Philly's biggest problem? Public safety, Philadelphians say

The biggest problem the city faces today, say 44 percent of Philadelphians, is public safety, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The biggest problem Philadelphia faces -- according to Philadelphians -- is public safety, says a survey released by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

That’s a big switch from 2015, when more than a third of Philadelphians told the Pew that K-12 education was the city’s most important issue, and 23 percent said it was public safety.

But this August, when the latest survey was conducted, just 20 percent of the 1,640 Philadelphians surveyed named education as their biggest concern.

Forty-four percent said they believed the city’s major problem is public safety.

Last year’s survey was conducted in February 2015, amid a mayoral primary where education dominated the conversation. And the question this year was posed slightly differently -- pollsters asked respondents what the city’s biggest "problem" was, instead of its biggest "issue," which might have affected how people responded.

Still, the survey reflects a notable change in Philadelphians’ priorities for the city.

“The magnitude of the change is striking,” said Larry Eichel, the director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative. “It’s a huge change.”

Exactly why Philadelphians have become more concerned about public safety is more nebulous, since the surveyors didn’t ask people the reasoning behind their answers.

Murders are up 4 percent from this time last year in Philadelphia, although crime in other categories like burglary has hit historic lows, according to  Philadelphia police crime statistics. The country as a whole is experiencing an uptick in violent crime and murders, a trend that has been reported on heavily in the press and become a major issue in the presidential campaign, with  Republican nominee Donald Trump promising to restore “law and order” in his acceptance speech.

“Public opinion surveys like this capture the mood of the public about the issues of the day, and violence has been emerging in Philadelphia and other big cities, like Chicago, as a dominant concern reflected in the press,” said John Roman, a Philadelphia-based senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. 

The country is also emerging from the Great Recession -- a time when short-term issues such as economic insecurity dominated people’s most pressing concerns, Roman said. Now, as the economy improves and those issues wane, long-term concerns are returning to the forefront.

“And the biggest long-term issue in Philadelphia,” Roman said, “is violence. Philadelphia is a city that’s experienced a lot of violence for a long time.”

Thirty-nine percent of respondents told Pew that they felt unsafe outside in their neighborhoods at night, a number that has stayed essentially the same since 2014. So, while more Philadelphians are concerned about public safety in their city as a whole, worries about their own personal safety haven’t increased. That’s common, Roman said.

“People have always felt relatively safer in their own neighborhoods than in their city at large,” he said. “Rhetoric about violence in ‘inner cities,’ which has pervaded the presidential election, may well give people new concerns about how safe their city is as a whole. But I’m not convinced some of the loudest rhetoric on this topic is driving changes in public opinion -- I think it's reaffirming existing beliefs.”

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said that the public’s perception of crime “is in many instances harder to grapple with than the actual numbers.” The fact that the city has seen an overall drop in homicides since 2007 won’t necessarily matter to a person who has seen a shooting, or to someone alarmed by news coverage of a violent murder.

“I am in no way diminishing the fear of crime that people have,” Ross said. “It’s intangible but it's still very real.”

He said the department is working “tirelessly” to get crime rates down. “There is no acceptable level of crime,” he said.

Mayor Kenney said he thought the survey's results had "a great deal to do with the national mood." He pointed out that the survey was taken in August, after the national political conventions and a series of high-profile shooting incidents around the country, and reiterated that most Philadelphians said they feel safe in their neighborhoods at night.

"That doesn’t mean we aren’t working very hard every day to combat crime," he said in the statement. "In addition to advocating on the federal and state level for gun control, which is really at the root of all this, we are also pursuing a multi-pronged strategy that tries to keep people from going down the road of violence in the first place."


That includes efforts, funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant, to decrease prison populations, as well as his pre-K initiative and targeted policing of "hot spots" of violence, he said.

The survey also found that more Philadelphians expressed respect for the police; 72 percent said they had a “great deal” or “a good amount” of respect for officers, an increase from 67 percent last year.

 “That increase was more or less across the board, but more pronounced in whites” than in black or Hispanic Philadelphians, Eichel said. 86 percent of white respondents said they respected the police, compared with 60 percent of black respondents and 60 percent of Hispanic respondents.

Another question asked whether respondents trusted the police to treat black and white citizens equally. 60 percent said they did -- up from 55 percent last year -- but that increase was entirely driven by white respondents. Forty-seven percent of black respondents and 45 percent of Hispanic respondents said they trusted the police to treat people equally, the same as in 2015.

That indicates “a wider racial and ethnic gap on the issue,” Eichel wrote in an analysis of the survey.

“You know what that means to me?” Ross asked. “It means we've got work to do. You can't be dismissive. You can't decide those reports are inaccurate. If that's how people feel, we have a responsibility to improve on it by establishing as many partnerships as we can, particularly in neighborhoods where they feel they lack relationships with the police.”