What Philadelphia reveals about America's homicide surge

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Nakisha Billa's son was still a baby when she decided to make their first flight to safety. It was early in 2000 and she and Domonic were living in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, which had long suffered some of the highest crime rates in the city. Billa was 22, proud to be living in her own place after having been raised in West Philadelphia mostly by her grandparents, and flush with the novelty of motherhood. “When I found out I was carrying Dom, it was the best thing that had ever happened to me," she said. She liked to kiss his feet, and he liked it, too, so much so that he would stick them out invitingly with a big smile on his face.

One unseasonably warm spring day, she walked with Dom to the store to get something to eat. As they were leaving, a fight broke out on the street, with gunfire all around. “I just froze," she said. “There was nothing I could do but just stand there and hold my baby."

By the time they got safely home, she had resolved to leave the neighborhood. She knew her grandparents would take them in, but she preferred to seek her own path, and so she packed up their belongings and sought assistance at a shelter. “I knew that if I didn't do something for Domonic and me, we would always be dependent on someone," she said.

While bouncing around a succession of subsidized apartments, Billa started working in medical billing. But she wasn't happy with the child care center that Dom was in. So she jumped at the chance of a job where, she was told, she would be allowed to bring him with her: driving a school bus. She studied hard for her commercial driver's license and passed. Every weekday, she would set off with him strapped in the front row of the bus.

In 2005, Billa made yet another move, to Northeast Philadelphia. That swath of the city, an arm extending far up Interstate 95, had a much lower rate of crime and violence than where she was living in North Philadelphia. She wanted a safe environment for her son.

As it happened, even her former neighborhoods in North Philadelphia would grow safer in the years following her move. The decline in violent crime in Philadelphia was not nearly as attention-getting as those in New York City and Los Angeles, but it was impressive in its own right. Between 1990 and 2007, Philadelphia averaged 382 homicides per year. Beginning in 2008 the numbers dropped steadily, and in 2013 and 2014, the city registered fewer than 250 killings each year. The decline coincided with a notable upgrade of the city's prospects: the rejuvenation of Center City, the resumption of population growth. “I believe that there are some people probably still alive today because of many of the things we did back in those days," said Michael Nutter, who served as mayor from 2008 to 2016.

As elsewhere, there was no clear consensus about what was behind the drop in violent crime. Criminologists offered up a string of possible explanations, among them the passing of the crack epidemic, the expansion of police forces in the 1990s, and the reduction of childhood lead exposure in house paint and gasoline.

The debate was largely academic, a friendly argument over a happy story. In recent years, however, the trend started to reverse in Philadelphia and much of the country — first gradually, and then last year sharply. The nationwide homicide rate jumped 25% in 2020, taking it back to where it was in the late 1990s, wiping out two decades' worth of progress. The nationwide rate is still below its highs in the early 1990s, but many cities, including Philadelphia, are near or past their all-time highs. And in many cities, including Philadelphia, this year is on track to be even worse than last year.

This soaring toll, which is heavily concentrated in Black neighborhoods, has brought new urgency to understanding the problem. But the terrible experience of the past year and a half has also offered an opportunity to make sense of what drives gun violence, and how to deter it. The coronavirus pandemic, and the decisions that officials made in response to it, had the effect of undoing or freezing countless public and social services that are believed to have a preventative effect on violence. Removing them, almost simultaneously, created a sort of unintended stress test, revealing how essential they are to preserving social order.

The effect of this withdrawal was layered atop other contributing factors, such as criminal justice reforms in Philadelphia and other cities, and further deterioration of police-community relations in the wake of more high-profile deaths at police hands. Criminologists and city leaders across the country are now scrambling to disentangle these layers of causation as the spike carries on, turning a city such as Philadelphia into a sort of high-stakes laboratory.

Of course, for Philadelphians like Nakisha Billa, the city is not a laboratory. It is her home. The path the city has taken on public safety over the past two decades has been something palpable in her life, shaping it at every turn — and shattering it during the pandemic.

Caterina Roman is wary of easy sound bites. But if she had to explain why violent crime declined for years in Philadelphia, it would boil down to this: Police got better at their job, in large part because they started paying more attention to what worked and what didn't.

Roman is a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, but before that she worked as a senior researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., where she evaluated that city's implementation of a program called “focused deterrence." It is modeled on criminologist David Kennedy's work in Boston, Cincinnati and other cities, in which authorities focus outreach on the small groups of young men deemed most likely to engage in violent crime, inform them that they are watching them closely, and offer them help in seeking alternate directions. In that work, Roman got to know Washington's then-police chief, Charles Ramsey, and discovered how open he was to outside expertise — not the most common trait in a police culture often characterized by parochialism.

In 2007, Philadelphia elected Nutter, a technocratic Black Democrat who put public safety at the heart of his campaign. “I talked about violence and talked about crime. And I talked about how it was ripping out the heart and soul of the city of Philadelphia," he said in an interview for this article. “Too many people were dying in our city."

He named Ramsey as his police commissioner, and together they embarked on a smorgasbord of approaches that had demonstrated success elsewhere. Ramsey ran a pilot program that placed new foot patrols in several dozen areas, with some of Roman's Temple colleagues conducting an evaluation. In South Philadelphia, the city instituted its own version of focused deterrence. In several North Philadelphia neighborhoods, the city encouraged Temple's implementation of a program called Cure Violence, based on the violence-interrupter model, in which residents, often with criminal backgrounds of their own, are trained to serve as monitors and mediators of neighborhood disputes. Every Monday, the police department would send Roman data on the previous week's shootings in those neighborhoods. She would analyze it and share it with the Cure Violence outreach workers. “There was more innovation at that time," Roman said. “And they implemented collaboratively."

The department adopted another approach in those years, too: the stop-and-frisk tactic most closely associated with New York City. In 2009, the year after Nutter and Ramsey took charge, the number of pedestrian stops by police nearly doubled from where it had been in 2007, to more than 250,000. Nutter said the goal was straightforward. “What I wanted was a change in behavior by folks who might normally carry a gun," he said. “It's a very simple theory: You can't shoot somebody if you don't have your gun." Nutter said he wanted habitual gun carriers to think, before they left the house, “I know they're actively stopping people. Maybe I shouldn't carry this gun today because I don't want to get caught."

This approach didn't necessarily require steep sentences for being caught with an illegal gun. In the phrasing of the late criminologist Mark Kleiman, the key to deterrence was that punishment be swift and certain, not that it be severe.

But not everyone was persuaded by Nutter's justification of stop-and-frisk. In 2010, a team of civil rights lawyers brought a lawsuit against the police department, alleging that officers were disproportionately stopping Black and Latino residents. A year later, the department agreed to a consent decree requiring that officers make stops only when they have reasonable suspicion that a suspect is armed, dangerous and engaged in criminal conduct, and that the stops not be based on race or ethnicity.

Even as the police became more restrained in their stops, the city's homicide tally fell to levels not seen in decades. The decrease mirrored what was happening nationally. Notably, the national decline had continued through the Great Recession, confounding the notion that violent crime was driven by economic distress.

Roman remains convinced that the gains in Philadelphia were partly the result of the evidence-based approaches being taken, not least because she saw what happened in the years after those approaches fell away. In 2015, as Nutter's term-limited tenure neared its end, the city elected Jim Kenney, a white Democratic city councilmember who cast himself in a progressive mold similar to New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio. Ramsey retired in early 2016 and Kenney, who was not nearly as drawn to the public safety issue as Nutter had been, replaced him with a deputy commissioner, Richard Ross Jr.

It was billed as a passing of the baton, but it became clear that Ross saw the department's mission more narrowly, with less appetite for experimentation and academic input. Support for Cure Violence fell away. The focused-deterrence initiative foundered amid a lack of funding and collaboration among agencies and concerns about whether police were being careful enough in how they assembled their list of young men targeted for scrutiny. “There were a lot of issues with focused deterrence. Folks forget that they didn't like it. It wasn't as successful as they remember," said Erica Atwood, senior director of the city government's Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice & Public Safety, who the city made available in response to questions submitted to the mayor's office. “We didn't do the model to fidelity; it got fucked up."

But for Roman, the changes in approach after Nutter and Ramsey left were a reminder of something often overlooked in discussions of the rise and fall in city fortunes: Leaders, and their policies, matter. “These strategies were just phased out with new leadership there," she said.

Billa flourished in her airy house in Northeast Philadelphia, where her household with her then-husband grew to include four more children, three of them adopted. She eventually opened a child care program that she ran alongside her school bus job. But she worried sometimes about what the move to a heavily white part of town had meant for Domonic. At the charter school he attended, he was often singled out for his race, both by teachers and fellow classmates. There were ugly remarks from classmates about his dark skin. During a discussion of city neighborhoods, a teacher put him on the spot, instructing him to tell the class how to get to the heavily Black-populated North Philadelphia.

At times, Billa wondered whether it had been a mistake to move to the safer part of town if it came at the cost of this sort of treatment. “It seemed like I traded one hazard for another," she said.

It got to the point where she transferred Dom to a traditional public high school in 9th grade. Now, instead of taunting, he had to contend with metal detectors and what she said was inferior instruction. She transferred him yet again to an alternative high school, from which he graduated in 2018.

Billa and her then-husband, a detective assigned to the district attorney's office, also made sure to prepare Dom for the risks that young Black men face in encounters with the police. When Domonic drove to his various part-time jobs — Wendy's, Sears, a local factory that makes ice-cream toppings — Billa reminded him to keep his license and registration in the center console, so he wouldn't have to reach for the glove compartment.

During this period, the city experienced another major shift in leadership. In early 2017, the city's district attorney, Seth Williams, was indicted on federal corruption charges. (He later pleaded guilty to bribery and served almost three years in prison.)

Among those running to replace him was an unlikely contender: civil rights attorney Larry Krasner, who had made his name bringing countless cases against the police department. Krasner ran on a revolutionary platform, pledging to overhaul from within a local criminal justice system that had left Philadelphia with some of the highest incarceration rates in the country. “Justice makes you safer," Krasner said in announcing his campaign. “How do we achieve that? Well, number one, we have to decarcerate. We have to get people out of jail."

The local police union, Lodge #5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, rallied against its longtime nemesis, warning that Krasner's reforms would lead to disorder. But the opposition was splintered among a large field of candidates, and Krasner tapped into the rising momentum nationwide for criminal justice reform that had been spurred by the protests over the deaths at police hands of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others. Krasner won the Democratic primary in May 2017 with 38% of the vote and won again in that fall's general election.

He fired 31 prosecutors in his first week in office, then set about fulfilling his campaign promises. Krasner's office stopped pressing charges for marijuana possession, prostitution and shoplifting; stopped seeking bail for 25 low-level offenses; and slashed the rolls of people under parole and probation supervision.

Prior to Krasner's election, homicides had been rising steadily since their 2013 and 2014 lows, and they continued to rise after it, reaching 353 and 356 in 2018 and 2019. To Roman, this was a worrisome sign that the change in police leadership and strategy was taking a toll. But the police union and other Krasner critics seized on the uptick as vindication, the inevitable outcome of a more lenient approach to prosecution. “He's running his own show here, and it's like a carnival act," union chief John McNesby said on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show in 2019.

