The Philadelphia City Council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence met on Feb. 20 to discuss the effects of gun violence on victims and their loved ones.
Several family members of homicide victims and survivors of gun violence testified at the hearing.
“It also brings me great joy to see that the City is working to reduce gun violence in our community,” said Jonathan Wilson, a community activist and disabled survivor of gun violence who testified at the meeting
Smith and other testifiers said that programs in Philadelphia that assist survivors need additional funding.
Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson and Curtis Jones were joined on the main panel by Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, the founder of the anti-violence advocacy group Mothers In Charge. Her son Khaaliq was shot and killed in 2001.
“Today is about the advocates, just to be quite frank,” said Johnson. “There’s a lot of issues when you deal with the issue of gun violence, but we’re specifically zeroing in on victims, co-victims, and the survivors of gun violence to make sure they have a voice and a seat at the table.”
The term “co-victims” generally refers to the family members and loved ones of a victim of gun violence.
Roz Pichardo, a co-victim of gun violence and the founder of the advocacy group Operation Save Our City, lost her boyfriend to gun violence in 1994 and her brother in 2012. In 2001, her identical twin sister died by suicide. Pichardo noted that her sister struggled with her mental health but was still able to access a firearm.
“The ripple effect that gun violence has had on my life has been overwhelming,” Pichardo said. “What is the city doing to help us?”
Danielle Outlaw, the new Philadelphia police commissioner, testified before City Council for the first time during the hearing. She affirmed her commitment to treating families of victims and survivors of gun violence with dignity and emphasized the work of the Philadelphia Police Department on victim’s compensation and services.
Johnson-Speight described how a lack of communication between police and communities has dire consequences. She explained that the man who killed her son was accused of killing another man five months prior, but calls to homicide detectives went unanswered.
Outlaw responded that she is a mother of two sons and did not know what she would do in such a situation.
“All I can do is put myself in the shoes of each of you and make sure that any decisions that we make are informed by that very passion and emotion that I feel if it were to happen to my loved ones,” she said.
Outlaw took office at a time when gun violence in Philadelphia has surged, and there were 60 homicides in the city by the end of February. Along with improving investigative practices in order to solve more homicides, Outlaw said police will work to be more sensitive towards the families of victims of gun homicides by working on their next of kin meeting protocol to improve communication between detectives and the loved ones of homicide victims.
“The body of a loved one is much more than a crime scene to their family,” Outlaw said. “But too often, family members would be prohibited from even viewing their loved ones at the hospital for fear of compromising any evidence.”
She hopes to work with more emergency departments to create policies that ensure the preservation of evidence while respecting the loved ones of a homicide victim.
“A memorandum of understanding was created between the homicide unit and Temple University Hospital that would not only allow all evidence to be preserved, but would also allow those families who wished to see their loved ones the opportunity to do so,” Outlaw said. “This may not seem like a lot on its face, but to the families it allows everything to slow down in a hectic environment and for the grieving process to begin with dignity and respect.”
Jaleel King is a professional photographer who was shot by a neighbor when he was 8-years-old. Paralyzed from the waist down, he emphasized the need for accessibility for disable individuals throughout Philadelphia.
“To this day, I still have buckshot in my body, I deal with the idea of whether or not lead poisoning is having any effect,” he said. “Considering everything I’ve been through over the past 30-something years, I’m doing quite well. But I could be doing better if the City would help—from parking, sidewalks, and obviously housing.”
Even though disabled survivors of gun violence may be eligible for victim’s services, compensation, and city and state-run programs, a lack of accessibility can render these efforts functionally useless for disabled Philadelphians, King said.
A lifelong Philadelphian, King detailed his struggles with finding accessible housing in Philadelphia.
“A lot of the issues that seem to come up when it comes to people with disabilities is certain assumptions of what we are and what we aren’t,” he said. “A lot of us have families. Some of us have aspirations, and quite frankly for me and my situation, I don’t quite understand how I feel as though I’ve done everything right and still have very little to show for it.”
King currently lives in an accessible apartment, but has been unable to take advantage of Section 8, the federal housing voucher program, even though he is eligible. He was on a waitlist for Section 8 funding for years, and he was subsequently unable to find an eligible accessible apartment.
“If I’m moving to housing with a step there, or multiple steps, that’s one thing,” he said. “But what happens when the bathroom is not wheelchair accessible? Because the house is not accessible, but it’s expected of me to be able to just take whatever is given to me because of Section 8.”
After testimony, Johnson said the committee and council would follow up on the findings of the hearing.
“We’re going to work together to put together strategic recommendations and things that we can work on,” he said.
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