half of my plan is devoted to investment in communities. By increasing our focused deterrence programming, I will ensure that anyone stuck in the cycle of poverty and violence has a path to a family sustaining job and career. I will also use place-based community initiatives to promote more green space and less blight in the most underserved communities. We need to give our kids and families the chance to thrive in their own neighborhoods, with clean spaces and good-paying jobs. 

In summary: We can keep our community safe without over-criminalizing our citizens. As a Black Philadelphian, and as a former assistant district attorney, I know that balance is possible. In a Green administration, we will get illegal guns off our streets, and we will put an end to the gun violence epidemic tearing families apart.

HELEN GYM: As mayor, I will show a relentless commitment to ensuring that every Philadelphian is safe and feels safe. The effectiveness of our city's approach to public safety and gun violence is reliant on a whole governance, deeply coordinated, all-hands-on-deck approach focused on identifying and addressing problems in our communities, utilizing evidence-based strategies driven by data, and showcasing careful attention to implementation and outcomes. 

Our city can't solve problems it doesn't identify or prioritize. On Day 1, I will enact a State of Emergency on gun violence and convene all agencies in an all-hands-on-deck effort to: reduce illegal guns; provide interventions to stop those in the path of violence; and support victims. 

I know that Philadelphia must immediately see quantifiable and quality improvements in public safety. The mayor's role is not simply to react to and punish crime, but to prevent it. Cross-agency collaboration is necessary to identify and support communities, as well as individuals who are in the path of violence. In neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by violence, I will address blight and environmental conditions by improving street lighting, towing abandoned cars, and improving sanitation. Health and mental health agencies will ramp up services and outreach with a focus on reducing barriers to access treatment. I helped start the first non-police mental health crisis response unit so trained personnel can respond to clear mental health emergencies. A lack of leadership in the mayor's office has left this program in a pilot phase – I will expand the program across the city. 

Of course, as I have throughout my career, I will have a specific focus on youth. No other candidate in this race has any comprehensive plan for young people. I will focus on youth employment, year round support outside of schools, a morning-to-night, 365-day approach to caring for our children, home, mental health and addiction services, and serious attention to ramping up culturally adept and skilled community mediators. I also will prioritize a city-led effort with more community partnerships to ensure visible safe routes to schools so no parent has to fear that their child could be harmed simply going to and from school. 

We know that if we're going to make our communities safer long-term, we have to address the fundamental, root causes of crime and violence. That means comprehensive investments in education, human services, affordable housing, and workforce development, in addition to refocusing policing towards the ultimate goal of reducing homicides and violent crime, and solving cases.

DAVID OH: First, I will act to immediately begin reducing gun violence and violent crime through visible, intelligent community policing and law enforcement. There are two main sources of the increased gun violence Philadelphia is experiencing. The first is drug gangs murdering rival drug-gang members because of the lucrative, illegal drug trade. The second is young people killing other young people, or those related to them, because of social conflicts, often broadcast on social media platforms. The failure to enforce criminal and public safety laws because of instruction to the police not to arrest, and the district attorney's decision not to prosecute a variety of criminal violations, has led to a sense of lawlessness and increased criminal behavior. The way to reduce murder and violent crime is through visible community policing in the areas that need them most. 

As mayor, I will ensure that all criminal and public safety laws are enforced. Police will no longer turn a blind eye to "minor" violations. Police will be present and active in the neighborhoods that have the most gun violence. They will also be vigilant at schools, community centers, public transportation and public gathering places. The emergency 911 system will be fully operational and calls will be answered immediately and police dispatched quickly. The message must be sent clearly and widely that the old, "weak on crime" policies are no longer in place. Criminal conduct and reckless behavior will be punished in Philadelphia. Illegal guns will no longer be overlooked. Police will be focused on getting illegal firearms off the streets. If the district attorney does not prosecute, I will refer those cases to the Pennsylvania Attorney General for prosecution. I will also request that a unit of city lawyers be deputized to prosecute illegal gun possession cases, as well as minor crimes not being prosecuted by the current D.A., such as retail theft. 

Once immediate action has been put in place to stop gun violence and violent crime, I will begin cleaning and greening the city. Potholes will be filled, streets cleaned, parks will be cared for, sidewalks repaired, lighting will be improved, illegally parked vehicles will be towed and illegal dumping laws will be enforced. Public transportation will be cleaned and patrolled by uniformed police officers. Prohibited conduct in public areas will be enforced in accordance with the law. 