Among those standing firmly behind Krasner's reform vision, though, was one of his supporters during the 2017 election: Nakisha Billa. Krasner's message resonated with her, given her own worries about what Domonic and other young Black men might contend with in their encounters with police. “I was very excited when Krasner was elected into office to fill that position, because I knew he was a civil rights attorney," she said. “My heart will go out to those individuals that may not have had enough money for proper representation and fell through the cracks because they didn't have it, for the people that may have sat in prison for $400 bail. So I supported Krasner. I was happy that he got in and I was, you know, just waiting for the changes to occur."

In his 2018 book “Uneasy Peace," sociologist Patrick Sharkey, now at Princeton University, argued that an overlooked reason for the decline in violent crime since the early 1990s was the spread of grassroots organizations that sprang up to address the problem. The effect was quantifiable, he found: In any given city with 100,000 people, he wrote, “every new organization formed to confront violence and build stronger neighborhoods led to about a 1% drop in violent crime and murder."

In Philadelphia, one such group was an organization called YEAH Philly. It was co-founded in 2018 by Kendra Van de Water, a community activist serving on the city's police advisory commission, who was bothered by the lack of youth input into debates around police reform. She started asking teenagers in West Philadelphia what they needed, and this evolved into weekly sessions at various rec centers, often with meals provided.

Among the activities the group organized were dialogues between the teenagers and police patrol officers in West Philadelphia. The teens would often resist at first, but eventually, Van de Water said, “they'd have so much to say, and say that they'd learned so much." And then they would see the same officers around the neighborhood. “We know that the interactions are different when patrol officers and officers in general know people," she said. “So that was our goal, just to improve that relationship and understanding about what goes on as a police officer, and also how young people process different things."

But in March of 2020, the rec centers closed, and YEAH Philly went virtual, along with schools, libraries, churches and seemingly everything else. The organization tried to maintain contact with the teens via FaceTime and Google Hangouts, but it was a challenge. “They want to be seen in person," Van de Water said. “They don't do well logging on and doing all of that. So that was a loss." Meanwhile, she saw the toll that other losses were taking. “When you don't have young people in school, that's a huge thing," she said. “It makes a difference when you don't have any of the rec centers open. That makes a difference. They play basketball. You know, they need these things." As the weather warmed, Philadelphia opened not a single one of its 68 public swimming pools for the summer of 2020.

For the young people in the program, the wholesale shift to a digital existence was deeply unmooring. Tyffani Rudolph, a high school senior, was living with a foster family and depended on her social network at school. All of a sudden, that was gone. “People come to school for an escape, whether it's from the streets or from home," she said. “When the pandemic happened, I felt like I didn't have that support system, when I'm not seeing you every day. I went from going to school to lying in bed all day, getting really depressed, sitting in my room looking at four white walls. It's really draining on a lot of people."

Also feeling adrift was a younger YEAH Philly member, a 14-year-old boy who asked that his name not be used because of his juvenile arrest record. Before the pandemic, he said, he and his friends would often go to the neighborhood library branch after school, or to a YEAH Philly program at a rec center. Now, everything was closed. “COVID hit us hard," he said. “YEAH Philly helped get me out of the house. It was a nice chill environment."

Ten weeks into online learning, the Philadelphia school district reported that 61% of students were logging on in an average day, well short of the average 92% attendance rate from prior years.

The shift to virtual took hold in other realms, too. The parole and probation department curtailed home and office visits (thereby putting on hold all urine testing), and most of the drug treatment programs and other services that parolees and probationers were required to attend closed their doors. Krasner's prosecutors and the public defender's office met in April 2020 to identify 238 nonviolent offenders who could be released from jail to reduce the odds of coronavirus transmission there.

The court system stopped processing new and existing cases almost entirely. Krasner said in an interview with ProPublica that he questioned the extent of the shutdown and unsuccessfully urged the courts to hold more hearings remotely, even if actual trials had to wait for a resumption of in-person proceedings. “I was a little disappointed in the courts' response," he said. “We could have done better and we could have done more."

With most new cases on hold, Krasner was even more motivated to take another step: expanding the list of offenses for which his office would no longer be seeking bail, unless a defendant's record suggested a propensity for violence, in which case the office sought very high bail. Doing otherwise, he said, would have left many defendants sitting in jail for months, at risk of catching the coronavirus. “We make a decision at that point," he said, “where we're no longer just balancing public safety in the sense of keeping people safe from crime, we are balancing public safety in the sense of safety from a potentially fatal disease."

The police also limited their interactions with the public, both because of fears of COVID-19 and because of their reduced staffing levels, as a result of officers testing positive or quarantining after exposure. The department had a new commissioner: Danielle Outlaw, whom Kenney recruited in early 2020 from Portland, Oregon, after Ross resigned. (Ross, who declined to comment, stepped down after being sued by a woman working for the department who claimed that he had disregarded her claims of sexual harassment by another officer because she had ended a two-year affair with Ross.) Outlaw instructed officers to stop making arrests for a slew of crimes, including narcotics offenses, burglary and vehicle theft. Instead, they were instructed only to collect information for a possible later, post-pandemic arrest warrant. From early March through mid-April 2020, vehicle and pedestrian stops in the city's most disadvantaged areas plummeted by more than half.

The rationale for the institutional retreat was plain: the threat of a deadly new virus that would, by year's end, result in 96,000 cases and 2,500 deaths in the city. But, in Philadelphia as elsewhere, the retreat left the small group of young men most likely to engage in or be victim of violence completely on their own at a time when the pandemic was adding new stressors to their lives, said Thomas Abt, who has consulted often with Philadelphia officials over the years on public safety issues and worked on anti-violence programs in the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama. Abt is the author of a 2018 book on urban gun violence, “Bleeding Out." “Everything we know about evidence-based violence interruption says you have to interact directly with the highest-risk individuals," he said. “And that's true for police, but that's also true for all sorts of community services, including but not limited to street outreach. So for all of these individuals who are at the highest risk, all of a sudden, all of those services stop because of the physical distancing mandates."

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, chair of the Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention, had high hopes about a planned resumption of the focused-deterrence initiative, but the pandemic put that on hold. “You couldn't do face-to-face interactions," he said. His sense of foreboding grew. “We have thousands of young people really not engaged in school, and if you don't have kids in school, you have them where? In the street, doing things that are not positive for the city."

For his part, Domonic Billa was now home more or less around the clock. When the pandemic started, he was 20 and working at Jefferson Torresdale Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia, in the nutrition department. He was popular with his supervisors and co-workers. His mom had gotten used to her son amassing “work moms," chalking it up to his good cheer and good looks. “Everybody wanted to adopt him," she said.

But in April, Domonic Billa decided to quit his job because of the pandemic. His great-grandmother had just died after contracting COVID-19, the first of several people the family knew who would succumb to it. He witnessed COVID deaths at the hospital and started getting nervous about bringing the virus home. “That was a very scary time for us," Nakisha Billa said.

He went on unemployment, and started spending a lot of his time sitting around the house, playing video games. His mother accepted this, given the circumstances. Domonic was not giving her cause for concern; his record was clean but for two traffic tickets in early 2020. Still, she said, “When young people today have nothing to do with their time, it seems like just trouble finds them."

By late May 2020, as public health authorities started to get a better handle on the threat posed by the virus, police stops began rising again in Philadelphia. But on May 25, 1,200 miles away, a white Minneapolis police officer responding to a call about a Black man using a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes kneeled on the man's neck for nine minutes, killing him.

The video of George Floyd's death was appalling to Joe Sullivan, who spent 38 years with the Philadelphia police department, much of it overseeing the unit that handles large demonstrations, eventually rising to deputy commissioner. He retired from the force in early 2020, after Outlaw's arrival as commissioner. Sullivan could stomach watching the video of Floyd only once, but immediately texted his former colleagues on the force that they needed to see it. “My heart just sank," he said. “I knew right then and there that bad things were going to happen, because it just was so egregious."

The protests in Philadelphia commenced the following Saturday, with hundreds of people gathering at the art museum and City Hall. As the crowds swelled, someone set a police car on fire, and others started breaking into stores near Rittenhouse Square, carrying out clothes and electronics. Mayor Kenney ordered an 8 p.m. curfew; by day's end, more than 100 people had been arrested and more than a dozen officers were injured.

Overnight, action shifted to the 52nd Street commercial strip in a heavily Black section of Southwest Philadelphia. Early on Sunday morning, four people looted a clothing store, and that afternoon and into Monday morning, others emptied a jewelry store and a pharmacy, set fire to a uniform shop and damaged a day care center, a tax-preparation business and a seller of hijabs, among others. It was just a couple of blocks from where Tyffani Rudolph had lived before she entered foster care. “It was heartbreaking to see, because it was my own people doing it," she said. “It was upsetting because it's like we're destroying our own home."

Sullivan, too, watched with dismay, aghast that things unraveled to the point where officers felt the need to take a step he had avoided in many years of crowd control: releasing tear gas. In Philadelphia, protests and looting continued for days, as did the use of tear gas. The police department redeployed officers from across the city to the protests and looting, leaving swaths of the city underpatrolled.

The shift in police focus was immediately discernible in the data: from late May to mid-June last year, police vehicle and pedestrian stops plunged by more than two-thirds. This was driven by more than staffing shifts, said Sullivan. Even officers still on their usual patrols were increasingly opting not to engage with the frequency they had before, which he attributed partly to the firing and arrest of two officers during the protest, one for pepper-spraying protesters on Interstate 676 and another for striking a Temple student in the head with his baton. (Charges were dropped in the first case, and the second officer was later acquitted.) “Officers are saying, 'Man, if they're getting locked up that easily, I don't really want to get involved in this. I've got a mortgage to pay and tuition to pay,'" Sullivan said. “I'm sure that some officers have pulled back."

It was a seeming replay of the dynamic observed in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, and in Chicago following the death of Laquan McDonald. In those cities, arrests dropped sharply in the weeks following protests over the deaths. What made this latest iteration so unusual was that it was playing out in cities across the country, not only in the city that had experienced this particular death at police hands, Minneapolis. Some combination of the extremity of the Floyd video and the release of emotions pent up during the lockdowns had elevated the protests into a national event, reproducing nationwide the dynamic seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago several years earlier.

There is another side to the dynamic, many criminologists agree. In the wake of high-profile deaths at police hands and the often heavy-handed police response to the ensuing protests, community trust in the police plummets. This leaves many people even less likely to report a crime or offer a tip or testify, further depressing case closure rates that were already barely 50% for homicides in Philadelphia, and much lower for nonfatal shootings. “The murder of George Floyd really reactivated this deep sense of mistrust and cynicism in many disadvantaged communities," Abt said. “And when that happens, there's multiple bodies of evidence that suggests that when people don't believe in the system, they don't comply with it and they don't use it."

Instead, they resolve disputes themselves — sometimes with violence.

Whatever qualms Nakisha Billa had about Domonic spending so much of his unemployed time at home playing video games dissipated as she saw what was happening around the city in the weeks after Floyd's death.

Homicides had already been on the rise following the pandemic lockdowns in early March. But in late May and early June, they spiked even higher, with 27 homicides in a two-week stretch between May 25 and June 7. They remained elevated throughout the summer. “We don't want our kids to stay in the house," Billa said. “But the reality is that being out here in these streets, it's no good."

It was not hard to identify one factor facilitating the rise in shootings and homicides: Suddenly, it seemed, guns were everywhere. Police were making fewer stops, but the ones they did make were turning up many more illegal guns than in years past. By year's end, Philadelphia police would make 2,334 arrests for illegal gun possession, up by a third from the year before, which had itself seen a significant increase over the prior four years. A similar dynamic was taking hold in other cities. Put simply, far more people appeared to be deciding that it was in their best interest to carry a gun.

