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Police say 75 new officers will be deployed to Kensington next week — with more drug enforcement to come ‘quickly’ after warnings

Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said that the extra police presence would remain in the neighborhood for “the long haul.”

Activity on Kensington Ave. is seen in the foreground, with the Cantina La Martina restaurant in the background on Friday.
Activity on Kensington Ave. is seen in the foreground, with the Cantina La Martina restaurant in the background on Friday.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel confirmed Monday that at least 75 additional police officers will be deployed to Kensington as soon as next week, and that the department intends to move quickly from warning of consequences into a phase of heavier narcotics enforcement.

Echoing what police commanders told Kensington residents at a community meeting last week, Bethel said that a “communication” phase about the impending enforcement would be followed “very quickly” by a crackdown on open-air drug activity and other quality-of-life crimes that have long been viewed as the norm in Kensington.

The communication and enforcement phases did not come with a set timeline, as Bethel said that Mayor Cherelle L. Parker’s five-phase plan to stabilize the neighborhood remains fluid, and that there would be overlap. But Bethel made clear that arrests would increase in order to tackle the drug trade and attendant shootings in a neighborhood that has endured a historic concentration of gun violence since the pandemic.

“There is nowhere in America this should be happening,” Bethel said. “And if I was anywhere else in the city of Philadelphia, no one would be ask me a question as to what I’m doing with people who are out there committing crimes, selling drugs, shooting and killing people.”

Open-air drug use — long overlooked in Kensington — would also no longer be accepted by police.

Bethel said that the communication phase would entail informational leaflets warning people about the impending enforcement, with scannable QR codes with information about treatment and other resources. Police last week said the signs and fliers could go up Monday, but by late afternoon, no such information was clearly visible on Kensington Avenue, and people who frequent the area said they had not yet seen any literature.

The enforcement ramp-up is complicated by the city’s strained treatment system. Outreach efforts in Kensington have increased in recent months leading up the closure of a homeless encampment along Kensington Avenue. But city officials have said that more than 90% the city’s treatment and shelter beds are consistently full, and many drug users in Kensington have complex medical needs due to the animal tranquilizer xylazine that has permeated the illicit drug supply, leaving users with open flesh wounds that are easily infected.

Parker intends to spend more than $100 million building a drug-treatment center capable of housing more than 600 people near the city’s jail complex in Northeast Philadelphia. But the project could take three years to complete. In the meantime, officials are seeking to expand services and add beds for people with substance-use disorders at existing shelters — to vocal objection from residents who live near those facilities.

While vowing to increase arrests, Bethel said he was not trying to “overrun the system” by locking up hundreds of people living in addiction on the streets. He said he would continue to utilize the Police-Assisted Diversion program to offer rehabilitation for people facing criminal charges for low-level drug offenses, and seek collaboration with District Attorney Larry Krasner and the city’s court system.

Amid criticism from some business owners, residents, and community leaders over the displacement of the drug market that occurred after last month’s encampment clearing, police have stressed that change would not come overnight. Conditions would likely get worse before they get better, Deputy Commissioner Pedro Rosario, who is overseeing the Kensington operation, said last week.

But on Monday, Bethel said the extra police presence would remain in the neighborhood for “the long haul.”

”We’re going to give hope to a community that has lost hope,” he said.

Kensington’s new fleet of officers will be rookies, graduating fresh from the police academy on June 17. Bethel said the officers would be working on foot beats that have been utilized by the department for more than a decade. The incoming officers will be equipped with body-worn cameras, the commissioner added, and patrolling under the supervision of more senior officers.

The long-term goal is “sustain and hold” one block at a time, beginning with a triangular target area centered on the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, the epicenter of the neighborhood’s drug trade. Police will focus on clearing sidewalks using bike racks and barricades, similar to those deployed after the recent encampment closure.

Bethel said “there is no playbook” for Philadelphia’s approach to Kensington, noting that few major cities have a neighborhood with a comparably entrenched drug trade dating back decades. But the dawn of this next chapter would seek to “reset the norms,” he said.