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June 10, 2024

Philly police to enter enforcement phase of city's plan targeting drugs, violence in Kensington

Officers will have an increased presence in the community as part of a push to address longstanding issues in the neighborhood.

Crime Neighborhoods
Bethel Kensington Police Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel gave an overview of the department's new enforcement plan in Kensington, where the city is in the midst of an initiative to address long-term problems with homelessness, drug addiction and violent crime.

Philadelphia police will send 75 foot patrol officers into Kensington next week to start the second phase of the city's plan to address quality of life concerns related to high levels of violence, drug activity and prostitution, authorities said Monday. 

Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said improving conditions in the neighborhood's "opiate corridor" is a unique challenge that requires a mix of support services, community partnerships and targeted police work. 

"It's not like we have a comparison anywhere in America to give us a playbook of how to do this," Bethel said. "We know in San Francisco, they've been able to work effectively to address their open-air (drug) market. We know that Boston had a small area there. We humble ourselves going into this operation being very fluid." 

The crux of the city's enforcement plan will be to make more arrests of people involved in gun violence and drug sales. And although there will continue to be diversion services offered to drug users who seek treatment, there will be circumstances in which some could face arrests. 

"We are no longer going to allow individuals to take needles and shoot them up in front of children and families," Bethel said. "We're not longer going to allow individuals to walk through the neighborhood and steal and take things that are not theirs. We're no longer going to allow people openly selling drugs." 

Last month, the city's first phase of cleaning up Kensington involved the dismantling of a homeless encampment along a stretch of Kensington Avenue from East Orleans Street to Allegheny Avenue. At the time, officials said in the month leading up to that action, 59 people had gone into treatment or shelter housing offered by the city and its outreach. Some advocates and organizations that serve the homeless criticized the city's approach and said officials didn't deliver on their promises of needed resources for communities being displaced. 

The work in Kensington is part of a five-phase plan outlined in Mayor Cherelle Parker's 100-day report. Each stage is meant to build on the last and move toward a sustainable model for the community. 

Bethel said Monday the city could not disclose how many of the people who accepted services last month remain in those settings. He said police will not be targeting homeless individuals as part of the enforcement phase, and that crucial aspects of the first phase will be maintained throughout all steps of the city's efforts in Kensington. 

"Being unsheltered is not illegal," Bethel said. 

Police described a two-block area of Kensington as the most violent section of the city, with 25 shootings recorded this year. Bethel said two schools in the area just west of McPherson Square — Russell Conwell Middle School and the Frances E. Willard School — rank first and third in the country for the number of shootings that have occurred within 500 feet of them. 

"Part of our duties as a law enforcement agency is to address the level of violence that we've seen here — not just this year, but going back to 2021," he said. 

On Friday, Bethel and his top deputy in Kensington, Pedro Rosario, met with community members in Kensington to discuss their strategy and follow-up on months of discussions about what neighbors have requested. 

"We really have to bring a sense of normalcy back to the Kensington community," Rosario said Monday. 

Enforcement efforts will not be 'moving away' from harm reduction model

The 75 officers being deployed in Kensington will be new graduates of the police academy and will be supervised by senior officers as they get acclimated to working in the community. They will be be equipped with body cameras that are activated around the clock, Bethel said. 

"Often times, new officers come with a much (more) open mind about the work that they're going to embark on," Bethel said. "I'm very confident with the leadership that I have here ... that they'll be able to take those officers, deploy them down effectively into that area and address the concerns that they have. And we will have their back 200%." 

Parker made improving conditions in Kensington one of her top priorities when she took office in January, declaring a "public safety emergency" and issuing an executive order to implement a plan that will permanently shut down open-air drug markets. 

Philadelphia already has been working with federal and state partners to investigate suppliers of fentanyl and other drugs in Kensington. The work done by police will involve ramping up enforcement against crimes on a block level. Bethel said leaflets will be distributed in the community over the coming week to inform people about the department's plans. 

"Our job is to make it safe so the community can come down there and feel a part of the work — and be participants in that work," Bethel said. "And so that's our plan moving forward. ... We believe we have a highly effective strategy to do that." 

Part of the city's plan includes an 11 p.m. curfew that will be put into effect next week for Kensington businesses that aren't licensed to operate 24 hours a day. The curfew was enacted by City Council after lawmakers formed a Kensington Caucus to develop various strategies to rein in crime.

In recent months, outreach workers have warned that a "law-and-order" approach to addressing Kensington's overdose crisis could backfire if the city does not maintain an emphasis on harm reduction. The city has touted using "triage centers" to divert people in need of help to treatment centers, but limited information about those plans has been shared publicly. 

Apart from the use of a state-owned facility on Girard Avenue in Fairmount — which Councilmember Jeffery Young Jr. (D, District 5) called "deeply troubling" to his community — the city last week confirmed plans to open a $100 million drug treatment facility next to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia. 

On Thursday, a city spokesperson said the planned Riverview Wellness Center next to the prison could include up to 290 living units and serve up to 690 people who need services and shelter. The city plans to complete renovations to the property at 7979 State Road in phases, beginning as soon as July. 

Bethel said that as officers work to root out violent crime and drugs in the community, the police department will stand behind ongoing harm reduction strategies in Kensington.

"We respect the work that the harm reduction team has done," Bethel said. "We respect the work that the men and women have done to deal with addiction down there. We're not moving away from that model. That is one of the core models of our work. We'll constantly have that in the back of our mind. If someone wants to go to treatment, we're going to work with our partners and do every effort to get them into treatment."