That could be seen as self-preservation, a response to a rise in shootings that in turn would beget more shootings, abetted by the loss of confidence in the police. “There certainly are young men and women carrying guns on the street because they don't believe the police can protect them," said Sullivan, the former deputy commissioner. “They've been led to believe that police won't protect them, and they feel they need to carry guns. And that means more guns on the street."

One could also consider it from the supply perspective: There had been a surge in legal gun sales nationwide early in the pandemic, amid all the apocalyptic talk of food and supply shortages. Some weapons were inevitably making their way onto the black market, via theft or resale. And, in Philadelphia and other cities, many people now had extra means to buy their own guns on the black market. For all the economic stresses caused by pandemic-related job losses, the $1,200-per-person stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits of the CARES Act had injected cash into many neighborhoods. An 18-year-old member of YEAH Philly, who also didn't want his name used because of his open criminal cases, said, “Everybody had a lot of money, and everybody started buying guns. When everybody started buying guns, everybody wanted to be tough." Johnson, the councilmember, found this dynamic worrisomely plausible: “The easy access to money, and some people who never had this kind of money before, is playing a role in purchasing guns."

There's also the other side of personal risk calculus: the odds of repercussions for carrying. After all, police were making fewer stops. And even before the pandemic and the Floyd protests, those getting caught with illegal firearms were facing fewer consequences. Krasner's office had launched a diversion program for some defendants, under which those who had purchased firearms legally but lacked the permit to carry them could have their arrests expunged after probation. (The office argued that it was unfair that Philadelphians face more stringent gun rules than residents of other parts of Pennsylvania, as the state requires gun permits for city residents but not for those elsewhere.) And the overall conviction rate for illegal gun possession cases was falling, too. It dropped to 49% in 2019 from more than 60% in the four years before Krasner took office, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sullivan, the former deputy commissioner, said the lesser repercussions for illegal gun possession sent a message to those deciding whether to carry. “If your buddy goes to court and he [the DA] may drop the felony charge and let him walk out the door on a misdemeanor charge, what do you think he does when he gets back? He tells everyone. We've heard these discussions on prison tapes, prisoners talking about, you know, 'Hey, don't worry about it,'" he said. “I mean, you don't need to hire an expensive private attorney, or a public defender. You got the DA's office."

Krasner ridiculed the notion that young people were being influenced by the outcomes of cases. “This notion that a bunch of young men whose brains are not even fully formed are carefully following crime statistics and they're following the paper and they're never going to rob a bank if somebody gets arrested and convicted for robbing a bank," he said. “Well, guess what? They've been arrested and convicted for robbing banks, and they still rob banks."

Krasner attributed the drop in convictions to a reduced quality in evidence provided by the police. A growing share of the gun seizures were from vehicle stops, and it was more difficult to determine ownership after a vehicle stop with several people in the car than it was for a pedestrian stop. And, he said, many of the stops continued to lack reasonable cause for suspicion — in contravention of the consent decree signed before Krasner arrived — and thus required his office to dismiss them.

But it was not hard to discern a broader ambivalence in his office's approach to gun possession cases — the sense, shared by many in progressive reform circles, that it was unfair to brand Black and Latino young men with a criminal record solely for carrying a firearm, an act that millions of white Americans engage in as a matter of course. “Are we going to replace a war on drugs with a war on guns," Krasner asked the Inquirer, “and are we going to use that as an excuse for mass incarceration?"

This thinking was confounding to Abt, the former Obama Department of Justice official. “Normalizing the illegal possession of weapons is a recipe for disaster," he said. For one thing, this mindset represented a “naive" acceptance of the claim to self-defense, overlooking that the instinct to carry had as much to do with pride and image as with fear of actual attack. “It's important to understand that when you're carrying a weapon, your definition of self-defense expands dramatically," Abt said. “If you've had any contact with young men, particularly young men who are raised in an honor culture where there's the constant threat of victimization, there's defense of your physical self, but there's also a defense of your reputation and of your honor. And so remember that that gun is not going to be used just in terms of physical self-defense. It's going to be used to protect their reputation as well."

The phenomenon was all the more acute because of social media, which seemed to be playing a role in a growing number of shootings. Where once a conflict might subside after words on the street, it now lived online in taunts and threats for all to see. “A lot of the things that we see, the retaliations, the shootings, even just having beef with someone, a lot of it starts from Instagram," said Van de Water, the co-founder of YEAH Philly. “When you had an issue with someone and even if they got into a physical altercation, they used to be able to walk away. But take that to social media, and you're being embarrassed in front of thousands of people."

Krasner said he saw this in the cases that arrived at his door. There were still plenty of shootings based in conventional turf battles over drug territory: Homicides in the Kensington police district that includes a vast open-air drug market nearly doubled from the year prior, to 47. But many other shootings were being fueled by social media quarrels. Young people “were isolated, they were separated, and in many instances were attacking each other on the Internet, and resorting to an almost feudal" mindset, Krasner said. “It's the notion that someone has insulted my honor and therefore I will kill that person."

In early September, the new school year in Philadelphia began with a fully remote schedule, as in many other large cities around the country. Also operating online was Temple University, which meant that Tyffani Rudolph was not going to get to go to actual, in-person college classes to pursue her social work degree there, as she had been looking forward to doing after her virtual high school graduation the previous June. Rudolph had prided herself on being a strong student. She would wake early to get to high school, then head to Temple for some early-college classes in the afternoon, then to her part-time job at TJ Maxx. Now, with everything online, she lacked structure and slept late. “I went from being energized to lazy," she said. “It's like, technically I didn't have to get out of bed, so I'm just going to stay a bit. That's not healthy at all. It's toxic."

As hard as the online learning was for her, she knew it was even harder for the boys and young men who made up the majority of her social circle. “A lot of people, they went to school to escape from their home," she said. “They could have went to school to get loving from their teachers because they couldn't get that at home. I know some of the boys, they used to go talk to the counselor. No matter how they act, they would go talk to the counselor. For them, I know it hit them hard because you don't have a counselor no more."

The consequence of such disengagement was not hard to predict, said Rudolph. “You have free time now," she said. “You have 24/7 out of the day. You are not in school. You don't have to do anything, technically. So it's like, oh, I'm going to go out and do this, I'm going to go out and do that, and it's because they don't have the structure of going to school anymore."

In late October came another shock to the system: Two Philadelphia police officers responded to a call about a domestic disturbance, and one of them shot and killed the 27-year-old mentally ill man at the center of it, Walter Wallace Jr., who was holding a knife. The death prompted another round of protests and looting, and took a further toll on police-community relations. “That man wasn't a threat to you," said Rudolph. “Yes, he had a knife. I'm not saying he was right for having the knife. However, you could have tasered him. You didn't have to shoot him."

All told, as 2020 came to a close, Philadelphia climbed toward an unimaginable figure: 500 homicides. It had reached that figure only once, in 1990, in the midst of the crack epidemic.

As stunning as that historical comparison was, it was hardly more disturbing than numbers for 2020 from elsewhere around the country. Some types of crime declined. It was, after all, harder to burgle houses when more people were at home. But homicides rose 30% on average across a sample of 34 of the nation's largest cities by the Council on Criminal Justice.

Some of the biggest increases were in cities that had experienced high-profile killings by police, such as Minneapolis, where homicides doubled over their average of the previous four years; Louisville, where police officers shot Breonna Taylor and where criminal homicides set a record of 173, far above the previous high of 117; and Atlanta, where a police officer shot Rayshard Brooks after he grabbed his Taser in a Wendy's parking lot, and where homicides jumped from 99 in 2019 to 157, the highest tally in more than two decades. Some of the biggest increases were in other cities with “progressive prosecutors," such as Chicago, whose 780 killings represented an increase of more than 50%, and St. Louis, whose 262 homicides gave the city its highest homicide rate in 50 years.

But there were big increases in other cities, too. Columbus, Ohio, set a new record with 175 homicides; Jackson, Mississippi, did so as well with 130, far above the previous record of 92 in 1995. Even New York, the poster child for the great violent crime decline, saw homicides jump 44% over 2019.

As for Philadelphia, it would end up just one shy of the dreaded 500. Its 499 homicides in 2020 were more than it had in 2013 and 2014 combined.

In the final full week of 2020, Carlos Vega announced that he was challenging Larry Krasner for the Democratic nomination for district attorney. Vega had spent 35 years in the DA's office, mostly handling homicide cases, before becoming one of the 31 prosecutors fired by Krasner. He declared that with the city “crumbling," he would restore a Philadelphia that was “better “ and “safer" without reverting to the excesses of the tough-on-crime era.

The police union not only endorsed Vega, but urged Republican members to switch party affiliation so they could vote in the primary. The union started sending a soft-serve ice cream truck to sit outside Krasner's office. “We are reminding residents about Larry Krasner's soft-on-crime policies that have made Philadelphia unsafe and dangerous," said McNesby, the union president.

It was just the sort of scenario feared by advocates for criminal justice reform: that a sharp rise in violent crime could stir a backlash. Here was the district attorney most closely identified with a new wave of progressive prosecutors contending with a huge homicide surge in the nation's sixth largest city. Krasner parried by noting that homicides were up across the country.

Life remained deeply disrupted well into 2021. The Philadelphia schools were still mostly remote, with only students in kindergarten through second grade allowed back into schools through most of April — the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had resisted a broader reopening, citing inadequate school ventilation. Also still online were Tyffani Rudolph's classes at Temple. The former A student had failed all her fall classes, and, after continuing to struggle during the winter-spring semester, dropped out.

In Northeast Philadelphia, though, Domonic Billa was ready to reengage, one year into the pandemic. He was weighing two paths to return to work: at Jefferson Torresdale Hospital, where he could train to become a surgical technician, and at the local chapter of the plumbers and pipefitters union, which was looking for apprentices. He had completed a carpentry program and done a lot of work around the house, building a floor for the shed and learning from his mother's new boyfriend how to work on cars. On March 29, he asked his mom to print out his résumé and carpentry certificate and then headed to nearby Philadelphia Mills mall with some friends, to get an outfit from Dickies for work.

By now, Nakisha Billa was driving a bus for the regional transit authority SEPTA, and the mall was on her route. As she pulled up to that stop, she saw cruisers and ambulances clustered on the perimeter, lights flashing.

“What in the world is going on over there?" she asked the last man getting on at the stop.

“Ma'am, somebody just got shot up in there," he answered.

“My gosh," she said. “You've got to be kidding me."

She drove off with a heavy heart, feeling sorry for whatever had happened. SEPTA rules forbade her to look at her phone while she had passengers, but once her bus emptied out, she pulled over and picked her phone up. She saw a long list of red numbers, from calls she had missed, mostly from family members — aunts, cousins. The sight filled her with dread. She started calling numbers on the list.

“Kisha, I'm sorry," said the first person she reached. “I'm so sorry."

“Whoa, what happened?" Billa asked. “What happened?" But the person just kept telling her how sorry she was. Billa hung up and called someone else back, and got the same response.

Finally, she reached her brother, and he said, “Kisha, it's Dom. I'm so sorry. He's down."

“OK, OK, he's down," Billa said. “So just tell me he's OK."

“I can't," her brother said.

She hit the emergency button on the bus and it seemed as if the dispatcher knew why she was alerting them, even before Billa identified herself and her location. “We're sending someone to you now," they said.

