Philly’s new police commissioner says he wants to get more officers on city streets

Bethel said in addition to gun violence, the city faces many quality-of-life issues, like retail theft and illegal ATVs on city streets.

Philadelphila Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel at WHYY

Philadelphila Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel at WHYY. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Since taking over the department on Jan. 2, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said he’s focused on a five-year plan to increase the number of officers on city streets.

During an interview with WHYY News Tuesday after appearing on WHYY’s Studio 2, Bethel said he is dealing with many of the same challenges that most departments are facing nationwide, including gun violence and declining police recruitment and retention.

“Our team, our police academy, is doing a phenomenal job,” he said. “We have streamlined the recruitment process and are looking at ways to keep officers. We are trying to get our numbers up to stabilize our front-line patrol officers.”

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The city is down about 900 officers, but is graduating a new class every six weeks, he said.

In addition to gun violence, Bethel said quality-of-life issues cause some residents to perceive the city as lawless. He cited rising rates of retail theft, which hurts small businesses, illegal use of ATVs on city streets and hazardous flash mobs of young people. Over the weekend, an estimated crowd of about 500 teenagers gathered on Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

“Social media is probably the biggest drivers of bringing large groups of people to a particular place, especially when you have young people with nothing to do,” Bethel said, adding police need to monitor social media and be able to deploy as soon as possible to disperse the crowds.

“In the long term, we have to work with our community partners to see if we can find alternatives for those young people on a Friday or Saturday night.”

Bethel said another part of the solution is adding more foot and bicycle patrols and gaining the community’s trust, which he said he and Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker have championed. “We can’t do it alone,” he said.

On her first day as Philadelphia mayor, Parker signed an executive order declaring a public safety state of emergency in the city’s Kensington section, which has been plagued with open-air, illegal drug markets for years. Shortly after, she named Pedro Rosario as deputy commissioner, with the responsibility to clean up Kensington.

In Kensington, police are still fine-tuning their strategy to improve public safety in the neighborhood. But Bethel said he believes in a balanced approach that includes prevention, intervention and enforcement.

“We will do a phased approach, working with our community partners to get people into treatment,” he said. “Then, we will move in several other phases. One of them will be enforcement.”

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Police will work with state and federal law enforcement agencies, and have ongoing narcotics operations in Kensington, he said — referencing recent reports of Kensington residents seeing an increased law enforcement activity in the area, resulting in several arrests.

Meanwhile, Bethel’s job has been helped by the trend of lower homicides in the city that began in 2023, when they dropped by about 20%. While still early, that trend appears to be holding for 2024 — with homicides down 29% to date, compared to the previous year. For perspective, in 2021 and 2022, the city reported record homicides totaling about 500 each year, mostly by gun violence, which coincided with the pandemic and the nationwide civil unrest in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed an additional $100 million for gun violence prevention efforts that would include the creation of a state office of gun violence prevention, which was advocated for by Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, who heads the Pennsylvania Commission of Crime & Delinquency.

Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA Education Fund, praised the governor’s actions.

“Group violence intervention in Philadelphia is halting shootings before people end up in the emergency room,” Garber said in a statement. “Hospital-based programs in Reading and Lehigh Valley are helping survivors recover and de-escalate potential feuds.”

When Parker announced Bethel as her choice for police commissioner, she cited his 30 years with the Philadelphia Police Department. During that time, Bethel rose through the ranks to deputy commissioner overseeing the patrol system. He was promoted by then Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who presided over some of the city’s lowest crime rates in years.

Previously, Bethel was head of the School District of Philadelphia’s security, where he created a nationally recognized diversion program that significantly reduced student arrests.

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