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Kensington's police force will triple this week, and more arrests are on the horizon: 'There's no playbook for this'

Ellie Rushing, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

Kensington's police force is expected to nearly triple this week with the arrival of 75 rookie officers fresh out of the academy, the most significant development yet in the city's latest campaign to dismantle the neighborhood's open-air drug market.

Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said the new officers will patrol the area on foot and bicycle, and begin enforcing stricter drug laws this summer. Bethel said enforcement could increase "very quickly" after a warning period, which began last week, though he did not specify how soon.

While some residents cheer the officers' arrival, the bumpy lead-up to this phase of the plan for the neighborhood has left others with wariness and skepticism over what's next.

And after the chaotic removal of a homeless encampment last month and the wave of displacement that followed, concerns linger about whether the new resources will be effective in providing relief — or just shifting problems around the neighborhood and surrounding areas.

The rookies will report to the 24th Police District on Tuesday, and are expected to hit the streets later in the week in three shifts of about 40 officers at a time.

During the graduation ceremony Monday, city leaders spoke of the gravity of the task ahead.

"Your deployment is going to be something different. Your deployment is going to be something never done in the history of our policing world," Bethel told the class. "You will be deployed in one of the most challenging areas in Philadelphia and in America. There's no playbook for this. There's no playbook to dismantle the open drug market."

Mayor Cherelle L. Parker told the class, No. 402, "I'm forever going to remember you."

The people of Kensington, she said, "have dealt with what I believe is one of the worst domestic humanitarian crisis in our nation. Every day you go out there to do your work in Kensington, I want you to think about how the people who live there feel."

Ahead of the new enforcement, city agencies conducted a quality-of-life sweep near G and Westmoreland Streets. On Thursday, 22 unregistered cars were towed, and seven stolen vehicles were taken into custody, said Sgt. Eric Gripp, a police department spokesperson. Nine vacant houses were sealed, 18 lots were cleaned, and four nuisance businesses were given stop-work orders.

The police department's narcotics unit has also been newly focused on the neighborhood, and will be for some time, Gripp said. In the last two weeks, he said, 49 people have been arrested for drug-related crimes, and officers recovered $255,000 worth of drugs, $16,000 in cash, and four guns.

Still, the number of arrests for drug sales so far this year is on par with the last four years, according to data from the district attorney's office.

One 23-year resident of Indiana Avenue along McPherson Square, a park at the center of the neighborhood's drug market, said an influx of officers would be "a beautiful thing." The woman, who asked not to be identified out of concern for her safety, said that a few years ago she spoke with police after a homeless man was attacked by kids in the park. That night, she said, a rock was thrown through her front window.

She said she is supportive of Parker's plan to stabilize the area.

"We need someone to care about this neighborhood," she said, though she worries about where the homeless will go.

After all, she said, she knows the pain of addiction all too well. Her daughter, who died four years ago of a heart attack, spent years addicted to drugs, as did her husband. She saw how it ripped her family apart — her granddaughter was swept up into the foster system, and one of her grandsons, with few people in his life to guide him, started selling drugs when he was just 15, she said.

The now 19-year-old father is trying to turn his life around, but with a criminal record and little work experience, she said, it's hard.

"He'll go back to the corner when he needs work," the woman said. "He can't blame that on no one but himself."

Standards need to be set and laws followed, she said. "If they don't arrest people, how will they know they're not allowed to do that?" she asked.


On G Street near Allegheny Avenue, a 37-year-old mother said she has little hope. She and her children don't trust the police, she said. She would rather ask a dealer for help than a police officer, she said, because at least they understand the needs of the community.

"The dealers respect the residents," she said. "They buy us groceries, they pay our bills if we need it. In Kensington, it's all about one hand washing the other."

The root of the neighborhood's ills — poverty — will not be fixed by police, she said.

"We're still going to take care of each other because the government doesn't care for us," she said.

A young dealer on the block, who asked not to be identified because he sells illegal drugs, agreed.

"It's just gonna move to a different place," he said of the drug trade. "You can't shut a way of life down. We're made to adapt."

Jossy Abellanez, 39, whose mother has lived on Westmoreland for 23 years, said she and her family welcome more police and feel safer outside than in previous months.

"It's looking different," she said. "It's good for the kids."

Just around the corner from Abellanez, a woman leaned against the side of a building, collecting her belongings scattered on the sidewalk: a white suitcase, a trick-or-treat bucket filled with drug paraphernalia. She asked not to be identified because she uses illegal drugs.

She said she lives in Delaware County but comes to Kensington for a few days at a time. She was aware that more police were coming to the neighborhood, she said, but wasn't concerned.

"Their lil budget not gonna last," she said. The city, she said, can't afford the amount of resources and overtime it would take to address the issues: "It's a cat-and-mouse game."

A man walked over to greet her. He had just driven in from the Northeast, he said, and needed help finding a fix, something strong "that will knock me out cold."

He's been addicted for five years — it started with percocets for back pain before those got too expensive — and similarly comes to the neighborhood for a few days at a time. It's been harder to find strong drugs lately, he said. Corners and dealers are moving around more quickly — a spot with "good" product one day is often "selling garbage" the next, he said.

He said he also wasn't worried about police. He'll believe it when he sees it.

He bought $5 worth of heroin from the woman, then rolled up a dollar bill and snorted it out of the small blue baggie.

"Let's go," the woman told him. "I got a place that can get you what you need."

They walked toward Allegheny Avenue, where Philadelphia police officers milled on one side, and a collection of dealers stood on the horizon.

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