A moment later, a SEPTA police officer pulled up in front of the bus in his SUV.

“Did they send you?" she asked him. “Do you know what happened?"

“I don't know," he said. “I just saw the bus pulled over and I was just checking, doing a safety check on you."

“My son," she said.

“What happened?"

She didn't say anything, but something in his face made her think he had made the connection to the news from the mall.

“I'm sorry," he said, and Billa crumpled into him.

On May 12, Larry Krasner and Carlos Vega met for their only televised debate before the May 18 primary. Vega focused his attacks on the soaring gun violence. Police, Vega said, had been “removing guns at record rates, yet there are no consequences."

Krasner countered by noting Vega's backing from the police union, and by attributing the violence to the pandemic. “It's hard to do anything when the courts closed," he said. “You cannot blame prosecutors for a pandemic that shut everything down. We hit a bad patch."

Two weeks earlier, police had announced closure in one recent homicide: They charged Gregory Smith with first-degree murder in the death of Domonic Billa at Philadelphia Mills mall. A video clip from a security camera in the mall's food court shows Billa and several other young men nearing each other, and an altercation breaking out as Billa knocks down a member of the other group. This is followed by gunshots fired off camera, and then people in the video running away. Smith, 21, had two gun-possession arrests on his record in the city, one from 2018 and one from 2019, both of which were still pending in court. (His lawyer did not respond to calls for comment. Smith has not yet entered a plea, according to the docket for his case.)

News of the arrest brought Nakisha Billa only limited consolation. She had taken bereavement leave from her bus-driving job, and was spending her days at home, surrounded by memorials to Domonic: quilts, a portrait, a glass block with his image suspended in it. She sat there revisiting the decisions she had made to bring him to a safer part of the city despite the friction it had caused him at school. “I worked really, really hard in life to get where I am today, to give him the best, to escape the wrath and the ills of the city," she said. “And they still caught up to us, no matter what part of the city we were in."

Like so many grieving mothers before her, she decided to commit herself to the cause of fighting gun violence, to spare other mothers what she was now feeling. She didn't know where to start, but there was a race underway for district attorney that was all about gun violence, so she figured she would start there. She went to campaign events for both candidates and asked questions.

Billa was torn. She found out about the accused shooter's two prior gun possession arrests, and did not understand why he had yet to face any evident consequences, which made her open to Vega's arguments. (The cases had been delayed by the pandemic, like thousands of others: The earlier one was postponed to a July 2021 trial date, and the later one to a status hearing a day later.) “I want the gun violence to stop," she said. “I want the repeat offenders to stop just getting a slap on the wrist."

She was not unsympathetic to the police in the aftermath of Floyd's murder: “It's hard for some of the officers to do their job when they feel like the world is against them," she said. “We need officers. We need the good officers, the officers that are going to protect and serve the rights and respect the rights of people, not the ones that are going to violate them."

But she also still believed in what Krasner was trying to accomplish in reforming the criminal justice system, even if it had been overtaken by the dreadful surge.

Billa made herself a student of the election. Campaign literature and position papers lay strewn across the coffee table in her living room. Even at midday on the day of the primary election in May, she was still struggling with her choices. “There's a lot of things at stake here," she said that day. “I just want to make the right decision."

By late spring, YEAH Philly was finally managing to get kids back together in person. Many of the city's 159 rec centers remained closed, the result of both COVID caution and deep pre-pandemic budget cuts. But the organization had gotten a space of its own, a house in West Philadelphia that it had bought with the help of foundation grants and was renovating to turn into a drop-in center, as well as an adjoining lot where it was hoping one day to open a small grocery, staffed by teens. “This is just going to be a space for young people where they can get their needs met as well," said Van de Water. “So whether it's you got to do your homework, you want to hang out, you want to play video games, you can all come."

Philadelphia high schools remained almost entirely closed to in-person instruction throughout the spring. In early May, the city allowed sixth through ninth graders to return, for a couple of days per week, but left 10th through 12th graders with a fully virtual schedule for the remainder of the school year — a total of 14 months without time in the classroom. This was in contrast to other East Coast cities: New York allowed high school students to return for at least partial in-person instruction in March, and Baltimore did so in April.

By late May, there had been 24 Philadelphians under the age of 18 killed in 2021, triple the number of children killed by that point of the year prior. By mid-July, the city's overall homicide tally was past 300, putting it on pace to far exceed 500 for the year, and thus shatter its all-time record. The surge was not subsiding in many other cities, either: Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Oregon, were on pace to set records. In New York City, the nearly 500 total shootings through early May were the highest tally in more than a decade, making violence a central issue in that city's Democratic primary for mayor, which was won by a former cop, Eric Adams.

Abt, the former Obama Department of Justice official, said it was becoming increasingly hard not to conclude that institutional disengagement for the sake of COVID-19 mitigation had played a major role in the resurgence of gun crime. Some of the decisions still seemed prudent in hindsight, such as the efforts to release many nonviolent offenders to thin out the jail population.

But he judged it a terrible mistake for the authorities — police, social service workers, schools — to have lost touch with the young men who were known to be at most risk of being the victim of violence or committing it. “With regard to these highest-risk individuals, we should have found a way to stay connected, to stay engaged," he said. “Knowing what we know now, it was clearly a mistake to pull back."

Others agreed. City Councilmember Kendra Brooks was reluctant to second-guess the extended school closures, but wished Philadelphia had done more to provide alternative forms of engagement for young people. “We could have been more proactive in providing more young people with more activities to continue with some form of socialization," she said.

For years, advocates of criminal justice reform had been making the case that to reduce gun violence, one couldn't just arrest and incarcerate one's way out of the problem, that one needed to wrap vulnerable young people in all manner of other protective services, from schools to sports to counseling and all the rest. In essence, the pandemic period had proven that claim, to devastating effect, by showing what happened when one removed most of those services. “When you shut down all of these things, and you take what is fundamentally a social creature and isolate that social creature, there are going to be consequences," said Larry Krasner. “You had the stripping away of essentially everything we have taken for granted as being preventative and protective of young people. And when all that happened, guess what? Young people were killing a lot of young people."

Asked about the closure of rec centers, pools and other public services, City Hall's Erica Atwood said that the city government had no real choice, given the risk posed by the coronavirus. “What's the converse? Let them die of COVID? That was the option we had. We either kept them closed, or we let poor Black people die of COVID," she said. “Black people are disproportionately affected by COVID. Knowing that, we had to make some very difficult choices about what we were willing to allow on our watch, what we could not have lived with. Kids can play on playgrounds, but their grandmothers, aunts and uncles can then die of COVID. It was an unfair choice. But it was no one's fault that it was unfair. That's the universe we're in."

Likewise, the president of the teachers' union, Jerry Jordan, said it was “disingenuous" for anyone to suggest that the extended school closures that resulted from the union's fight over ventilation played a role in the rise in violence. “The spike in gun violence is emblematic of chronic disinvestment in our Black and brown communities and of the systemic racism that permeates every facet of society," he said. “Our underfunded facilities predated the pandemic and left us behind the curve in bringing students back into buildings."

After this costly hiatus, Abt said, the answer was to build back up the engagement that had been allowed to fall away, all the various interventions that had been shown to work in Philadelphia and elsewhere: focused deterrence and more recent tools such as trauma counseling for shooting victims and cognitive behavioral therapy, in which young men living under duress receive instruction in how to redirect anger and other emotions. These evidence-based interventions could work, but they needed to be sustained. Last year, they weren't.

Those programs were focused on reducing violence in the short-term, Abt added. Structural improvements in education, employment and other areas mattered too, in the long term. But, he said, “the way to address urban violence, urban community violence, is to focus on that violence directly." It was, essentially, what Philadelphia had been trying to do, with some success, a decade earlier, and it was the sort of efforts that would now be getting a lot of the funding flowing to cities from Washington, where President Biden was striving to demonstrate action against violent crime. “It's a lot of hard work," said Nutter, the former mayor. “You have to stay focused. You can't let up and you just have to drive it into the minds of every possible person that you can that we're going to try to have a safe city."

One late afternoon in May, at the end of a school day that for most of them involved no physical school, a dozen or so of the YEAH Philly teenagers gathered at Bartram's Garden park on the banks of the Schuylkill River for some canoeing and fishing. Shouts and laughter carried across the water. The 14-year-old with the arrest record, with an ankle bracelet to prove it, stood with his rod, waiting for a bite. He talked about how grateful he was to have activities like this resume after a year of emptiness. “People have too much time on their hands," he said. “This keeps me safe."

Tyffani Rudolph arrived back on shore after a spin in a canoe. She had made up her mind to take another stab at college after dropping out of Temple. She would enroll this fall at the Community College of Philadelphia before taking another run at a social work degree at Temple.

It was intuitive to her, how one thing led to another: closures of schools and rec centers and basketball courts to protests and looting to police pullbacks to violence, layers of cause and consequence. “Everything that's happening is because of the last thing," she said. “It's all connected."

She was looking forward to getting back on a regular schedule, to having a reason not to stay up too late, to get up in the morning. A few weeks later, though, she was up very late again, on the phone with a 17-year-old friend who was talking about seeking vengeance against someone who, he believed, was responsible for the death of another 17-year-old friend of his. Rudolph held him on the line into the early hours of the morning. “I understood 100% of what his reason was, why he was upset," she said. “But like I also told him, you doing that is not going to bring him back. You go retaliate, and our friend is still 6 feet underground, like it's not going to do anything but make you feel better. And then you're going to feel bad when you either get shot back and you die, God forbid, or if you get caught and then you're in jail for the rest of your life. You're only 17. I'm not going to let you throw away your life like that."

Finally, at 6 a.m., her friend agreed to turn over his gun to his mother, and Rudolph got to bed.

Nakisha Billa ended up voting for Krasner, after all. He would beat Vega handily, with especially strong margins in the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by the surge of violence. He declared in his victory speech that he had a mandate “from the people most affected by serious crime," a mandate that “has rejected, definitively, a politics of fear that is built on falsehoods."

For Billa, in the end, it came down to separating her vote from her own loss. The loss might have pushed her to Vega, she said. But she decided to transcend that experience. “I have to still stand on a civil rights decision and not just my own personal plight," she said.

Six weeks after the primary election, she was able to get a meeting with Krasner. He told her how sorry he was about Domonic. He laid out some of the many investments the city was now making in anti-violence programs with the help of tens of millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief. “He said that it's a whole plethora of things that need to be filtered through to get to a remedy for this to stop," she said.

In late June, Billa returned to work, driving her SEPTA bus. They gave her a different route, to spare her having to drive by the mall. But the pain kept flaring, anyway. After two weeks, she told her supervisors that she didn't think she was ready yet for driving, and requested to be assigned to another job in the agency. “It's hard because when you drive, you think," she said. “And I literally just think about my son the entire shift. I may get breaks, but in between the interactions with the public, you think. You just think."

Reported with Miles Bryan and Jillian Weinberger as part of a collaboration for Vox's "Today, Explained" podcast.

Judge rules Kushner companies violated multiple laws in massive tenant dispute

It's been six years since Dionne Mont first saw her apartment at Fontana Village, a rental housing complex just east of Baltimore. She was aghast that day to find the front door coming off its hinges, the kitchen cabinet doors stuck to their frames, mouse droppings under the kitchen sink, mold in the refrigerator, the toilet barely functioning and water stains on every upstairs ceiling, among other problems. But she had already signed the lease and paid the deposit.

