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Firearm violence in Philadelphia almost doubles after COVID-19 lockdown measures: report

Written by on February 13, 2021

After the state of Pennsylvania implemented stringent containment measures in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, firearm violence in the city of Philadephia increased. 

A new report from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University showed that measures taken in an effort to stop the spread of the virus compounded inequities and exacerbated problems already prevalent in low-income communities — some with fatal consequences. 

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In a Feb. 11 news release, researchers stated that the increase in incidents could be linked back to the enactment of a lockdown and other public health policies, as well as nationwide protests ignited by the Minneapolis Police killing of George Floyd in May of last year. 

The release noted that firearm-injured patients were presenting at higher rates to surgeons and trauma centers around the city in the wake of these events. 

The team used data from the Philadelphia Police Department’s registry of shooting victims dating back to Jan. 1, 2016, through Nov. 26 of last year.

“And so, we took those data and aggregated them by week, which means that we just very simply converted them to accounts of shootings per week,” the report’s senior author and an assistant professor of epidemiology Christopher N Morrison, PhD, told Fox News. “And, we used the data from…the first week of 2016 up until when we did the analysis which was the end of November. And then, we used the statistical methods”

The study, published in the JAMA Network on Feb. 10., followed three specific time points including the Mar. 15, 2020 closure of nonessential businesses, the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd, and the Jun. 26, 2020 partial lifting of coronavirus containment policies. 

Using what are called autoregressive integrated moving average (ARIMA) models, the group systematically tested “local and 52-week seasonally lagged autoregressive, difference, and moving average terms to remove trends and account for temporal dependencies” and three transfer functions “assessed associations between the interruption variables and the dependent measure.”

The team selected the best fitting model based on ARIMA terms and transfer functions. The statistical models were estimated using SCA Workbench software.

“All it does is it looks at trends over time. And, you can specify interruptions. So, and it points to inflection: where the trends change,” Morrison said. 

Their work concluded that during the 256 weeks included in the study, 7,159 individuals were shot in the city, breaking down to an average of 25 individuals shot per week. 

A vehicle is on fire behind a protester holding a sign during a rally on Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Philadelphia, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being taken into police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A vehicle is on fire behind a protester holding a sign during a rally on Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Philadelphia, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being taken into police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In the weeks after the city’s first containment policy, however, that average almost doubled to 46 individuals shot per week.

“The killing of George Floyd and the partial lifting of containment policies were not independently associated with any changes in shooting incidence,” they added. 

“What we found was that the best description of these data statistically, was that there was an inflection point at that March 16 week. That was…a gradual permanent, which means it was a curved slope upwards. So, it’s not an abrupt step. It’s not an immediate increase. It’s just a gradual increase that tapers,” Morrison stated. “And so, testing the other inflection points — the killing of George Florida and the partial lifting of the containment policies — didn’t seem to affect that trend.”

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While violent crime notably rose in other cities across the country, the report said that limitations include that their conclusions may not be generalizable to other contexts. 

In addition, the data set from Philadelphia Police did not include self-inflicted shootings, and missing or inaccurate reports could bias the results, they warn. 

Lastly, the authors wrote that social and economic distress in the City of Brotherly Love may account for their observed associations and that firearm violence in Philadelphia has been “empirically tied to poverty and structural place-based economic disinvestment.” 

Morrison said his co-authors like first author and Temple University Director of Trauma Research and Assistant Professor of Surgery Jessica H. Beard, MD, MPH had seen the increases firsthand working in trauma centers over the last year. 

This Monday, May 25, 2020 photo shows a discarded glove on a storm drain in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This Monday, May 25, 2020 photo shows a discarded glove on a storm drain in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“In the city of Philadelphia, shootings are often geographically concentrated in lower-income communities,” Beard said in the release. “These communities have not only been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus disease itself, but the pandemic and its associated policies have also exacerbated issues that were already present, including unemployment, poverty, structural racism and place-based economic disinvestment, which are empirically tied to firearm violence in Philadelphia.”

“We know that in Philadelphia gun violence is very heavily socially and spatially structured. It’s concentrating in certain areas and amongst certain populations. And, the COVID-19 has affected those same disadvantaged groups. And so, it seems very plausible that that’s what’s going on there,” Morrison said. “So, try to understand whether that is indeed the case is an important question.”

Morrison said once they fully understood this increase, then people could do something about it — though they have more work to do and the prior trend tells them nothing about what might happen in the future.

“Every additional shooting is another person, another body that they need to stitch up. It’s a person who’s got a family, with a history. And so, the human cost is something that is very important to emphasize,” he concluded.

According to reporting from The Philadelphia Inquirer, nearly 500 people were killed and more than 2,200 shot in the city last year. 

They said that more than 2,240 people had been shot since Jan. 1 — 40% increase about what police had ever recorded, although they highlighted that the statistics dated back to 2007 when the department first started to keep track of shooting victims separately from the broader category of assaults involving a gun.

Additionally, the number of those killed in 2020 was 40% higher than the year before and more than in all of 2013 and 2014 combined.

“The newly released study by Temple University examining the connection between the increase in gun violence and containment policies and practices enacted to respond to the global COVID-19 pandemic affirm that we in the Administration are looking at this issue of gun violence and systemic oppression with the right lens,” a spokesperson for Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney told Fox News. 

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“While it was critical to take all CDC and science-based actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 — which included enacting the city’s stay-at-home order, as well as businesses and gathering restrictions — there is no question that the pandemic contributed to job loss, and reduced access to social services and youth activities designed to reduce violence,” they said. “The Administration also recognizes how difficult it has been for on-the-ground crisis response teams to personally interact with individuals in need of alternatives to violence, given the social-distancing requirements.”

“The pandemic also resulted in the closing of courts, and inhibited the ability of probation officers to make their personal contacts and check in on individuals assigned to them in the criminal justice system,” the spokesperson continued. “These are just some of the many ways COVID-19 caused increases to gun violence, however we remain committed to saving lives, and lifting up our neighborhoods as the great assets they are, with public safety as the highest priority.”

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