I will start making corrective action in the most troubled communities, with visible signs that we care and are changing things for the better. Recreation centers will be improved and better equipped. Libraries will be reimagined with better technology such as smart devices, computers, gaming and 3D printers, and better resources that can be borrowed such as musical instruments and electronics. School buildings will be repaired and remodeled or new ones will be built. Vocational education and training will be available to all students. Longer school hours and summer enrichment will be available in low income neighborhoods with teachers who volunteer and receive increased salary for more instruction and engagement. Affordable housing projects will provide new housing and rental in neighborhoods that need them, using the percentage of available neighborhood skilled labor. I will work with local businesses to see how the city can assist them. I will bring awareness of employment opportunities and related workforce development programs into these communities. Community College will be properly funded according to state law so that it can offer more classes with better resources in its main campus and satellite campus.

MARIA QUIÑONES SÁNCHEZ: As Philadelphia's Accountability Mayor, I will make sure that every city leader and every city department is working to make Philadelphia safer. When our only answer is for police to show up after a crime, that means government has failed. My comprehensive public safety strategy reimagines the role of all government departments, while transforming the police and criminal legal system. With training, equipment, and innovation, all city workers will contribute to our public safety mission. 

Our police department is in a deployment crisis, and far too many officers are doing administrative work that can be done by civilians. We must completely reassess deployment to prioritize 911 response, fully staffing the narcotics unit to address the source of the most violent crime, and deploying foot and bike patrols both in neighborhoods and on commercial corridors. 

As mayor, I will initiate a forensic audit of the PPD's $800 million budget, and bring in a civilian CFO. We need to focus our investments on resources and technology that help officers prevent and solve crimes. 

I will also institute a public safety dashboard tracking data from the entire criminal justice system – not just the police but also the defenders, D.A., courts, probation and parole, prisons, and re-entry services. We need to see very clearly where we have roadblocks and where we can bring in evidence-based solutions and national best practices to build a fairer and more cost-effective system.

REBECCA RHYNHART: I will approach the gun violence crisis with the urgency it deserves and with evidence-based solutions that halt the violence in the short-term, as well as address the long-term, root causes of the problem. As mayor, I will take the following actions: 

1. I will immediately sign an executive order activating the emergency operations center to tackle gun violence. This order will direct operating departments to coordinate resources and services with specific focus on the 14 zip codes (out of 40 in the city) experiencing the highest levels of gun violence.

2. My administration will implement intervention strategies that reach the people most at risk of shooting or being shot and offer them a way out of the lifestyle with mentorship, therapy, job training and employment, working with anti-violence leaders that have been successful in our communities.

3. We will course correct to address the lawlessness experienced by our residents by giving police officers the tools they need to de-escalate situations that are likely to become violent. In advance of these updates to policy, I will ensure there is proper training in place for police officers and implement robust diversionary programs and thorough reviews of any arrests that may result from these changes.

4. To reduce gun violence, we must take steps to get illegal guns off our streets. Most shootings in Philadelphia are perpetrated with illegal firearms. Thus, I will work with the appropriate agencies to enforce our laws that prohibit illegal firearms and work with the district attorney, police department and courts to review illegal firearm cases and ensure we are working together to prosecute those responsible.

5. While serving as controller, my office conducted an audit of the police department and made recommendations to improve policing in our city. As mayor, I will implement these changes, including civilianization of our police department when roles do not require trained officers, implementing community-first policing and addressing disparity in 911 response time by neighborhood.

6. Gun violence in Philadelphia is unquestionably an issue of racial justice. The neighborhoods most affected by violence are the same that have experienced historical disinvestment. Under my administration, we must — and we will — invest in these neighborhoods to provide place-based strategies to clean and green these neighborhoods, improve the schools, provide localized job training, and create pathways to good jobs with family-sustaining wages.

How will you address the continuing effects of the opioid crisis? 

ALLAN DOMB: I understand that crime is usually a symptom of underlying problems, including addiction. The addiction epidemic in Kensington is a humanitarian crisis. For too long, Philadelphia leaders have seemingly turned a blind eye to the severity of the problem. Under my leadership, that will stop and the city will aggressively move to treat those suffering with addiction and identify and prosecute drug dealers who have operated openly and with impunity for too long. 

