At Hope Park in Kensington, the men dealing drugs along the chain-link fence wore hospital masks.
A short walk away, near the Somerset Street El stop, the blocks were crowded with streams of young people in addiction — many of whom live in the mini-encampments lining Kensington Avenue.
And over on Allegheny Avenue, the Rev. Liam Murphy watched as a man directed buyers down narrow Weymouth Street, barking at them to stay six feet away from him.
“There he is in dealing in the business of death — and trying to save himself from it,” the priest said.
As the coronavirus pandemic has coursed through Philadelphia, the drug markets in Kensington haven’t slowed — they’ve simply adapted. And residents, already accustomed to living in the heart of the city’s drug trade and the violence that accompanies it, fear that authorities have virtually halted drug enforcement, leaving corners crowded with dealers who don’t even bother to hide because they don’t think they’ll end up in jail.
The surreal scenes have played out in the weeks since Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw announced a new policy in which officers are not to take into custody most people suspected of narcotics crimes. Instead, cops issue warrants for the person to be arrested after the pandemic subsides, a decision supported by advocates, the police union, and District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Law enforcement statistics show that scale of the change.
In the first 12 days under the new policy, only 11 people citywide were taken into custody for drug possession or sales, according to data published on a website maintained by the District Attorney’s Office. By comparison, 423 people had been arrested for drug violations during the first two weeks of March, the data show.
In addition, prosecutors approved charges in just six drug-related cases in March after the new policy was implemented, the data show. In the first two weeks of March, they approved 407 such cases.
And in the Police Department’s East Division, which includes Kensington, the epicenter of the city’s drug trade, the numbers were equally striking. On average, every two weeks, police there had been making 225 drug arrests. In the last two weeks, they have made four.
The huge slash in arrests does not account for warrants police have issued for narcotics violations. Under the department’s policy, anyone given a warrant would remain on the street.
While the numbers are not surprising given the new directive, they illustrate the unprecedented challenges of protecting residents of a community overwhelmed by drugs, the officers who work there, and the suspects arrested for minor crimes facing the possibility of contracting a deadly virus in the city’s crowded jails.
The Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. In explaining the new approach last month, Outlaw stressed that police were “not turning a blind eye to crime.” Additional officers have been deployed to high crime areas. Suspects in homicides, rapes, and other violent crimes continue to be taken into custody.
“Nobody’s getting off the hook here,” Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, said during Thursday’s coronavirus briefing. “We are doing everything we can to enforce the law. We haven’t turned our back on Kensington. We’re still doing a lot of work there to provide for those that live there as well as those suffering from addiction."
Advocates point out that a public health catastrophe is hitting a neighborhood already mired in multiple public health crises — and where the shortage of housing and shelter often means that people cannot stay inside even if they want.
“When we look at Kensington we see a melting pot of crises — the overdose crisis, the gun-violence crisis, the poverty crisis — this a community that has been forgotten about for a very long time,” said Brooke Feldman, who advocates for people in addiction and homelessness. “Just because we have a pandemic right now doesn’t mean people are going to be in a place of readiness to stop using.”
Those very issues — and the pain they have long inflicted — have left the neighborhood so much more exposed to the impact of the pandemic, residents and officials said.
“The residents are horrified,” said Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. “They’re like, ‘We’re confined and we’re all exposed.’ ”
Drug dealers are competing for corners in front of businesses shuttered by the pandemic, said Quiñones-Sánchez. And with competition comes the potential of more violence, she said. Perhaps just as dangerous, many of the crowds gathered on corners and living in encampments are not following the city’s social distancing recommendations.
“For the residents of Kensington it is the storm of all the worst-case scenarios for them — more lawlessness, more vandalism, more aggression by the drug dealers — and the health-care crisis,” she said. “People are really concerned that we are going to become a hot spot because all those crises are rolled up into one.”
In a crisis where information about how the virus spreads can be confusing, neighborhood burdens once merely frustrating now feel perilous: Groups of people rushing down a narrow street for free drug samples. Drug paraphernalia littered across a step. A skewed car mirror someone leaned against.
“Every surface you look at — your railing, your car, your hose — you ask, ‘Can I touch this?'” said a man who lives with his wife on a small street off Kensington Avenue and did not want to be identified for fear of retribution from the dealers on his corner. “We managed to maintain some sanity and health before all this. Now we’re all freaking out."
Quiñones-Sánchez noted that the additional police presence has managed to “minimize" the expansion of new drug corners.
Indeed, police have been out in force in Kensington. Some mornings officers drive patrol cars with lights and sirens on, instructing people over their loudspeakers to keep their distance from one another.
But their presence has done little to slow business. The streets are packed. The corners occupied. The dealers have their masks.
Jasmine Velez, who works on community development projects focused on Hope Park, said it has seemed as if nothing’s changed.
“It was chaotic,” Velez said. “It’s just like it was before. You wouldn’t even know there was a pandemic happening.”