Mont insisted that management make repairs, but that took several months, during which time she paid her $865 monthly rent and lived elsewhere. She was hit with constant late fees and so-called "court" fees, because the management company required tenants to pay rent at a Walmart or a check-cashing outlet, and she often couldn't get there from her job as a bus driver before the 4:30 p.m. cutoff. She moved out in 2017.

Four years later, Mont has received belated vindication: On April 29, a Maryland judge ruled that the management company, which is owned by Jared Kushner's family real estate firm, violated state consumer laws in several areas, including by not showing tenants the actual units they were going to be assigned to prior to signing a lease, and by assessing them all manner of dubious fees. The ruling came after a 31-day hearing in which about 100 of the company's current and former tenants, including Mont, testified.

"I feel elated," said Mont. "People were living in inhumane conditions — deplorable conditions."

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh brought the consumer-protection case against Westminster Management, the property-management arm of Kushner Companies, in 2019 following a 2017 article by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine on the company's treatment of its tenants at the 15 housing complexes it owned in the Baltimore area, which have served as profitable ballast for a company better known for its gleaming properties in New York. The article revealed the company's aggressive pursuit of current and former tenants in court over unpaid rent and broken leases, even in cases where tenants were in the right, as well as the shoddy conditions of many units.

To build its case, the attorney general's office subpoenaed records from the company and solicited testimony from current and former tenants, who provided it via remote video link to Administrative Law Judge Emily Daneker late last year.

In her 252-page ruling last week, which was first reported by the Baltimore Sun, Daneker determined that the company had issued a relentless barrage of questionable fees on tenants over the course of many years, including both the fees identified in the 2017 article and others as well. In more than 15,000 instances, Westminster charged in excess of the state-maximum $25 fee to process a rental application. In more than 28,000 instances, the company also assessed a $12 "agent fee" on court filings against tenants even though it had incurred no such cost with the courts — a tactic that Daneker called "spurious" and which brought the company more than $332,000 in fees. And in more than 2,600 instances, the Kushner operation assessed $80 court fees to tenants at its two complexes within the city of Baltimore, even though the charge from the courts was only $50. "The practice of passing court costs on to tenants, in the absence of a court order," Daneker wrote, "was deceptive."

The manifold fees suggested a deliberate strategy to run up tenants' tabs, Daneker wrote, repeatedly calling the practices "widespread and numerous." She concluded that "these circumstances do not support a finding that this was the result of isolated or inadvertent mistakes."

Daneker also found that the company violated consumer law by failing to have the proper debt-collection licenses for some of its properties and by misrepresenting the condition of units being leased to tenants. However, she found that the attorney general's office did not establish that the company violated the law in several other areas, such as by misrepresenting its ability to provide maintenance on units or in some of its calculations of late fees.

Kushner Companies, which has since sold some of the complexes and put others of them on the market, declined to be interviewed for this article. A statement from Kushner general counsel Christopher Smith suggested that the ruling amounted to a victory for the company, despite the judge's many findings against it. "Kushner respects the thoughtful depth of the Judge's decision, which vindicates Westminster with respect to many of the Attorney General's overreaching allegations," Smith said.

In previous statements, the company had alleged that Frosh, a Democrat, had brought the suit for political reasons, and was singling out the company owned by the then-president's son-in-law for a host of practices that the company said were common in the multi-housing rental industry. In her ruling, Daneker stated that she found no evidence of an "improper selective prosecution" in the suit.

The attorney general's office declined to comment, noting that the case is not yet final. Each side will next have the chance to file exceptions, as objections are known, that will be considered by the final arbiter in the consumer protection division of the attorney general's office. The state's lawyers will also propose restitution sums for tenants and a civil penalty. Once the consumer protection arbiter issues a ruling, both sides will have the right to challenge it in the state's appeals courts.

Also awaiting resolution is a separate class-action lawsuit brought by tenants that alleges, among other things, that the company's late fees exceeded state limits. A Court of Special Appeals judge has yet to issue a ruling following a January oral argument on the plaintiffs' appeal of previous rulings against both their attempt to certify themselves as a class and against the substance of their claim regarding late fees.

Despite the drawn-out process, including a three-month delay because of the pandemic, former tenants took satisfaction in the first judicial affirmation of their accounts of improper treatment. Kelly Ziegler, an orthodontic assistant, lived for two years in Highland Village, just south of Baltimore. She also didn't get to see her unit before she moved in, in 2015, and was confronted with a litany of problems: a leak from the tub into the kitchen, a loose bedroom window that she worried her young child might fall out of, and a roach infestation so bad that she couldn't use her stove. After some neighbor kids rolled a tire into her yard to use as a swing, she was fined $250 with no warning. "They did a lot of petty stuff," she said.

But when she asked to break her lease over the problems with the house, management warned her that they would take her to court. She finally got out of the lease in 2017.

When the attorney general's office approached Ziegler over her case, she was eager to share her experience. But when she found out that the complex was owned by President Trump's son-in-law, she started to worry she would face repercussions for speaking out. "It made me scared that I was doing something wrong. This is a person with power," she said. She said that her grandmother tried to reassure her: "You don't have anything to worry about. You've done nothing wrong."

Kushner has of course since left the White House and moved to Florida. Ziegler now lives with her family on a dead-end street in southwest Baltimore. It's near a high-crime strip where, not long ago, a 17-year-old friend of her daughter was fatally shot. But Ziegler is still glad to be out of Highland Village, out of Kushner's reach.

"I hope I don't run into him," she said.

The lost year: What the pandemic cost teenagers

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Everything looks the same on either side of the Texas-New Mexico border in the great oil patch of the Permian Basin. There are the pump jacks scattered across the plains, nodding up and down with metronomic regularity. There are the brown highway signs alerting travelers to historical markers tucked away in the nearby scrub. There are the frequent memorials of another sort, to the victims of vehicle accidents. And there are the astonishingly deluxe high school football stadiums. This is, after all, the region that produced “Friday Night Lights."

The city of Hobbs, population just under 40,000, sits on the New Mexico side, as tight to the border as a wide receiver's toes on a sideline catch. From the city's eastern edge to the Texas line is barely more than two miles. From Hobbs to the Texas towns of Seminole and Denver City is a half-hour drive — next door, by the standards of the vast Southwestern plains.

In the pandemic year of 2020, though, the two sides of the state line might as well have been in different hemispheres. Texas's response to the coronavirus was freewheeling. Most notably, it gave local school districts leeway in deciding whether to open for in-person instruction in August, and in conservative West Texas, many districts seized the opportunity to do so, for all grades, all the way up through high school. Students wore masks in the hallways and administrators did contact tracing for positive cases of coronavirus, but everything else went pretty much as usual, including sports. On Friday nights, high schools still played football, with fans in the stands.

New Mexico's response last year was the opposite. The state, led by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, took one of the most aggressive lockdown stances in the country, and issued stringent guidelines for school reopening, so stringent that Hobbs was allowed to bring back only a sliver of its students for in-person instruction.

For high school junior Kooper Davis, whose family lives 10 minutes west of the border, this meant no school and no football. This was a problem, because he loved both of them.

Kooper had always gotten straight A's, despite a tendency to leave big assignments to the last minute. He charmed classmates and teachers alike with his playful ebullience. His natural high spirits had carried him through his life's primary challenge to date, his parents' breakup when he was a small child. He started playing organized football at age 5 and could not get enough of it. He played basketball, too, but football had his heart. When the youth minister at church once apologized for missing one of his high school games, Kooper reassured him that it was okay, that he did not depend on an audience: “I play for myself," he said.

Kooper started heading off to quarterback camps and private training — in Atlanta, New Orleans and Tucson, among other cities — hoping to better his odds of getting to play in college, an aspiration that became more feasible as he sprouted to 6 feet, 4 inches tall, ideal for throwing over linemen, if only he could get his agility and coordination to catch up with his height. His parents encouraged him to aim for the Ivy League, but he knew its football was middling. Instead, he set his sights on Stanford, which excelled in sports and academics, and which he had visited for another football camp.

For student-athletes aspiring to play in college, junior year is key. It's that year's video that recruiters will look at, and that year's grades that admissions officers will scrutinize. Kooper already had a highlight reel, and it included some nice-looking throws, but it was from his sophomore season on the junior varsity team. Junior year was everything: He would be vying for the starting QB slot on varsity and taking a fistful of Advanced Placement courses. He would, in general, be getting to enjoy the experience of being Kooper Davis, a well-liked kid in a small city where the admiration flowed even from the youngsters he helped out at church, one of whom, a 9-year-old boy, was overheard gleefully reporting to his father that Kooper Davis knew his name.

But the start of the school year arrived, and there was no school. Kooper and his classmates would take their courses at home using an online program, with barely any contact with teachers or each other. His teammates would be allowed to practice only in small pods, which left them mostly doing just weightlifting sessions and agility drills. There would be no actual games.

The hope was that all this would be temporary. That was what the kids heard from the adults in charge, and they tried to believe it.

The coronavirus pandemic has been not only a health catastrophe, but an epic failure of national government. The result of the abdication of federal leadership in 2020 was an atomization of decision-making that affected the lives and well-being of millions of people. States, and frequently individual school districts — sometimes even individual schools and sports leagues — have been forced to grapple with emerging and occasionally conflicting science that has sought to decode the mysteries of a newly discovered virus. Local governmental and educational officials — the vast majority of whom aren't epidemiologists or experts on indoor airflow — have had to formulate policy under intense time pressure while being buffeted by impassioned constituencies on every side and facing the reality that any decision would impose costs on somebody.

One of the few aspects of this terrible pandemic to be grateful for is that it has taken a vastly lesser toll on children and young adults than its major precursor of last century, the flu pandemic of 1918-1920. That earlier pandemic's victims tended to be in the prime of life, withmortality peaking around age 28.

The novel coronavirus, by contrast, has hit the elderly the hardest. Themedian age for COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S. is about 80. Of the nearly 500,000 deaths in the U.S. analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of early March, — five hundredths of a percent of the total. The CDC has also recorded about 2,000 cases of aninflammatory syndrome that has afflicted some children after they contracted the virus, resulting in about 30 additional deaths. Doctors are still uncertain whether children who survived that syndrome will experience long-term heart issues or other health problems.

Plenty of parents continue to worry for their children's health amid the pandemic. But the primary concern from a public health standpoint has been the role that children and young adults might play in transmitting the disease to others. A growing body of evidence suggests that younger children are the to transmit the virus, but that as children older, their capacity for transmission approaches that of adults.

This has posed a conundrum from early in the pandemic: How much should children be prevented from doing outside the home, to keep them from contributing to community transmission of a highly contagious virus? Or to put it more broadly: How much of normal youth should they be asked to sacrifice? It has been a difficult balance to strike, on both a societal and family level.

In many parts of the country, particularly cities and towns dominated by Democrats, concerns about virus spread by children has resulted in all sorts of measures: closures of playgrounds, requirements that kids older than 2 wear masks outdoors, at colleges that reopened. “We should be more careful with kids," wrote Andy Slavitt, a Medicare and Medicaid administrator under President Barack Obama who was named senior advisor for President Joe Biden's coronavirus task force, in a . “They should circulate less or will become vectors. Like mosquitos carrying a tropical disease."