As I committed to do in my community safety plan, in my first week as mayor, I will declare a Public Health Emergency in Kensington and work with state authorities to coordinate disaster relief efforts through the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. In addition to providing treatment for those suffering with addiction, the effort will provide wraparound services, including for transitory housing and health care. I will also coordinate increased police patrols in the area, close down open air drug markets, clean all vacant lots and seal abandoned buildings in the area. 

I also understand the opioid crisis is now impacting communities across the city, regardless of zip code or economic circumstances. As mayor, I would ensure that anyone impacted by this public health epidemic can receive the support they need.

DEREK GREEN: As mayor, I would focus on supporting both preventative measures and recovery resources in order to combat the opioid epidemic. We need to do a better job as the city in connecting families to after school and aftercare programs that can put a child on a path away from drugs and crime. That is why I have been vocal in my support of the revitalization of Philadelphia Safe and Sound, which streamlined access to those important programs and connects them with the families who need them. In regards to recovery, there needs to be an escalation in the partnership between public and private organizations in order to connect those who struggle with addiction with the services they need to recover. That only happens with leadership from the mayor's office and that is the perspective I will bring to the role.

HELEN GYMAddiction is a public health issue, and recovery is a process (not a final destination). There is rightly growing recognition of the importance of truly treating addiction as a public health issue, and rejecting counterproductive and failed approaches of the past. I have consistently supported efforts to reorient our systems around this recognition, including supporting a move away from criminalizing addiction and related social issues, and shifting towards (and encouraging the expansion of) pre-arrest diversion and non-coercive approaches to helping connect people with treatment services. I have led major efforts to better support young people dealing with mental and behavioral health issues, pushing both the city and the school district to reform our child welfare, truancy, special education, and disciplinary systems that were resulting in institutionalization and abuse of young people instead of providing them the supportive community-based care and resources they need. 

As mayor, I will continue this work and I will champion increases in funding for behavioral health care and lead efforts to dedicate the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state relief funds to spending priorities that centered behavioral health as a key part of the city's anti-violence strategies. My Youth-Powered Anti-Violence Agenda lays out a road map for investing in trauma-focused care and resources, both citywide and in our schools, and prioritized solving the workforce crisis that currently limits access to care by building and expanding a fully-trained and culturally-competent therapeutic workforce. I will also continue to push for efforts to expand a 24/7, citywide, community crisis response for mental and behavioral health care issues, and fight to dedicate more funding for this critical resource.

DAVID OHAs a councilmember, I introduced the first resolution to combat the opioid and heroin crisis.  I held six public hearing across the city and heard from expert witnesses. I began to build a coordinated effort with surrounding counties, including Camden, New Jersey. The opioid/heroin response has many bureaucratic failures that can easily be corrected. Unfortunately, the opportunity to provide better service was lost when the focus became a battle between those who were for safe-injection sites and those who were opposed. The polices of this administration, as evidenced in Kensington, are a failure. Those policies must be discontinued. As mayor, my administration will help drug-addicted persons who wish to escape drug addiction. We will not enable drug-addicted persons to remain in a life of misery here in Philadelphia. Laws will be enforced in Kensington. The enforcement of laws will bring about the reduction of people coming from outside the city to live in and around the high-intensity, drug-dealing area of Kensington Avenue. It will be far better for them not to come to Kensington Avenue and far better for those who want help. It will reduce homicides, violent crime, abuse of minors and prostitution. It will make an immediate and positive difference for the residents. The reduction in profits for criminal organizations will lessen the grip they have on threatening the community and keeping victims addicted to illegal drugs. That will help reduce addiction now and into the future.

MARIA QUIÑONES SÁNCHEZThere is no mayoral candidate who knows the complexities of this situation the way I do, and I have said publicly that Kensington is part of the reason I felt I had to run for mayor. Kensington is my neighborhood. As councilmember representing the 7th District, I worked every day to address the short-term crises and to bring long-term investment in better quality of life.

