Image: Podcast addressing gun violence - Aftermath Philadelphia

Capt. Matthew Gillespie. 

Podcast addressing gun violence - Aftermath Philadelphia

By Christopher Doyle

Special to the Press/Review

West Philadelphia is at the epicenter of the city’s terrible, yearlong spike in shootings and murders. Amid calls for city leaders to better communicate how they are responding to the growing crisis, one local police captain is embracing a new way to reach out to the community – by launching a podcast.

Capt. Matthew Gillespie of the 18th police district in West Philadelphia launched the podcast Aftermath Philadelphiain February. The show features conversations between Gillespie and different people in the city who try to prevent shootings or help victims work through the ensuing trauma. Gillespie, an 18-year veteran of the force and a self-described fan of podcasts, said he wanted to talk about gun violence in an accessible way that includes the voices of all the “stakeholders” involved in combating it.

“We cannot deny that there is an increase in gun violence, and it is a crisis,” Gillespie said. “I wanted to get the word out that there are people on the ground level trying their best to really stop this, to prevent this, and then use a forum that I myself like.”

The shootings that are discussed on Aftermath Philadelphia largely affect young men and teenage boys. Guests talk about how they try to help at-risk young people, along with their families, and connect them to opportunities and community support.

“There are a lot of underlying issues with this, whether it be economic, educational, food, mental health, trauma-related issues,” Gillespie said. “But I do want the audience also to understand the large number of different groups that are part of this pie of trying to fix it, whether it be coaches and mentors, doctors, police, [or] violence interrupters.”

The first episode has on three members of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, an organization which sends out respected figures in the community to turn young men and boys away from violence. The PAAN workers talk with Gillespie in the episode about the importance of making personal connections and earning young people’s trust. They also talk about the need to break the vicious cycle of retaliatory shootings, and about how gun violence has left an impact on their own lives.

The second episode has Gillespie interview other West Philadelphia police officers – including Gillespie’s commanding officer, Southwest Police Division Inspector Derrick Wood – who talk about police experiences with stopping violence and discuss police-backed youth programs.

In the third episode, Gillespie interviews a trauma surgeon who details his experiences treating gunshot victims. And in the fourth, local high school football coaches talk with Gillespie about how food insecurity and trauma can contribute to violence.

Gillespie said that the show was for “everybody” – both people who have experienced gun violence, and people looking to better understand the issue and learn about possible solutions. 

 “I want those that don’t necessarily come in contact with us, the police, or PAAN, or any of the other guests on a daily basis to really know what their fellow man and woman are doing out here to make it safe,” Gillespie said. “This issue of gun violence, it affects everybody, it affects you if you live in a neighborhood that’s prevalent with it, it affects you if you don’t live in the neighborhood, even just peripherally.”

The podcast is being released not only in the midst of a yearlong surge in shootings and homicides, but also after a year of protests against racism and police brutality. Deaths like those of George Floyd and Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man who was shot and killed by police in West Philadelphia last October, ignited protests across the country and throughout the city – and strained community relations with police, especially in the Black neighborhoods where gun violence takes a uniquely grave toll. The relationship between the police and the community in Philadelphia was likely hurt further after police deployed tear gas against protestors on Intestate-676 and on 52nd and Market Street late last spring.

Gillespie said that he wanted to challenge what he believes are misconceptions about police and show his podcast audience that officers do care about the communities that they serve.

“The 83 shootings I had last year in 2020 [in the 18th district], it does affect the officers, they are human, they are parents and brothers and sisters, they do respond as if this person was one of their own shot,” Gillespie said. “I see the work, that these officers go above and beyond on their own time to either help solve the case [and] to follow up with the families, so the misconception that we don’t care is one that I would like to help alleviate, but simultaneously I want to also show that the other agencies that are involved [in responding to gun violence], that they care as much also.”

Gillespie added that the podcast could show how officers under his leadership are working to take a more holistic approach to reducing gun violence.

“The conversations I have on the podcast are ones I have with the officers,” Gillespie said. “So, it’s a way to memorialize it, get the officers to buy in, get the officers to be part of a project that’s bigger than themselves.”

Gillespie said that he has personally taken away lessons from the podcast that could help improve the department’s response to gun violence. He highlighted a moment during the podcast when he asked local trauma surgeon Dane Scantling if police were obstructing medical work in the emergency room when trying to conduct witness interviews.

“When I said to Dr. Scantling I always wondered if I got in the way in the E.R., I really took from that to say to my officers, and do a like a little training with them to say, the saving of life is the most important,” Gillespie said. “We as police, while we interact with all the different guests I have and will have [on the podcast], I want to better understand my guests’ role and function so I can support them the best way.”

One entity whose relationship with the police department could be improved is the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Police in West Philadelphia and beyond have publicly expressed anger and alarm over the D.A. office’s low conviction rates on illegal-gun-possession charges under Krasner, which they said could increase gun violence. (Krasner has recently pointed to poor evidence and reluctant witnesses as reasons for the drop in the gun-possession conviction rate and has launched a joint project with Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw to address the issue.) Gillespie said that while he did not know whether the podcast could have any impact on the police-D.A. relationship, he urged interested D.A. employees to listen to the show.

“Are there frustrations when you see individuals caught three times in one year with a gun and they’re still out? – of course – will a podcast help bridge the gap? – you know, I don’t know,” Gillespie said. “Anyone in the district attorney’s office that wants to listen, I encourage them to, I would be happy and honored if they did, just like my counterparts here [in the police department].”

Gillespie’s new podcast comes as city leaders have started responding to the issue of gun violence with more urgency.

Mayor Jim Kenney, at the behest of City Council – and particularly West Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier – has instructed city officials to begin holding press conferences every other week to discuss strategies for lowering the city’s mounting shooting and homicide totals.

Philadelphia, like cities nationwide, has seen a crushing torrent of shootings and homicides over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. There were 499 murders in the city during 2020, the second-highest annual total for the city on record dating back to 1960, and the highest total since 1990. There have been 123 murders recorded in Philadelphia so far in 2021 – a 27%increase over the total at this time last year.

Gillespie said that his show can help promote the efforts of people working to stop this trend and put the city on a path towards change.

“There’s a human side to all this, it’s not just numbers, and there are people on the ground level working their hardest with the backing, honestly, of city government and elected officials to get this done,” Gillespie said. “We just have a lot of work to do.”

Aftermath Philadelphia can be found on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify. New episodes premier about once every two weeks.

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