Back in the spring of 2014, then-Deputy Philadelphia Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel had had enough. The 28-year veteran of the police force had witnessed the escalation of the school safety movement, intended to prevent the sort of carnage that occurred at Columbine in 1999.
In Philadelphia, zero tolerance for guns had morphed into a prohibition on other tools that might cause harm — like pointy-tipped scissors — and to other types of behavior that are more about adolescent defiance than actual violence. By 2013, Philadelphia police were arresting 1,600 students a year, as young as 10 years old, more than half of whom were first-time offenders.
It was a stark and literal illustration of the schools-to-prison pipeline: One minute, a child who may be struggling at home acts out at school; the next, he’s being hauled out in handcuffs and thrown into a holding cell.
“We have an opportunity to demonstrate to people that we are not who they think we are.” — Kevin Bethel
So Bethel, one of then-Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s right-hand men, spearheaded a change. He began overseeing the 84 Philly cops who worked with schools, training them in mediation and de-escalation, something that at the time wasn’t mandated by Pennsylvania. He ordered them not to take part in disciplining students for nonviolent “code of conduct violations” — like refusing to put away a cell phone or leave a classroom — and not to arrest any first-time juvenile offenders accused of any in-school crime.
Instead, students are sent to a pre-arrest diversion program that evaluates the root of their behavior and sets them up with social services. Under the program created by Bethel, who now oversees 300 safety officers as head of school safety for the School District of Philadelphia, student arrests in the district went down by more than 80 percent in six years.
As Bethel told me in 2015, “We’re supposed to be the adults here, the ones who know better. A child could be getting abused at home, have no food at home, and then we don’t even ask them questions before arresting them? I’ve watched us use the stick for discipline for decades. But the stick hasn’t worked.”
Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker this week named the 60-year-old Bethel — a nationally-renowned juvenile justice reformer — to be Philadelphia’s new police commissioner. Bethel, as I noted in a story about possible replacements for former Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, is both a crime fighting Philly cop’s cop and a reformer — a combination that may be just what the city needs.
A crime-fighting reformer
A longtime insider who satisfies Parker’s promise to hire someone who “doesn’t need a GPS to make it to 52nd and Market,” Bethel worked hand in hand with Ramsey to create and implement the department’s crime fighting strategy under Mayor Michael Nutter. By the end of their tenure, gun violence was at a generational low and Ramsey told the Inquirer Tuesday that Bethel “is absolutely driven when it comes to fighting crime.”
Bethel left the department in 2016 to become a Stoneleigh Fellow and launch the Law Enforcement and Juvenile Justice Institute, working to spread the implementation of Philly’s diversion program statewide and across the country. At the School District, he oversees 300 school safety officers who are trauma trained and use restorative justice to divert students away from the court system; they are trained to help refer students to social services and other types of assistance they might need.
“We are not all of a sudden going to solve all the ills at school,” Bethel said in 2015. “But we are changing what happens with these children. We’re asking them, ‘What’s going on with you?’”
Bethel was long rumored to be one of the frontrunners for the job, which is one of — if not the — most important positions Parker will fill during her tenure. He will start in January, when Parker takes office. The city also has a new police union chief, Roosevelt Poplar, who recently replaced John McNesby as president of the Fraternal Order of Police, long an impediment to lasting change in the department. (The City and the union will negotiate a new contract in the spring.)
“We’re supposed to be the adults here, the ones who know better. A child could be getting abused at home, have no food at home, and then we don’t even ask them questions before arresting them? I’ve watched us use the stick for discipline for decades. But the stick hasn’t worked.” — Kevin Bethel
And there is little doubt that our police department has to change. Mayor Kenney’s first police chief, former Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross, left in a cloud of disgrace amidst sexual harassment accusations, and after a string of other scandals — the racist ramblings on Facebook of 300 officers, including captains and lieutenants, and a narcotics officer who regularly drove to work in a car emblazoned with Confederate flag memorabilia.
His replacement, Danielle Outlaw, came in with smart, reform-minded ideas. But a few months in, during demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd, Philadelphia SWAT officers used pepper spray and tear gas on a group of peaceful protesters on the Vine Street Expressway — a move that Outlaw and Kenney both initially justified, and later admitted was wrong. (That event, and other police brutality during protests in West Philly, cost the city $9.25 million.) Her tenure ended in September, shortly after the police department lied about the events leading up to Officer Mark Dial’s killing 27-year-old Eddie Irizarry within five seconds of a traffic stop encounter.
In between, former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart released an audit of the department that found a host of inefficiencies, ineptitudes, and communications chaos that has hobbled the department for years — with real consequences for our city’s safety. It was — or should have been, anyway — a wake-up call about how poorly the department was being managed.
Bethel will take over a department that is short about 900 officers; that has too often fallen short of its duty to serve and protect over the last several years; that is struggling to build up trust in the communities that most need police; that must build that trust through fighting crime and also allowing other service providers to step in when appropriate; whose officers are represented by a union that applauds abusive cops, that fights — successfully — to keep bad cops in their jobs, and that is loathe to change.
The number of shootings in 2023 is down 20 percent from the high mark of 500+ murders in each of the last two years, and nonfatal shootings are down 26 percent — though they are still 33 percent higher than in 2016. And Interim Commissioner John Stanford said recently that the clearance rate for murders — meaning the rate of murder cases that have resulted in arrests — has risen to 60 percent. This is promising — though the explosion in car thefts, the looting, the ATVs menacing our roads, is not.
When I spoke to Bethel in 2015 — five years before the murder of George Floyd that propelled a national conversation on police reform — the 30-year veteran was already talking about the need for less police intervention, at least when it came to juveniles. Despite the success of his diversion program, Bethel insisted it was just a stop-gap until we fundamentally change the way we approach juvenile justice — but also a salve for oft-troubled police-community relations.
“We have an opportunity to demonstrate to people that we are not who they think we are,” he said. “All those 700 kids we diverted last year, their first contact with the police department was a positive one. Their opinion of policing is going to change, and they will grow into adults with a much different perspective.”
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