In Los Angeles, county supervisor Hilda Solis, a former Obama labor secretary, urged young people to stay home, noting the risk of them infecting older members of their households. “One of the more heartbreaking conversations that our healthcare workers share is about these last words when children apologize to their parents and grandparents for bringing COVID into their homes for getting them sick," she . “And these apologies are just some of the last words that loved ones will ever hear as they die alone."

As time has gone on, evidence has grown on one side of the equation: the harm being done to children by restricting their “circulation." There is thewell-documented fall-off in student academic performance at schools that have shifted to virtual learning, which, copious evidence now shows, is exacerbating racial and class divides in achievement. This toll has led a growing number ofepidemiologists,pediatricians andother physicians to argue for reopening schools as broadly as possible, amidgrowingevidence that schools are not major venues for transmission of the virus.

As many of these experts have noted, the cost of restrictions on youth has gone beyond academics. The CDC found that the proportion of visits to the emergency room by adolescents between ages 12 and 17 that were mental-health-related during the span of March to October 2020, compared with the same months in 2019.A study in the March 2021 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, of people aged 11 to 21 visiting emergency rooms found “significantly higher" rates of “suicidal ideation" during the first half of 2020 (compared to 2019), as well as higher rates of suicide attempts, though the actual number of suicides remained flat.

Doctors are concerned about in childhood obesity — no surprise with many kids housebound in stress-filled homes — whileaddiction experts are warning of the long-term effects of endless hours of screen time when both schoolwork and downtime stimulation are delivered digitally. (Perhaps the only indicator of youth distress that is falling — reports of child abuse and neglect, whichdropped about 40% early in the pandemic — is nonetheless worrisome because experts suspect it is the reporting that is declining, not the frequency of the abuse.)

Finally, the nationwide surge in gun violence since the start of the pandemic has included, in many cities, a sharp rise incrimes involving juveniles, including many killed or arrested during what would normally be school time. In Prince George's County, Maryland, a Washington, D.C., suburb where school buildings have remained closed, in just the first five weeks of this year.

“An entire generation between the ages of 5 and 18 has been effectively removed from society at large,"wrote Maryland pediatrician Lavanya Sithanandam in The Washington Post. “They do not have the same ability to vote or speak out."

It has, instead, been left largely up to parents to monitor their children for signs of declining mental health as they determine whether to allow their kids to return to college or summer camp, to have a friend over, to go to the mall.

My family was among those facing these decisions. Our sons, now 16 and 13, have had fully remote learning in their Baltimore public schools for nearly a year now. For them, the primary release from the hours staring at the laptop screen would be sports, and for us, the answer was clear: My wife and I would let them play. The boys' respective high school and rec-league baseball seasons were canceled last spring, but their club teams were still playing through the summer and fall. This proved a godsend, a way for the boys to keep being active outdoors and around other kids, doing something they loved to do. For my older son, the baseball meant frequent traveling to tournaments out of state, in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Almost every weekend, we'd be back on near-empty highways, staying in near-empty motels, subsisting on endless takeout chicken sandwiches whenever we couldn't find an outdoor place for a meal.

This all started before the resumption of Major League Baseball and other professional sports, and it sometimes seemed as if our tournaments were the only serious competitive sports happening in the country, a sort of speakeasy baseball. Some precautions were taken, such as umpires calling balls and strikes from behind the mound instead of behind the catcher at home plate. The boys and their parents wore their masks inside the motels; at games, the parents spread out in the bleachers or on the sidelines. The parents ran the political gamut: liberals from Baltimore, conservatives from rural towns in Pennsylvania. But there was an implicit agreement that we were fortunate that our kids could keep playing, and we wouldn't do anything to screw it up. Those weekends remain for me some of the only redeeming moments of an awful year.

Football at the teenage level differs from baseball in a crucial respect: It is based almost entirely around high schools, without a parallel universe of clubs and tournaments. If high school teams aren't playing football, there is no football being played.

In New Mexico, Gov. Lujan Grisham that football and soccer would be prohibited for the fall season. “No contact sports are going to be permitted this fall," she said. “These contact sports are just too high-risk. If we do well, if we work hard, it is possible we could just be delaying them and they could be played later in the year and later into the season. Fingers crossed, and I believe in you that we can get this done."

As the hot Southwestern summer dragged on, Kooper Davis and his teammates placed faith in that possibility. In August, they were allowed to hold practice sessions capped at nine players each — not enough for a real practice, with offense running plays against defense, but better than the July sessions, which had been capped at five players. Kooper was vying against three other players for the starting quarterback spot. His arm strength had improved in the past year, so much so that his best friend Sam Kinney, a wide receiver, jokingly complained about the passes starting to hurt. And Kooper was a great student of the quarterback position; he had “the intangibles," his coaches said. But he knew he needed to work on his agility, which is one reason he took the practices so seriously. He was the first to come, and last to leave.

Even with fall sports canceled, the Hobbs school district, with almost 10,000 students, was still hoping to open the new school year for as much in-person instruction as possible. More than just scholastic considerations were driving this. In late April, six weeks into the spring's pandemic lockdowns, the community had been stunned by the suicide of an 11-year-old boy, Landon Fuller, an outgoing kid who loved going to school and had, his mother said, struggled with the initial lockdowns.

New Mexico has consistently had one of the highest in the country — it's roughly twice the national average — and preliminary state statistics would later show the 2020 rate as unchanged. Nationwide, increased by half between 2007 and 2018, a trend that has been linked to multiple factors, from the growing availability of guns to the spread of smartphones and social media. In New Mexico, mental health experts say, the factors also include high rates of depression on Native American reservations, and rural isolation in general.

Still, the news of an 11-year-old taking his life — after riding his bike to a field near his house — had the power to shock in Hobbs. “I think the big question we all have is why, and we will never know the reason why," his mother, Katrina Fuller, told an Albuquerque TV talk show in July. “The only thing that I was able to find was in his journal, was that he had wrote that he was going mad from staying at home all the time and that he just wanted to be able to go to school and play outside with his friends. So that was the only thing that I can imagine what was going through his head at that time."

Hobbs is heavily conservative. Lea County, of which it is part, would vote 79% for Trump in 2020. And unlike in many other, more Democratic parts of the country, the city's school administrators had the support of many teachers when it came to reopening: A survey in late summer found more than 70% of teachers in favor of in-person instruction. But the district's push to reopen was rebuffed by the state education department. After initially barring any schools from reopening in August, the state released “gating criteria" for districts that wanted to resume in-person instruction in the fall. They were among the strictest in the country. They allowed only for elementary-school instruction, and required a district to stay below an average of eight new cases per day per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. For Hobbs and the rest of Lea County, population 70,000, that meant no more than five new cases per day in the whole county. (By , Kentucky's daily threshold was 25 cases per 100,000 people and Oklahoma's was 50 cases. Hawaii, one of the states least affected by the pandemic, put its threshold at 360 cases over a 14-day period.)

Statewide in New Mexico, the restrictions resulted in zero high schools or middle schools reopening anywhere in the state. This confounded Hobbs school officials, especially because they could see open schools across the border in Texas. “We've got districts 30 miles away doing it safely," associate superintendent Gene Strickland said. “I get the fear level, but we see models that show it can be done. Allow us that opportunity."

Kooper Davis had always thrived in school. He liked his teachers, and they liked him. He had won over his ninth-grade English teacher, Jennifer Espinoza, with his willingness to engage on the works they were reading: “The Outsiders," “Romeo and Juliet," “To Kill a Mockingbird."

“He was very opinionated about why a character did this, or whatever something meant," Espinoza said. “Even if he was wrong or going in the wrong direction, he wasn't afraid to put his thoughts out there." It was a great class in general, she said: “Those kids fed off each other. They would come out with amazing answers." Kooper and Sam Kinney ribbed her about her tendency to lose her phone and took daily attendance for her. When Kooper was the only boy at Hobbs to make the Junior National Honors Society alongside 20 girls, Espinoza asked him if it felt weird. He grinned. “No, I like it!"

But Kooper hated virtual school. There were no friends to cajole, no teachers to charm. Hobbs wasn't even holding synchronous classes online for older high schoolers. They mostly watched video lessons on their own, using an online curriculum called Edgenuity. Kooper procrastinated, as usual, but now also found it harder to focus when deadlines hit. His grades started slipping from his usual all-A's. And these were the grades that colleges were going to be looking at.

As it was sinking in with Kooper and his classmates that school would remain remote for the rest of the fall, they got word in early October of an additional setback on the sports front. Not only would New Mexico remain one of a handful of states to bar high school sports, but practices would now be limited to just four players per coach. This meant they would mostly just be lifting weights, never mind that this often meant having many players in the weight room at a time (albeit in four-player pods), seemingly a riskier proposition than a regular practice outdoors. The football coach, Ken Stevens, could sense the morale plunging. “I seen a lot of disappointment," he said. “Lost hope." Some players stopped showing up. Making it especially tough, he said, was the nearby contrast. “That's the frustration," he said. “How come 10, 15 miles away, these kids can compete, can live a somewhat normal life?"

Kooper was despondent. “Man, this ," he told his teammates. “We need to be back on the field." He missed football so much that, on some Friday evenings, he headed across the state line to Texas to watch a game.

The schools in Denver City, population 5,000, had shut down amid the coronavirus lockdowns in the spring of 2020, but there wasn't really any question about whether the 1,700-student district would reopen schools in the fall. The Texas Education Agency was letting districts make the decision. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association had nowhere near the sway of unions in other states. This didn't keep many large urban districts in the state from starting the school year with remote learning. But Denver City and nearby small cities in West Texas opened schools. Students could choose a virtual option, but only a few dozen of Denver City's 492 high school students took it. As for teachers, there was no option: Their job was in the classroom.

Denver City is a humble-looking town, with a Family Dollar and no Walmart, but oil-and-gas revenues had allowed it to build a new high school two years ago. The building has good ventilation, and enough space that it wasn't hard to spread desks to allow for 4 to 6 feet between them, even in a class of 20 or more. Students were attending five days a week, without the hassle of hybrid schedules used in much of the country. They were required to wear masks in the hallways or while moving around a classroom, but many teachers allowed them to take their masks off at their desks, judging the spacing sufficient, though the teachers kept their own masks on. Lunch was still served in the cafeteria, but it never got crowded because many students went into town for lunch, at the McDonald's drive-through or elsewhere.

The school did not administer coronavirus tests on its own, but if a student or teacher tested positive locally, the school conducted contact tracing to determine if any other teacher or student had been exposed to them for 15 minutes or more, unmasked, within six feet. Anyone who fit that definition had to quarantine at home, initially for two weeks, eventually only for 10 days, in line with CDC guidelines. The district, which offered daily and weekly tallies of cases on its website, determined that the vast share of transmissions seemed to be happening outside school, as to be the case in other places, too. “The weekends is where they're getting it," said principal Rick Martinez. “If we could have them all week, this is the best place for them to be."

Over the course of the fall semester, about a dozen of the 70 staff members in the Denver City school missed time for quarantine, mostly after testing positive themselves, forcing the district to find substitutes — no easy task, but not insurmountable. All of the teachers returned. There were other challenges, such as the time in August when a player on the girls volleyball team tested positive and the school made the decision to shut down the team for two weeks, just in case another player had been exposed.

Overall, though, the fall was going so relatively well that many students who had chosen the remote option at the outset decided to come back to school, to the point where only about half a dozen were still learning at home. “It's been stressful at times," said the district superintendent, Patrick Torres. “It's taken a lot of time and effort, but our kids are getting instruction face to face."