I believe we should work closely with state and federal law enforcement partners to address the international drug trade that causes as much as 70% of our gun violence and has perpetuated the open air drug markets which have concentrated a public health emergency in the streets of Kensington. State and federal agencies are better equipped to pursue the largest organizations and perpetrators. Furthermore, when larger jurisdictions take over the prosecution of cases, Philadelphia taxpayers pay much less of the cost. 

Individuals who are struggling with substance use and mental health concerns are much more likely to find a successful recovery if they are given access to treatment options rather than being incarcerated, so I highly support drug court and diversion/treatment programs to end incarceration of individuals because of their health issues. 

Philadelphia's behavioral health and welfare system have a combined budget of over $3.7 billion, and we need to completely realign our behavioral health spending and our special needs housing. We have the opportunity with one-time federal funds to make bolder investments to have a lasting impact on our city, and I will prioritize family stability, expansion of recovery housing, and no-barrier access to treatment. 

This is a citywide problem with residents in need of neighborhood-based services. Certain neighborhoods have limited these services, which has contributed to the failed containment strategy in Kensington. 

As mayor, I am committed to fully funding the community-led Restore Kensington plan and dedicate an interdepartmental effort to intervening in our citywide public health and safety crisis related to opioid use.

REBECCA RHYNHART: There were more than 1,200 overdose deaths in the city of Philadelphia in 2021. Our city is facing an opioid crisis that is escalating as the illegal drug supply continues to be compromised. A failed containment policy has allowed an open-air drug market to overtake Kensington and left individuals suffering from substance use disorder to fend for themselves in the streets across our city.

This is a failure of the government, and the residents, families, and business owners are left to deal with the fallout in their parks, in front of their businesses, and at their doorsteps. Our residents deserve better. My administration will ensure those suffering from addiction receive the help they need and crack down on the open-air illegal drug market.

I will direct the operating departments to implement the following strategies:

1. We will deploy more police officers to Kensington and increase foot patrols. Through community policing, my administration will engage with Kensington residents and stakeholders to ensure safety for the families, residents, and business owners who live and work in the neighborhood. The city already has enough budget in the police department to hire hundreds of new officers throughout the city, and as mayor, I will make Kensington a high priority for where these new hires will be assigned to patrol.

2. My administration will implement Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion for low-level offenders, a program that has been successful in other cities. I will explore evidence-based solutions to the addiction crisis that have worked in other places while also evaluating what the city does now, understanding why it is failing, and having the courage to make changes.

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion has seen success in other cities and is one such program that would allow us to direct low-level offenders to work with city case managers to access community-based services that address underlying factors driving their illegal activity, so they can find stability instead of being criminalized. In cities where the LEAD program has been successfully implemented, individuals diverted to these support services are 58% less likely to be arrested again compared to the control group who do not go through the LEAD program.

3. We will break up the open-air drug market through a drug market intervention focused on dealers.

The open-air drug markets in Kensington are a quality-of-life issue that must be shut down as soon as possible. The Rhynhart administration will implement a strategy that identifies street-level dealers and arrests those committing violent acts. For non-violent dealers, this drug market intervention strategy gives them a warning that starting now, continuing to sell illegal drugs will not be tolerated.

My administration will help them get out of the street life with support such as job training and jobs, but if they do not stop, there will be consequences. The message will be clear — the open-air drug market is over.

4. To address the opioid crisis, I will appoint an opioid czar who will report directly to me. This czar will oversee the city's response to make sure all city departments are working together to tackle the status quo, stop the open-air drug market, clean up the streets and get people into treatment. 

5. Additionally, we will implement robust community responder teams with representatives from appropriate city departments to offer services to those suffering from addiction. Individuals with substance use disorder face a cross-section of challenges that require a response from multiple city departments. On inauguration day, I will sign an executive order directing the operating departments to form a robust community responder model where city departments — Health, Behavioral Health, Homeless Services, and others — work in cooperation to address all of the factors that contribute to our city's addiction crisis and get our affected residents the help they need. We need to lean in and scale up these programs now.

6. Finally, my administration will streamline intake at city-contracted facilities to ensure that those seeking treatment receive the care they need until they can be placed in long-term treatment.
 We must ensure that city services can provide residents who suffer from substance use disorder with consistent pathways to receive the long-term treatment they need to get their lives back on track, including immediate rapid intake into treatment. The best way we can facilitate this transition from short-term to long-term services is to cut through the red tape that makes the process less efficient and thus less accessible.

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