Last week, Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker announced that Kevin Bethel will be her choice for Police Commissioner.
Parker, who ran on a public safety platform amid record crime rates in Philadelphia, was rumored to be planning to appoint a tough-on-crime traditionalist as Police Commissioner. For months, sources from within the police command staff have circulated talk that the next commissioner may be the “squared-away” Deputy Commissioner Joe Dales or Joe Sullivan, a highly respected former Deputy Commissioner who became the Wichita, Kansas Police Chief after vocal disagreements with former Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and DA Larry Krasner’s law enforcement strategies.
However, Parker announced that she brought in former Philadelphia police commissioners Charles Ramsey (who sources report was involved in Outlaw’s selection) as well as Richard Ross to interview candidates for the police commissioner job. As Ramsey sat on the Obama “21st Century Policing Task Force” and the Police Executive Research Forum in DC, it was clear that his recommendation would be more about political acumen than aggressive policing.
Ramsey said that Bethel, a protégé during his administration as Commissioner, was placed on the short list after candidates were asked about how they would work with Krasner’s office, work with the Fraternal Order of Police, and what they would do about Kensington, an open-air drug market that has garnered national attention for the city. In 2008, when former Mayor Nutter appointed Ramsey from the DC Metropolitan Police, Ramsey promoted Bethel from the 17th police district captain, leapfrogging four ranks to make him a Deputy Commissioner. “I never ever once regretted it, it’s one of the best, if not the best decisions I made as police commissioner here in Philadelphia,” Ramsey said.
Parker said Bethel was super-prepared and came to his interview with a book’s worth of annotations to her neighborhood safety and community policing plan that she introduced while in City Council. She said he was the most well-versed in the plan. “The promise of safety comes from the ground up, and while the promise is simple, we’re real clear that the lift is heavy, and we can’t do it alone,” Parker said.
Since leaving the department, Bethel has become the director of public safety for the School District of Philadelphia, as well as starting the Law Enforcement Juvenile Justice Institute, focused on “a rehabilitative approach to youth crimes”, and has given lectures on diversionary programs for Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. His focus on “restorative justice” and connection to Ramsey may be why he was a politically safe choice for the job. Ramsey says Bethel once walked into his office and told him “we’re locking up too many kids,” sparking changes in the department.
Even more notable, while Parker’s pick of Bethel seems to be politically expedient, she has spoken publicly about bringing back stop and frisk tactics and has said that she would “work with the D.A.’s Office”, which danced with the necessity to call out the Krasner administration for their role in the city’s high crime rate without explicitly doing so. “District Attorney Krasner and I, we’ve had conversations,” she said. “And we may not always agree on every issue,” she said “And it may not always be peaches and cream,” she concluded. “But if we do it the right way, you all should know when we’re fighting.”
Bethel, a native Philadelphian who served out his career with the city, is clearly a better choice than Outlaw was. However, many may wonder if his command will reflect many of his restorative justice talking points or offer a counterpoint to the “hands off” policing and prosecution policies that directly correlate with the city’s deadly crime rate.
The mayor’s bully pulpit is just what is needed as both of the city’s elected law enforcement leaders, District Attorney Krasner and Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, are reckoning with the deadly results of both their policy and ethics issues. After winning reelection this month, followers of the official Philadelphia Sheriff’s X account had to check for parody when Bilal announced the launch of a mascot called “Deputy Sheriff Justice”, fashioned as an African American cowgirl that was “created to inspire our youth to embrace law enforcement and discourage bullying behavior in the classrooms.”
Bilal is investing taxpayer funds in a mascot, even though the Roxborough High School shooting occurred with a weapon illicitly sold by a Sheriff’s deputy and the Sheriff has no direct crime prevention or school safety responsibilities in their charter. At the same time, sources indicate that the Sheriff’s office is auctioning fewer homes, stopped running public notices in newspapers, and has used those funds towards programming focused on “preventing evictions”, regardless of the conflict presented by the Sheriff’s duty to enforce court-ordered evictions, foreclosures, and tax liens.
Furthermore, sources indicate that Bilal has lobbied State Rep. Rick Krajewski who introduced a bill to transfer the duties of court-appointed Landlord Tenant Officers to the Sheriff, which will accompany an additional $45M in public funds for an office that, if its civil law enforcement functions were carried out as defined, should be revenue neutral.
In the meantime, the SEPTA Transit Police and Temple Police have dire staffing shortages while serving vulnerable communities.
As the SEPTA Police are facing calls for a strike, even as an officer was forced to shoot a stabbing suspect they pursued to the front of the District Attorney’s office; there have been few details from the Parker transition team on what strategies will be used to restore public safety to the city.
So while many of us Philadelphia residents were hopeful that the 2023 municipal elections would reverse the deadly public safety policies of the Kenney administration, the heavy involvement of Ramsey in the selection process of Commissioner Bethel and absence in condemnation for the misdeeds of Krasner and Bilal may be a cause for lowered expectations.
As a Philadelphian, I personally hope both Parker and Bethel prove me wrong.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME