When Jamal Johnson started his hunger strike against the gun violence endemic in Philadelphia on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, he said there were 27 murders at the time.
He ended his 26-day hunger strike after Mayor Jim Kenney finally agreed to meet with Johnson to talk about new steps by the city to address rampant gun violence.
"No one else took it very seriously at the time. Now that we’re at 500, I think people have finally taken some notice,” Johnson told NBC10 in an interview this week, referencing the grim milestone in Philadelphia’s long history as police announced there have been 500 killings since the start of 2021.
The 500th murder took place late Wednesday afternoon when a 55-year-old woman was shot three times in the chest at 7th and Jackson streets in South Philadelphia. She was taken to Jefferson Hospital where she was later pronounced dead. No arrests have been made. Police believe the gunman was the victim's husband.
Surveillance video shows the gunman casually walking away with the gun still in his hand moments after the shooting.
Wednesday's incident was the latest in a string of recent murders in Philadelphia in which women were the victims.
Last Friday a 24-year-old woman was gunned down in front of her twin 4-year-old sons by her ex-boyfriend, according to investigators. Over the weekend, a 32-year-old woman who was seven months pregnant died, along with her unborn child, after someone shot her in the head and stomach as she unloaded gifts from her baby shower.
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With more than a month to go before the end of the year, the city's homicide total seems likely to surpass the 500 murders seen in 1990, which was previously the deadliest year in Philly's recorded history.
“I never stop thinking about the victims and their families and the incredible loss these senseless deaths leave behind. And as we enter this holiday season, I can’t help (but) think of all the incredible potential that has been extinguished by the loss of life,” Kenney said Wednesday as he and other city and community leaders underscored the scourge of gun violence in Philadelphia.
Kenney later released a statement on the 500th homicide.
The alarming rise in killings during the COVID-19 pandemic prompted officials to redouble violence prevention methods.
In June, Philadelphia’s city council approved a fiscal 2022 budget that invests over $155 million in violence prevention programs to help curb the city’s escalating gun violence. That sum includes $22 million in grants for organizations focused on “reducing violence through trauma-informed healing and restorative practices and safe havens and mentorship.”
The new city budget also funds a $400 million program to create affordable housing, preserve neighborhoods, increase job growth, supports anti-poverty measures and continue police reform. It also gives additional funds to revitalize the city’s arts, culture and hospitality sectors.
Philadelphia officials, however, have also been hamstrung by Pennsylvania’s preemption law, which prevents cities from creating and enforcing local gun ordinances. The city is currently engaged in a lawsuit that seeks to allow municipalities to enforce their own local gun control measures. Oral arguments are scheduled for June 9.
Efforts to stem violent crime in Philadelphia have extended beyond the city.
At the state level, Gov. Tom Wolf has urged community-based violence prevention groups to apply for millions of dollars in state grants while also calling for tighter gun control laws. He recently has vowed to veto bills passed by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature that would loosen gun laws.
At the federal level, President Joe Biden’s administration chose Philadelphia as one of 15 cities across the country to take part in a collaborative effort to share violence prevention strategies.
But while Philadelphia Police Department statistics show overall violent crimes in 2020 dropped compared to 2019 – after a rise from 2018’s levels – and while the current rate of overall violent crime is down compared to the year prior, the number of killings has risen.
“The people I talk with every day have a sense of lawlessness in their neighborhoods. They feel like the people who do get caught get off and those who don’t get caught are just doing it over and over again. They feel our government has given up,” Johnson, who held the hunger strike, said.
Now, 2021 figures to be the city’s deadliest year thus far.
“Each and every homicide carries with it a profound sense of loss,“ Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said. “However, for our City to have reached such a tragic milestone - 500 lives cut short - it carries a weight that is almost impossible to truly comprehend."
You can read the rest of Outlaw's statement below.
There are additional resources for people or communities that have endured gun violence in Philadelphia. Further information can be found here.
If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence hotline for help at (800) 799-SAFE (7233) or go to www.thehotline.org for more. States often have domestic violence hotlines, as well.