A new-media project, GunCrisis.org, uses old-school journalism tactics to study Philly's homicides.
Midnight comes and goes. For the first time in 11 nights, the city of Philadelphia has gone a full day and night without a homicide.
The relief doesn’t last long. Just before 1 a.m., the scanner resting in photojournalist Joe “Kaz” Kaczmarek’s lap crackles to life: report of shots fired at 40th Street and Girard Avenue.
Kaz has been driving around the city with journalist and fellow crime-scene vet Jim MacMillan for hours when the call comes in. They’re a few miles away. Kaz turns around and floors it. “Right now the heartbeat is going,” he says. MacMillan co-pilots, calling out when it’s clear to turn.
The car barrels west on Girard toward a bright blur of blue and red flashing lights. When they get within a few feet of the scene, Kaz slams on the brake and holds the wheel with his left hand while he grabs for his camera with the right. The camera clicks in rapid rat-a-tats as cops heave a bleeding man into the back seat of a police cruiser. A woman is heard yelling, “Where the fuck are you taking him?” over and over as the cruiser lurches backward, skids out and speeds east down Girard, siren screaming.
“I feel sick,” MacMillan says.
Kaz jumps out of the car. MacMillan stays behind with the equipment and takes notes. It starts to drizzle. In the street, copper casings glint as flashlights sweep over them. A baseball hat splattered in blood rests on the sidewalk. Cops on the scene say that the victim, a 20-year-old black man, was shot several times in the chest, stomach and right arm in the middle of 40th Street. After he was shot, he limped down Girard toward a pizza parlor bar joint, leaving a gruesome, 15-foot-long trail of blood in his wake. He staggered into the bar, where someone inside called police. Through the glass front door, patrons can still be seen smiling and sipping cocktails.
Across the street, a woman stands on the corner, watching police tape off the area.
“I was just with him,” she says of the victim, who is her sister’s baby’s father. “This is crazy. I need to call people.” She wanders off.
A young black man walking by shouts into the air. “What is up with Philadelphia? Why do they be killing people for no reason?”
“You can tell when shit is about to happen,” he says to no one in particular. “The wind moves funny.”
Kaz stalks the perimeter of the tape, shooting the scene from every angle. He steps over a puddle of blood in the street and points it out to one of the officers. As he wraps up, the Philadelphia Police Department’s official crime-scene photographer arrives. She kneels down and draws a small circle around the hat with chalk and snaps a photo.
Back in the car, MacMillan is already iPhone-editing video he shot of pulling up to the scene. In a few days, he’ll post the video to GunCrisis.org, an “open-source journalism experiment” he launched last month that aims to explore the city’s homicide-by-gun epidemic and possible solutions while carefully, purposefully, avoiding slipping down the rabbit holes of the gun-policy debate.
“The gun debate has been around as long as I’ve been alive,” says MacMillan, 51. “I’m looking for new solutions. I’m not interested in the gun rights debate from either side or blaming the police, or the mayor, or city budget. I want to know what we haven’t talked about and I want to know who is doing things that work. I just want to know what’s going to work.”
MacMillan doesn’t know what solutions will curb the gunfire crisis in Philadelphia, and he doesn’t yet know how to financially sustain the independent, new-media project he envisions, either. What he does know is that murder by gun is the most important story in Philadelphia—in national newspapers, it’s the story of Philadelphia—and that it needs to be explored intensely, from every angle, with every journalistic resource in the city.
“First thing I’m trying to do is build a community of like-minded people and start to gather information on all the other individuals and organizations in the city working on it,” says MacMillan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and 17-year veteran of the Daily News. “It’s open-ended. I don’t know how it’s going to play out but I want everyone to participate.”
“The goal is to reduce gun deaths and find replicable solutions,” he continues. “[I’ll] chronicle effective efforts already in progress, both near and far. And I am wondering if we can enhance their success by bringing them to new audiences.”
With a homicide rate ranked the worst of the country’s 10 biggest cities, Philadelphia far exceeds the national averages for both the number of homicides and the percentage accomplished with a gun. Of 324 homicides last year, 85 percent were the result of a gun, all owned illegally. Nationally, 67.5 percent of all homicides are committed with a firearm, according to FBI data from 2010, the latest available.