Years ago, a retired Philadelphia detective drove me through the mean streets of Kensington. I vividly recall my tour of “Ground Zero” of Philadelphia’s drug epidemic.

Driving along, I saw why this area has been called the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast. I saw scores of pathetic drug addicts sway and stagger up and down the streets near SEPTA’s Elevated Train Station. 

I spoke to that retired detective again recently about drug-related crime, and he pointed a finger squarely at Philadelphia drug street gangs. He said that in addition to causing overdose deaths, the drug street gangs in Philadelphia are the cause of much of the crime, mayhem, and shooting deaths in the city. He said that the gangs’ customers steal and commit armed robbery for money to pay for their drugs.

“These ruthless, violent street gangs corrupt neighborhood children by recruiting them at an early age for their street drug operations. The drug gangs fight and shoot each other over territory and drug markets, and they can’t shoot for shit. That’s why so many innocent people get caught in the crossfire of the gang shootouts.”

Although the retired detective lives in another part of the city, he has maintained contact with the scores of friends he made while working in Kensington. Like many Kensington residents, he blames Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner for turning a blind eye when it comes to drug dealers. The Philadelphia Police arrest the drug traffickers, he said, but the dealers are soon back on the street, and they are bolder than ever.  

“Not prosecuting a drug user is one thing, but allowing drug traffickers to continue to commit drug crimes is another thing altogether,” he said.

He went on to note that thankfully the DEA is stepping in, and apprehended drug dealers will be prosecuted by assistant US attorneys in federal court and not by Krasner. 

He was speaking of the DEA’s “Operation Overdrive.”

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The DEA announced the start of Operation Overdrive on Feb. 7. Operation Overdrive is a nationwide operation aimed at addressing the rising rates of drug-related violent crime and overdose deaths that plague many American communities. Drug overdoses are on the rise due to the lethal drug fentanyl, which is found in both counterfeit pharmaceutical pills and powdered heroin.

According to the DEA, Operation Overdrive uses a data-driven, intelligence-led approach to identify and dismantle criminal drug networks operating in areas with the highest rates of violence and overdoses. DEA, working in partnership with its fellow federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, has mapped the threats and initiated enforcement operations against those networks in 34 locations across 23 states, including Philadelphia, in the initial phase of Operation Overdrive.

“Today, the United States faces an unprecedented overdose epidemic claiming 275 lives every day,” the DEA stated. “Violence, often associated with drug-related activity, is also rising sharply nationwide: in 2020, homicides increased a record 30 percent, and 77 percent of the murders in the United States were committed with a firearm.  In 2021, DEA and its law enforcement partners seized more than 8,700 firearms connected to investigations of drug trafficking organizations.

“Operation Overdrive revealed alarming trends about the networks that DEA has mapped. The vast majority of identified criminal drug networks are engaged in gun violence. A majority of identified criminal drug networks sell fentanyl or methamphetamine.” 

The DEA added that almost all of the identified criminal drug networks that sell deadly synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl or methamphetamine, are also engaged in violent gun crimes.

“DEA’s objective is clear,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “DEA will bring all it has to bear to make our communities safer and healthier, and to reverse the devastating trends of drug-related violence and overdoses plaguing our nation. The gravity of these threats requires a data-driven approach to pinpoint the most dangerous networks threatening our communities, and leveraging our strongest levers across federal, state, and local partners to bring them down.”

The DEA’s actions are welcome in Philadelphia, where we have a DA whose goal is to end “mass incarceration” (there is no such thing, as defendants are tried and sentenced one at a time), and to seek alternative solutions rather than what he called “traditional prosecution.” 

Krasner has invested in policies meant to reduce the severity of sentences and decrease Philly’s prison population, rather than locking up the bad guys, like drug traffickers. Perhaps the DEA will pick up Krasner’s slack and rid Kensington and other areas of the city of the death merchants who sell lethal drugs. 

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be reached via pauldavisoncrime.com

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