Kevin Bethel built a 30-year career locking people up, rising to become a respected deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.

But that’s not who he is anymore. Last month, Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. named him special adviser for school safety — essentially the chief of the 300-officer-plus school police force.

“You don’t get your respect from barking and screaming and hollering and cuffing,” said Bethel, who has attracted national attention for his work with young people. “We’re going to encourage mentoring and engaging with young people, and giving these officers the space to be able to work outside what has been the traditional boundary of, ‘You’re here as the enforcer, and that’s all.'"

Under Bethel, the school police force — whose officers do not carry guns — will be given tools to understand adolescent development, trauma, and de-escalation, he said. Officers will stay away from code-of-conduct issues and focus on a safe school environment, and on having positive interactions with students.

“We’re going to do a reboot, but we’re going to do it in a thoughtful and effective way," said Bethel. “At the end of the day, part of our charge is to provide service, and I think sometimes we get caught in this space where we forget about empathy.”

That’s a sea change for the traditional school police force, but Royce Merriweather, president of the Philadelphia school officers’ union, said he’s encouraged by early interactions with Bethel.

“The door is open, and he’s positive, and we’re having conversations, which is more positive than it’s been in the past,” Merriweather said.

Toward the end of Bethel’s Police Department career, he was tasked with supervising school police operations. He was astonished to find that 1,600 district students had been arrested in a single school year, and began to think hard about the “school-to-prison pipeline” — the cycle of shuffling poor minority students from schools with harsh discipline policies straight into courtrooms and jails, where they often remain for most of their lives.

“I remember walking in the door and saying to [then-Commissioner Charles H.] Ramsey, I couldn’t do it anymore, that this was wrong,'" Bethel said. “I really thought about the trauma of what that looked like, what did it mean when I took a 10-year-old child out of the school in cuffs, take him into headquarters, fingerprint him or her, because they came to school with a pair of scissors. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

With Ramsey’s blessing, Bethel started a pre-arrest diversion program in which first-time offenders who committed low-level offenses were spared arrest and instead were sent down a social services path. Department of Human Services workers were dispatched to the homes of students who qualified for the program to figure out: What is wrong in this young person’s life that made him or her act out, and how can we fix it?

During his 30-year Philadelphia Police Department career, Kevin Bethel rose to become deputy commissioner. He retired from the force in 2016.
Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer
During his 30-year Philadelphia Police Department career, Kevin Bethel rose to become deputy commissioner. He retired from the force in 2016.

The results were dramatic.

In the 2018-19 school year, 250 students were arrested — down from the 1,600 in 2013-14. Prior to the diversion program, the recidivism rate for students who were arrested at school was 27%. Now, the recidivism rate for students who qualify for the diversion program is 14%.

Bethel retired from the police force in 2016 and accepted a Stoneleigh Foundation justice fellowship, continuing his work on juvenile justice issues, concentrating his efforts on the School District.

After his fellowship, he intended to start a consulting company to continue his work with Philadelphia and other districts. But he quickly discovered that it made more sense to work directly for the school system.

Hite said he was thrilled to bring Bethel in house because he believes Bethel’s philosophy around school safety and his nationally recognized work will make schools calmer and safer.

“We don’t arrest or suspend or expel our way to better schools — we actually develop relationships to get to better schools,” Hite said. “We want to redirect the efforts of adults to better support what children need.”

For the last several years, activist groups including the Philadelphia Student Union have called for the elimination of school police officers, an idea that drew a brighter spotlight last year after the school board passed a controversial policy requiring metal detectors in all city high schools.

The superintendent said then that he didn’t want "children feeling criminalized, or feeling like they’re entering prisons when they’re entering schools,” and pledged more training for school police officers around how to use the detectors and engage with students.

Enter Bethel, who said it’s not his place to debate whether school police or metal detectors belong in schools. He’s clear, though, that a school officer’s job is in part to ensure a warm place for students.

“That welcoming starts from the time students walk in the door and see my officers," said Bethel, whose annual salary is $160,000. "We have to work to make sure that when those young people come through the metal detectors, it’s done in a respectful way. How we engage people through that process can make or break how their day starts.”

Bethel said he plans to rely heavily on students to identify new ways of engagement. Many officers are already doing the kind of work Bethel envisions, formally or informally mentoring students. Expect to see more proactive work to build up school communities, rather than reactive policing, Bethel said. And maybe some changes.

“At the end of the day, there are going to be those few who don’t want to change," he said. "We do the best we can, but at some point, those men and women shouldn’t be here.”

Fred Pinguel, executive director of Philadelphia Student Union, has yet to meet Bethel but said his philosophies are encouraging.

“It’s great to know that Officer Bethel is interested in hearing more student voice, in engaging more with students,” said Pinguel.

Bethel said he never forgets that the 130,000 students who attend Philadelphia public schools live in “some of the most challenging neighborhoods in America,” and often can’t leave the stress and trauma of those communities behind when they enter schools.

And he is keenly aware that the adults in Philadelphia schools can help transform lives, as they did for Bethel, one of four boys growing up with a single mother in Southwest Philadelphia, who was encouraged and assisted by role models at Bartram High.

“I plan to drive my team to do more than they have probably ever done in their lives, but I’m going to be right there in front of them,” Bethel said. "We have the ability to positively connect with young people, and if we do it in the right way, we may never know how many kids those positive interactions had an impact on. But I know in my gut it’s the right thing to do.”