Football went forward, too. The school capped attendance at its field, and required people to register for tickets online. The team in Seminole, 20 miles south, needed to cancel some games as the result of player quarantines, but Denver City managed to get through the fall without any cancellations, though there were some weeks where the roster got thin.

Kooper Davis came across the border once with a friend to see a game in Levelland, northeast of Denver City, and another time with his father, Justin, to see a game in Seminole. Justin, who works for a company that services oil-field equipment and runs a lawn care business on the side, noticed the reaction his tall, athletic son was getting in the Seminole stands. “People looked at us, like, 'Who is this kid and why is he not playing?'"

Kooper's father and his stepmother Heather, who had been together since Kooper was nine, had considered transferring him to a school in Texas, as other families were doing. This would have entailed sending Kooper to live with Heather's brother. (Kooper had limited contact with his biological mother.) They were even considering sending Kooper and Heather to Atlanta to live near one of the coaches he'd trained with. But Heather and Justin had just had newborn twins. Plus, Kooper wanted to play with team, his friends.

His parents began to notice how much the disruption and uncertainty was wearing on their normally buoyant son. On Oct. 9, Heather went on Facebook and posted a plea for reopening. “So honestly when do we stand up for our kids?? When do we all protest and say this is enough, do we wait until our kids lose life completely?" she wrote. “So many kids are turning to the wrong things to fill a void. Sad, it's so sad. Let's respect the ones who wanna stay home and respect the ones who are ready to go back!!"

Two days later, the town learned of another life lost: an 18-year-old who had graduated from Hobbs High that spring at a local park after receiving a medical discharge from the Navy. Kooper did not know him well, but went out to join friends who had gathered to mourn him.

The next day, a Monday evening, Kooper and his classmates held a demonstration for reopening school and school sports, one of several across the county that day. They held theirs at the high school football stadium, a hulking edifice that can seat 15,000. The students wore masks and sat spaced apart on the stands, holding signs that said “Let Us Play" and “SOS Save Our Students." They had the tacit support of their coaches and many of their parents, some of whom had helped shoot a testimonial video that was going to be shown on the scoreboard screen. But the video wouldn't load right, so several students went onto the field to give impromptu speeches before the 175 or so people who were gathered there.

Kooper was among the speakers, which surprised his friend Sam Kinney. “I knew he was pretty brave, but didn't know he was that brave," Sam said later.

At the microphone, Kooper introduced himself, then said, “I play football and basketball and those sports make up a big part of my life, and when I'm not here every day doing something with those sports, honestly, I feel really lost in life. Since I'm a junior, college is starting to cross my mind, and without this essential year of learning, I feel completely unprepared for college. I know I've still got another year, but time goes faster than you really think."

He continued, “I just believe we should be here at school and we should be here playing football. It's crazy to think that just down the road, they're playing a football season — they're almost with their football season. It's honestly ridiculous. And I'm willing to keep my teammate and classmates in line, minding whatever rules, just so I can be back here doing the stuff I love."

Mental health experts struggle to identify a precedent for the challenge this pandemic is producing for many Americans. In prior pandemics where the technology was not available for remote work or remote schooling, lockdowns and social isolation were not as extreme and did not last as long as what we've lived through this past year. And the psychological stress that the pandemic has produced for so many Americans of all ages is unlike so many more acute crises that we might experience in life, said Nick Allen, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oregon. “There's a difference between a stressor that makes your life unpleasant and intolerable and a stressor that takes away good things," he said. “For a lot of people, the stressor that COVID represents is one that takes away good things. You can't go to sporting events, you can't see your friends, you can't go to parties. It's not necessarily that you're experiencing abuse, though some may be. What's happening is that we're taking away high points in people's lives that give them reward and meaning. That may have an effect over time. The initial response is not as difficult as something that's stressful, but over time, the anhedonia, the loss of pleasure, is going to drive you down a lot more."

Even before the coronavirus arrived, teen mental health was a cause for growing concern. Researchers and mental health professionals had come to the conclusion that, as David Brent, a University of Pittsburgh psychiatry professor, put it to me, “One thing that's protective against it is connection to school and family and peers. We know that participation in sports and a connection to school can have a profound protective effect."

That social connection has been attenuated in the parts of the country that have largely shuttered school buildings and associated activities. The closures have also inhibited young people's striving for independence, youth mental health experts say. “A key developmental task of adolescence is autonomy-building," said Jessica Schleider, an assistant psychology professor at Stony Brook University. “That is what teens are driven to do: to grow self-esteem and a strong sense of who they are." With school and so much else closed off to them, and daily life mostly limited to the home, “the little bit of self-directedness they had before is gone. A lot are stuck in environments they didn't choose. The futures they had been working toward aren't options anymore."

As the pandemic carried through the summer, worrisome signals started appearing across the country. In addition to the on the rising share of visits to emergency rooms by teenagers in distress, a University of Wisconsin survey of more than 3,000 high school athletes during the summer found that more than two-thirds reported high levels of anxiety and depression, .

For Kooper, autumn brought no relief. Every weekday morning except Wednesday, he got up at 6:30 a.m., drank a protein shake, then drove to McDonald's for more breakfast, before arriving at school at 7 a.m. for a weightlifting session. On the way back, he'd pick up some Burger King breakfast for his two younger sisters, ages 11 and 5. The younger one would ask why he couldn't get McDonald's, which she preferred, on the way back, and he'd explain that traffic made it easier for him to do them in this order. Kooper would chat a bit with Heather and then shower and get to work on the computer.

There were signs that mental health was on his mind. On Oct. 16, Kooper shared a grim claim from a state representative on his Facebook account, which he seldom used: “The New Mexico Athletic Association reports there have been 8 student-athlete suicides since March 20."

Kooper looked so alone and hunched over as he worked that Heather one day posted a picture of him online to share his struggle with others. “I know my kid isn't the only one hurting," she wrote. “How is this life that they are living."

The Davises were sufficiently attuned to the mental health challenges of the pandemic that they held regular family visits with a therapist, and Kooper had gotten a couple of solo sessions as well before he and the therapist decided that was no longer necessary.

For a while, Kooper went to do some of his schoolwork at the Starbucks near the local Walmart, just to get out of the house, but then it closed down again when state restrictions tightened further. On some Tuesdays and Thursdays, he'd head to school for an afternoon session with the other quarterbacks, learning how to read defensive coverage. Some afternoons, he'd head over to the church his family belongs to, Christian Center Church, which is led by Sam's father, Jotty Kinney, who set up a small weight room for the boys to use. On Sunday mornings, Kooper would be back at the church for his youth-group service and to help lead sessions for the younger kids. And one weekend late afternoon in November, when it was below 30 degrees out, two dozen boys went to school to play touch football, the closest they had come to having a game.

On Sunday, Dec. 6, as semester finals were getting underway for school, Kooper was at church as usual, dressed as a baby for a monthly skit he and Sam did for the little kids. Later that day, he put up another Facebook post, his first since the one in October: “With these tough times going around, I know there are many of those in need, and I want to give back to my community," he wrote. “If any of y'all know anyone unable to leave their homes, I am willing to wait in line and pick up their groceries for them, or even run simple errands. Please pm me if you or anyone you know could use a helping hand."

The next morning, Dec. 7, Kooper went to his Monday weightlifting session. As he left, he told Sam, in typically unabashed fashion, “Love you." “Love you, too," Sam responded. On the way out of the athletic building, Kooper swung by to see the basketball coach, Eddy Martinez, to tell him he thought he might be able to play with that team, too, if the schedule that the state had floated the previous week actually came to pass: a truncated football season in February, followed by a truncated basketball season. Martinez said he'd be glad to have Kooper and that he was welcome to join one of their four-person practice pods that very day. Kooper said he didn't have his basketball shoes, but he would come the next day.

Coach Stevens got the news from the school principal that afternoon. Like others in Hobbs, he was not unprepared for such calls: There had been at least six suicide attempts by Hobbs students during the pandemic, according to district officials. But when he heard the name, Stevens was stunned. He asked, “Are you sure you got the name right?" The principal said he thought he had, but that he'd double-check with the school's designated police officer. He called back five minutes later to say that yes, he had gotten the name right.

Jennifer Espinoza got word from fellow teachers, one of whom asked her, “Hey, did you have Connor Davis?" The name meant nothing to her, but, she asked, did they mean Kooper Davis? No, they said. “Good," she said, “because Kooper would be out of the question."

It had happened while Heather was at the grocery store picking up baby formula and something for dinner. At about 1 p.m., Kooper had texted Sam on Snapchat: “Love you, bro." “Love you, too," Sam wrote back. That was the last he heard from his friend.

The next day, Coach Stevens gathered his players and assistant coaches in the team meeting room to discuss Kooper's death. There were counselors on hand, as well as Pastor Kinney, Sam's dad. The adults encouraged the players to speak about what they were feeling, not to hold things in. But the players ended up just wanting to go lift weights together.

The day after that, Wednesday, a fleet of empty school buses arrived at the high school from other towns, one from as far as Clovis, 130 miles away. The buses had condolence messages painted on the windows: “We are here for you," read the writing on the bus from Portales. “Pray for Hobbs," said the bus from Eunice. “Artesia loves you," said the bus from Artesia.

I reached Justin Davis on the phone that Saturday, after learning of Kooper's death from a mother in northwestern New Mexico whose daughter had also struggled with the absence of school and sports. Justin, as I would soon learn, is a large and taciturn man, but he was eager to talk, and urged me to come to New Mexico to learn more about what Kooper and his friends had been through. He was at a loss over what he and Heather might have missed. “I had an open relationship with my son," he said. “It's baffling to us to figure out why he didn't come to us."

Suicide is ultimately an unfathomable act, but Justin said he was sure of one thing. “No doubt, if my son had been in school on Monday this wouldn't have happened," he said. “He would've had an adult standing next to him, a coach saying, 'Kooper, quit being a dummy.'" The only way he could make sense of it, Justin said, was that “for about fifteen seconds of Kooper's life, he let his guard down and the devil came in and convinced him of something that was wrong." His only solace was seeing the effect the loss had on Kooper's classmates, who were, he said, turning their lives over to God, sending letters to the governor, and generally spreading word of his son's goodness far and wide.“I believe God needed him now," he said.

I arrived in Hobbs two days later, just in time for the memorial inside Christian Center Church. The parking lot was jammed with oversized pickups, and the sanctuary was standing room only. The stage was dominated by balloons in black and yellow, the Hobbs High colors, and large white letters and numbers, aglow with lights, that spelled KD 10, Kooper's jersey number. His home and away jerseys, his school backpack and a school photograph were also displayed. I found an empty space to stand in the back. There were many kids in the audience, and some were wearing raspberry-colored shirts with Kooper 10 written on them. Few people were wearing face masks.

A four-person band with two backup singers played “Another in the Fire," a stirring song by the Australian worship band Hillsong United: “There was another in the fire/ Standing next to me/ There was another in the waters/ Holding back the seas…"

Stevens was one of several coaches and trainers who spoke via a recorded feed played on the big screen over the stage. “I have no doubt that God is not done using Kooper," he said. “He is going to continue to use him to impact those around him, and God's glory will shine through."

Then the screen played a long loop of photos and videos of Kooper: wearing a Halloween costume, holding his younger sister on the beach, wearing braces, buried in sand, grinning behind Justin and Heather as they kissed at their wedding, attending a Dallas Cowboys game, singing in a school musical, holding a newspaper with his name in a sports story, sitting on a hay bale, holding the newborn twins, wearing a tux for a dance.

