In anticipation of a final court ruling that would clear the way for Safehouse — the nation’s first supervised injection site — to open, the City of Philadelphia has issued a public safety plan outlining how police will protect both those using the site and neighborhood residents.
“Recognizing that there’s another decision imminent, we felt like this is important information to have,” said Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy.
Since it announced its support for supervised injection sites in January 2018, the city has remained relatively quiet. All the while, Safehouse, the nonprofit that plans to open the site, was formed and subsequently sued by U.S. Attorney William McSwain to prevent it from opening. During that time, Abernathy was managing neighborhood opposition and leading the charge on the Philadelphia Resilience Project, which has implemented several street-cleanup initiatives in Kensington and was responsible for clearing several large homeless encampments last winter.
All those are issues that neighborhood residents say must be addressed to improve the quality of life in the area, which is plagued by trash-strewn streets, open-air drug sales, ubiquitous public consumption, and high rates of gun violence. To assuage the concerns of neighborhood residents opposed to a supervised injection site, Abernathy and other city officials have always said a public safety plan would be put into place.
Last week, the city added a page to its website, outlining what it would do to support one or more supervised injection sites, which it calls overdose prevention sites. It states that the Philadelphia Police Department will work to prevent an increase in illicit drug sales in the immediate vicinity of Safehouse’s site or sites, and that narcotics enforcement will prevent targeted sales to individuals coming and going from the vicinity.
“I think you’re going to have drug dealers who try to prey upon people who use opioids, and I think you may have people who may try to rob individuals,” said Abernathy, adding that those trends had been observed in other cities when supervised injection sites opened. “We’re there to make sure that the predators that are likely to try to prey upon people suffering with addiction are kept at bay.”
For its part, Safehouse is already thinking through how to protect those coming and going from its space. In January, it hosted training for volunteer escorts, modeled after the Planned Parenthood strategy employed for those entering abortion clinics in the face of hecklers and protesters.
The city’s plan does not outline a specific police response or relationship to the presence of federal law enforcement, which the U.S. attorney has threatened to deploy if Safehouse opens pending an appeal from his office. Abernathy said that the Philadelphia police would not assist federal law enforcement, but would not pit themselves against those agents either.
The city’s commitment to protecting those who may have recently overdosed comes as a man, agitated after being revived with the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, was punched in the face by a Philadelphia police officer. According to police, the man had overdosed in the parking lot of a Rite Aid on North Broad Street. By the time officers arrived on the scene, the overdose had been reversed and the man was agitated. During an effort to handcuff him and get him under control, an officer punched him in the face. The man was transported to Einstein Medical Center’s emergency room, but became unresponsive on the way to the hospital and could not be resuscitated. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. A cause of death has not yet been released by the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the police officer has been placed on desk duty pending an investigation.
Abernathy said the officer’s response was an isolated incident, and not indicative of the department’s approach to the overdose epidemic.
“Someone being punched in the face is against police use-of-force policies — period,” he said. “I think our officers, especially in the neighborhoods facing the highest levels of opioid use, are very well-trained [and] have managed themselves incredibly well dealing with a very difficult challenge.”
But some who work in Kensington worry that many in active addiction have too adversarial a relationship with law enforcement for an increased police presence around Safehouse to be viewed as a good thing.
Kathryn Pannepacker, a workshop facilitator at the Kensington Storefront, an art space near the Somerset El stop, works with people in active addiction experiencing homelessness. She is wary of the effectiveness of ramped-up law enforcement surrounding Safehouse given the attitudes she’s heard expressed by many officers toward those who would use the site. She recalled one police officer at a recent Resiliency Project meeting referring to clearing people who use drugs off the street as “herding cats.”
“They haven’t really established a relationship of warmth,” said Pannepacker. “Of, ‘We got your back, we care about you, we’re listening, what are your needs.’”
Absent that relationship, Pannepacker said, police presence around Safehouse might actually deter people from using the site. She added that preventing people from selling drugs in the immediate vicinity of Safehouse might just push drug sales deeper into neighborhoods.
“Folks are gonna do what they gotta do to get well and get drugs,” said Pannepacker.
“It might just create more tensions a little further afield.”
The new safety plan is also designed to keep neighborhood residents and those protesting the site safe. Police will protect the right of demonstrators opposing Safehouse to exercise their free speech, and will ensure that those using Safehouse respect the safety and property of residents and businesses.
Abernathy stressed that it is the city’s job to maintain a balance, by protecting both those using the site and those in the neighborhood who want to improve their quality of life.
“This is what the Police Department does,” said Abernathy. “It makes sure that everyone is protected.”