There's a mystery on the corner of Chew and Olney Avenues.
The fact that 27 homicides have occurred over the last five years within a half-mile radius of this seemingly calm intersection in upper Northwest Philadelphia is not so unusual.
What’s unusual is that 17 of those 27 remain unsolved at the time of this report.
To the south, La Salle University is in full swing with midterms, a raw February wind whipping students across campus. There’s a steady parade of shoppers in and out of the Fresh Grocer across the street. Unarmed campus security guards patrol within eyeshot of 14th District police cruisers. The adjacent Belfield neighborhood is humming with family life.
Which raises the question: how could so many murders go unseen here?
A Philly Weekly analysis of solved and unsolved homicides between 2012 and 2016 found that the Philadelphia Police Department’s 14th District, which encompasses this area, had the lowest clearance rate among the city’s 21 police districts, even those with far more violent crime.
In the 14th District, which spans Germantown to Stenton, detectives have taken on 79 homicide cases in the last five years; 49 of those investigations were still active as of February. That amounts to a 38 percent clearance rate over the last half-decade, the lowest among all of the city’s police districts.
“As much as you many think that you can look at certain neighborhoods and assume that they’ll come out and help us, that's not the case,” says PPD Homicide Capt. James Clark. “The culture of no snitching is hard to overcome, and that’s citywide.”
Nervous parents of La Salle students: breathe. Statistically, the police district that wraps around the university is far from the most dangerous in the city. And neighborhood residents are as routinely concerned with unruly college students as they are with gun violence claiming lives on the streets.
In the big picture, police say that serious crime in Philadelphia fell to an unseen low last year. Annually, homicides have stayed well under 300 for over four years now. But the data suggests that the clearance rate doesn’t correspond with the body count.
Last year, just 16 of the city’s annual 277 homicides occurred in the 14th District, yet only three of them were “cleared” by detectives. In 2012, a considerably more violent year with 331 homicides in Philly, this same district cleared more than half of its 20 murders.
This decline appears evident in areas with far more bloodshed, too.
A grim trend
Citywide homicide clearance rates dropped below 50 percent last year, according to a recent report in the Inquirer. It was a big deal that received little attention, perhaps because it’s so difficult to explain: less than half of 2016’s homicides went unsolved, marking the city’s lowest clearance rate since John Street headed into his sophomore year as mayor.
Some detectives attributed the decline to stricter interrogation rules implemented in 2014, according to the Inquirer. Speaking with PW, Captain Clark pointed to the perennial reluctance of witnesses to come forward, as well as the slimming number of homicide detectives who are already working more overtime hours than any other class of city employee, though he could only speak limitedly of his unit’s manpower woes.
“What I can say is [Police Commissioner Richard Ross] just transfered 11 new detectives to us, which will really, really help with the staffing,” he said.
Looking at a longer timeline, nearly a third of the city’s solved and unsolved homicides since 2012 happened in just a handful of the police department’s 21 districts.
North Philadelphia witnessed the brunt of this carnage: 429 of the city’s 1,385 homicides in this timeframe happened in the 22nd, 24th, and 25th districts, which stretch from Strawberry mansion in the west to Port Richmond in the east, from West Kensington to Hunting Park.
In the last five years, all three of these districts have seen decline similar to that described in the Northwest.
In 2012, clearance rates were as high as 60 percent. But by last year, they dropped exponentially. Detectives in the 22nd District, which runs from Temple University to the Schuylkill River from Girard to Lehigh Avenues, cleared just six of the 30 homicides in that district last year. That’s a mere 20 percent.
“There's really no rhyme or reason why some districts are more successful than others,” Clark said. “In certain areas we get even less participation or input from the community than others, but it’s a citywide problem.”
Clark added that some homicide cases from 2016 may be near closure, which would alter year’s overall clearance rate.
Meanwhile, the city’s five-year homicide clearance rate remains in decent standing at 58 percent — slightly under the national rate of 64 percent. In 2012 and 2013, Philadelphia homicide detectives had brought the city’s clearance rate up to a laudable 70 percent. Since then, it’s been three years of decline. Another year or two of unfruitful investigations could push the long-term clearance rate even lower.
The blame game
Rosalind Pichardo is the type of Philadelphian who pays attention to clearance rates. Closing murder investigations is one of the many hopes of her unfunded activist group, Operation Save Our City, which has worked with over 300 families of homicide victims, providing everything from grief support to prayer vigils.
Pichardo’s group has also assisted with at least closed three homicide investigations since she started doing this work in 2012 — though she is reticent about her role.
“I can’t take credit for police work,” she said.
Pichardo notes that most of the detectives she encounters can’t speak very much about cases, but she was disappointed to learn news of the declining clearance rate. From her world, the largest barrier to the problem is still fear.
In Kensington and Fairhill, Pichardo has canvassed drug-ravaged blocks with fliers of murder suspects, combed for witnesses, and refused to take the “snitches get stitches” rule of the streets for an answer, all on behalf of families.
“Families of murder victims are afraid of retaliation,” Pichardo said. “So I tell them if you’re afraid to do it, I’ll do it. And that’s where we try to empower people to speak up. A lot of families are no longer afraid to speak up when it comes to violence in their families. When you help one person in a family, it tends to trickle to other family members."
Some families Pichardo works go as long as six months without hearing from a detective with an update on their case. When cases go unsolved for years, she tries to provide some ongoing support for the families.
“It’s the little things,” she said. “You’re constantly going back to the family the day of the homicide, or on the victim’s birthday, being there through the stages of the grief. It doesn’t get any easier.”
Editor's note: Homicide case statuses are subject to change. Consult with the Philadelphia Police Department before referencing any of the data used in this article.