Heather came to the stage with Kooper's sisters. She began by reading some lines Kooper had written in his journal, including his paraphrase of a verse of Scripture, “If your enemy is hurting give him food. If he's thirsty, give him water," and his interpretation of it: “No matter who it is, no matter who the person is, if they're in need, help them. Help them. I don't know who it is, but you need to help them." She talked about Justin's love for his son: “That's his boy. Kooper's been Justin's rock." She recounted all their morning chats together, after his workout sessions. “I want him to come in from football practice and tell me how practice went. I want him to tickle the babies while I go eat," she said. “But that's me being selfish. And I want his happiness more than I want mine."

Pastor Kinney spoke last. “When you'd see him smile, you didn't know what was going on under that mop of hair he had," he said. “He was one of the most driven people I have known." He described Kooper's “protective loyalty," how he once ran in from the outfield of a church softball game to confront someone who was having words with Heather. He joked about Kooper letting one of his sisters sleep in one of his shirts, his willingness to dress up as a baby during the church skit for the little kids, and how Kooper was the only one of the young people he knew who would actually call him on the phone sometimes, just to talk. “No other kid in this day and age called," he said. “He didn't text you or put it on Snap. He called you."

When the service ended, people stayed on for a while to talk and hug each other. It was unnerving to watch: lots of people, few masks, no windows. The event was in gross violation of the state rules on indoor gatherings, which were supposed to be capped at 40 people, but no sheriff's deputy was about to intervene on this day. (The mass exposure did not lead to any reported local outbreaks.)

The people of Hobbs had for months been barred from letting their kids go to school or letting them play football and soccer. And now, after the death of a boy that many of them saw as linked to those restrictions, they were effectively, saying, screw it.

I chatted with some of Kooper's teammates, asking them how they were handling remote learning. “It's trash," said one, Kevin Melissa. “It's crazy," said another, Carter Johnson. “Everyone tells us to keep positive, but it's been almost a year. It's hard to be positive."

Before the event broke up, someone encouraged all of Kooper's classmates to get together on stage for a group photo. They eagerly did so, several dozen of them bunched together, beaming for the camera. The smiles were jarring in the context of a memorial service until one remembered the broader context: It was the first time they had all gotten to be together since March.

The next morning, I met Katrina Fuller, the mother of 11-year-old Landon, in the windswept parking lot of a strip mall. She had come to bring her teenage daughter to an outdoor kids' workout session that had been arranged hastily a few days earlier, after the news of Kooper's death. Despite the cold, two dozen kids, most in their early teens, had come out to the parking lot and were now doing various kickboxing exercises — spaced apart and with masks on — under the guidance of some martial arts instructors.

Katrina, a prenatal educator, had been trying for months to draw attention to the mental health needs of Hobbs' young people. She had been writing and calling elected officials and state bureaucrats and finally, with the help of the local state senator, Gay Kernan, had gotten the state to provide some training for local teachers in recognizing youth mental health troubles.

More resources had belatedly started pouring into the state: a $10 million federal grant for school-based mental health services, plus $500,000 in CARES Act funds. The challenge was less the lack of money than the lack of people to administer it: the state education department has only a single behavorial health coordinator, Leslie Kelly, who was struck by the rising concern about youth suicide during the pandemic given that the problem had existed for years in New Mexico. “I'm glad we care about this now, but our state was high pre-pandemic," Kelly said.

Even if New Mexico's overall numbers were holding steady, to those in Hobbs, three youth suicides plus a half-dozen other attempts by students in a matter of months in a population of 39,000 felt like its own epidemic. Shivering in the parking lot, Fuller told me about Landon, who had “just wanted to be everyone's friend." He was the sort, she said, who always went over to any kid sitting by themselves on the playground. And Fuller told me about the difficult weeks of the initial lockdown in the spring, when both she and her husband were feeling the stress of a loss of income. They had tried to make things as nice as possible in those weeks, with an online birthday party for the two kids, and an Easter egg hunt. But it was still hard. “All of our moods changed," she said. And it was so hard for someone of Landon's age to grasp time; the six weeks of closure seemed like forever.

I asked if she thought school should have opened in the fall, and she hesitated. She took the coronavirus seriously, she said. Her grandfather recently died of COVID-19. She was heartened by the launch of the exercise class but knew the town needed to come up with more, “just to let them know that we love them and they're so wanted and they're not alone." She started to cry.

She said she had started hearing from many other families around the country whose kids were struggling, including a mother who'd discovered her 6-year-old's plans for how to end her own life. “These are kids without mental health issues, with good families, kids that are loved," she said. Definitive explanations were, of course, impossible to come by. “I've heard it all," Fuller said. “I've blamed myself."

She had done a lot of reading on youth suicide since Landon's death, and had learned that rates were especially high in indigenous communities, like the Aboriginal community of Australia. In reading that, she had drawn a connection to American children who were being forced into a whole different way of life during the pandemic. “The theory is they're reacting to modern society," she said of the Aboriginal children. “Well, we're introducing them to a new society here, and they're rejecting it."

Recently, Fuller told me, she had received an envelope in the mail from the New Mexico education department. She opened it and found a letter demanding to know why Landon had been truant from his online classes during the fall semester. The bureaucratic oversight stunned her. “He would be in school if he wasn't dead," she said.

After my meeting with Fuller, I went back to the church. Sam was lifting weights with another friend in the small workout room that his father had set up. After I chatted with Sam, I walked with his father back to his office. He told me that he had been running through his last interactions with Kooper, over and over, searching for a warning sign, to no avail. All he knew was that Kooper had been upset about the closures. “When you put most of your things into achieving scholastic, and achieving athletic, and those things aren't available to you, your whole life, every goal you wanted to achieve is being taken away from you," he said.

Kinney said he and the Hobbs school superintendent had been talking a few days earlier about the need to get kids back in school. “Like Texas, we have to learn to live with it," he said. “You know, marginalizing our teens for other people that are high-risk, what do you pick? You know? Because, I mean, we're losing them. Not only that, we're losing years of their educational development."

Kinney said his brother-in-law, also a pastor, had become seriously ill with coronavirus, and he did not doubt its danger. But, he said, the current generation of kids “are the people that are going to be running our country one day. We're losing their leadership. They're going to be taking care of us one day, and this is how we're treating them?" He noted that one student at the October protest had carried a sign that read, “I'm able to vote in your next election."

“They'll remember these times," he said.

That night, I went to meet with Kooper's father and stepmother at their house, which sits out on the edge of town, near a small cattle farm. Meals cooked by friends covered the island in the kitchen. Justin and Heather told me how much comfort they were taking in the outpouring over Kooper, especially among his classmates.

But they said they were thinking of all the other kids in another way, too. If normally lighthearted Kooper, despite a loving family and natural gifts, had been struggling so much, what about all the others? How much distress was invisible to parents? “He was a kid who had everything, and this is where we're at," said Justin. “What's going on with those other kids?"

On my final day in Hobbs, I made the short drive across the Texas border to Denver City. It was startling to pull into the high school parking lot and see dozens of teenagers strolling out of the school building, wearing masks and carrying backpacks, on their way to lunch. Even more startling was hearing from school administrators about how well the football season had gone — the Denver City team made it to the second round of the playoffs — and about the great event of the night prior: the holiday band concert. To avoid dense crowds, the band had held three performances, with several hundred people attending each. In the large band hall, the band director showed me the dots he had taped on the floor to keep the 70-odd musicians spaced 7.5 feet apart even as they marched, and the cloth covers that one student's grandmother had made, decorated with the school's mustang logo, to go over the tubas, to keep them from emitting moisture. It was hard not to be impressed by the ingenuity, the determination to try to make things work, even now. “Whatever it takes," said Rick Martinez, the principal.

After being in Denver City, things seemed emptier than ever at the Hobbs high school complex — in normal times, the center of communal life in Hobbs. I was there to meet with Coach Stevens, who had also been wracking his mind trying to think of clues he hadn't picked up from Kooper. He could think of nothing, other than the fact that he had noticed that one of Kooper's grades had slipped below his norm. But he also knew how adolescents had the natural tendency to magnify troubles. “I fear for all the kids," he said. “One thing that maybe our decision makers don't remember is that when you're in high school or you're a kid, thinking you're the only one dealing with something. That's what you think when you're 16: Nobody is dealing with what I'm dealing with." Not to mention, he said, that the closures have simply given kids too many empty hours. “They've got so much time on their hands," he said. “I don't care how good a kid you are, if you have so much time on your hands, you're going to find mischief."

He told me how dearly he hoped the state stuck to its plan for a football season, truncated though it was. “My biggest fear is, you pull the rug on these kids," he said. “All we've been doing is trying to sell hope and belief to these kids that it's going to happen, but at some point, they're going to quit believing in you."

My last visit in Hobbs was to the home of Jennifer Espinoza, Kooper's favorite teacher. When I entered her bungalow, Espinoza, a friendly woman in her 40s, said that I should feel welcome to take my mask off, because she had already been through a serious case of COVID-19, several weeks earlier. This startled me, but not nearly as much as what she told me next: that soon after her own illness, her partner of 18 years, Abe, had died of what had strongly resembled COVID-19, though his initial test had come back negative. He had been away from Hobbs at the time, working an oil-field job in Odessa, Texas, and a co-worker he had shared a truck with later tested positive. Abe died on Nov. 30, at 49, before she could see him.

And then Kooper had died, a week later. It had been a terrible month, and it had left her uncertain about the best course for the Hobbs schools and sports teams. As the school year started, she had been among the majority of teachers who were willing to return to classrooms. This had only been confirmed for her as she saw how poorly the remote learning was going: not only did most students leave their cameras off, some wouldn't even turn on their microphones. “I can't see them, I can't even hear them," she said. “They didn't want to talk."

But then she herself had gotten the virus — she wasn't sure where — and its severity had hit home, even before her partner's death. She had swung the other way on reopening. Now Kooper's death was making her reconsider again. “If it would prevent another Kooper, then definitely, yes," she said. “We just have to weigh the good and the bad. Do we fear everyone coming back and possibly getting COVID, or do we fear losing another student more?"

In late January, Gov. Lujan Grisham would announce that schools could reopen for all ages on Feb. 8, but at maximum 50% capacity, which meant only a couple of days per week, and under the condition that they would close if cases rose again. Sports could start a few weeks after that, with masks and without fans. Nationwide, meanwhile, President Biden's push to reopen schools was explicitly leaving out high schools, leaving millions of teenagers with the likelihood of remote learning through the end of the school year.

In the same week as Lujan Grisham announced her reopening plan, I made another check of the coronavirus toll in Hobbs' Lea County. The county had suffered 112 deaths attributed to COVID-19, which worked out to a per capita rate slightly lower than that in the three Texas counties abutting Lea. New Mexico as a whole had lost 3,145 people, two-hundredths of a percentage point higher than Texas in per capita terms. The overall per-capita case numbers in Lea County were slightly higher than the three counties across the border, while the case numbers in Texas were slightly higher than in New Mexico.

Numerous factors had affected these outcomes, needless to say. The states had taken very different approaches with regard to their young people, but ended up in almost identical places as far as their coronavirus tolls.

Other tolls would be harder to assess, in a year of so much damage done, in so many ways. “There's too much hurt," Espinoza said as I headed out of her house after our conversation. “There always seems like there's something new to cry about."

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