On a frigid Saturday afternoon in mid-January, two men came to blows. They were seemingly oblivious to both blaring car horns and the police officer parked within sight in a marked patrol vehicle.
“I’m going to kill you!” one man shouted under the permanent shade of the elevated subway tracks near the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues. The men struck each other, then stumbled into the street, where several other men joined them in exchanging blows.
Behind an SUV parked nearby, a man had been handing out food to homeless people in Kensington, an area often referred to as the Badlands because of its open-air drug trade. He was momentarily distracted by the melee. “I rebuke violence!” he boomed. “I rebuke all violence in the name of Jesus.” The fighting men kept slugging until they ran out of steam, and parted without shedding any blood.
But a day later, and not far away, on the 1700 block of West Atlantic Street in North Philly, there was bloodshed — and death. At 4 p.m. on January 15, police found Jevon Gillette, 47, with multiple gunshot wounds to the torso and thigh. Just before 5 p.m. the following day, in the 2100 block of North 20th Street, police found Dawson Johnson, 25, fatally wounded with gunshots to the face and abdomen.
The day after that, two more men — ages 42 and 39 — were critically wounded by gunfire inside a deli market in the 2200 block of North Broad Street. The older man was shot once in the head, and the younger man was shot twice in the left thigh.
These crimes took place in what could be called the Bullet Belt of Philadelphia: four police districts that stretch across the gut of the city and accounted for 43 percent of all shootings within the department’s 21 districts last year.
Starting on January 9, 100 additional police officers were redeployed to the 39th, 25th, 24th, and 22nd districts — located in Kensington, North Philadelphia and parts of Germantown — with the goal of quelling gun violence. The initiative was announced the week before Christmas, just as the city marked the second straight year in which more than 500 people had been killed. Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw called it a bold move and one of the largest redeployments to select patrol districts in recent years.
“Reducing gun violence demands innovation, cooperation, and relentless dedication,” Kenney said, “and I’m optimistic that we can build upon our efforts to keep Philadelphians safe in 2023.”
But as gunshots continue to crackle throughout Philly in the new year, injuring 114 and killing 22 as of January 26, residents, merchants, and community leaders are watching the initiative with skepticism. The Police Department did not respond to requests for comment on the new initiative, or for any metrics on the redeployment, so it’s tough to tell what kind of impact the increased police presence is having.
Philadelphians are already torn over whether the city has sent enough officers to do the job, and whether the increased numbers alone are sufficient without further reform. Some complain of seeing more police cars parked on corners — like the one at Kensington and Allegheny — but not officers walking and talking with residents. And a few have had such negative interactions with police that they’ve lost faith in the department entirely.
Inside the Bullet Belt
The officers — a mix of rookies and veterans transferred from office assignments — patrol streets pockmarked with abandoned factories and homes; where cage-like security bars protect the porches of rowhomes; where plexiglass barriers are the norm at carryouts and corner stores. Blocks along North Broad, one of the city’s most prominent streets, include many thriving businesses, as well as the hospital and research buildings of Temple University.
The four neighborhoods where the newly deployed officers will be spending their time have suffered decades of subpar public schooling, economic disinvestment, and the accompanying evils of poverty and violence.
They’re likely to see many people like Kaseem Johnson, 30, who was arrested in 2019 for carrying an illegal gun but has since stayed clear of firearms. Johnson now works two jobs to support his two children.
Despite his transformation, he says he suspects the new officers won’t have much success convincing others to stop carrying illegal weapons. “This is a dangerous area. You can go to the store and get shot,” Johnson said after stopping for snacks at Jasper Food Market in Kensington. “It doesn’t matter if a cop is down the street or not. That’s not going to save you from whatever obstacles are in your path.”
Jose Pena Cepeda, the store’s manager, stepped outside of the plexiglass security door to say that he was glad the area had gotten more police protection. Store employee Confesor Leon, however, said the community needs jobs more than it does extra cops.
“Cops see a fight and they don’t do nothing. So what’s going to change? You can’t stop the hustle out here,” the 24-year-old said.
Johnson chimed in, agreeing. “And why would anyone stop selling drugs when they don’t even stop them from shooting up? Why abide by laws they (the police) don’t even abide by?”
Folks to Cops: Walk With Us
Lehigh Avenue snakes through all four targeted police districts. Driving down the winding road, Stanley Crawford, who became a community activist after the 2018 murder of his son, has many questions about the new initiative.
“A hundred police officers to do what? What is the strategy for them being there and what’s the mission?” he asked.
Spotting a handful of officers seated in parked cars, Crawford, president and CEO of the Black Male Community Council of Philadelphia and founder of the council’s Families of Unsolved Murders Project, noted that he’s only seen officers sitting stationary in cars. From his perspective, that keeps them from making much impact on the crime they’re supposedly there to prevent.
“They need to get out of their patrol cars and move about and get to know the people,” he said. “The same people on those corners today will be on those corners tomorrow. If you’re going to be in their community you cannot police an area sitting in a car.”
Yazid Stevenson, 44, who makes a living collecting and melting aluminum beer cans over an open fire to sell to a recycling company, said the Police Department didn’t need to send more officers — just use the ones they had differently.
“They can keep the same police presence, just put them on bike and foot,” he said, stirring a noxious pot of liquid aluminum in the trash-strewn vacant lot where he works on Lehigh Avenue.
In addition, he said, the city could help officers fight crime by installing more surveillance cameras. “That’s one thing criminals are scared of — cameras. You can beat testimony, but you can’t beat a camera.”
Some residents were still unaware that more officers were present, or doubtful the city had actually deployed them. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Anibal Quintana, 55, said as he carried groceries from his car to his home in Hunting Park. “So many things have been promised to us, and we haven’t got to the promised land.”
Quintana, a former tree surgeon who retired after injuring his back, said it’s common for people in his community to endure long waits after calling the police. Such spotty service coupled with the level of crime, he said, has taught him to limit trips away from home to the basics, like grocery shopping and doctors’ appointments.
“It is what it is. You have to know how to live with everyday things. Like, if someone looks at you don’t look at him back, no matter what. Just say, ‘Hi,’ with your face down,” he said. “Things are really bad, my God.”
A few blocks down Reese Street, Kathy Viela, 35, was walking her pitbull, Luna, and expressing dread over the city dispatching more cops to the community where she has lived since 2008. The home health aide said her pessimism is the result of bad experiences she’s had with police.
“They bully, they don’t do their jobs. I don’t know, don’t get me wrong, there may be a couple who are decent,” she said. “But I haven’t seen them.”
‘Can’t Tell You If It’s Going to Work’
Communities in the four police districts can be so volatile that violent outbursts sometimes strike in unexpected ways. This was never more true than on an August afternoon in 2019 when six police officers were shot while attempting to execute a narcotics search warrant at a Nicetown-Tioga home. The gunman unleashed dozens of rounds from an AR-15 rifle and barricaded himself in the home for more than seven hours before surrendering.
Last May, a man who police said lunged at an officer with a screwdriver inside the lobby of the 39th Police District station was shot and wounded by another officer.
And in the wee hours of December 13, 2021, a gunman shot his intended victim on Germantown Avenue. His bullets struck the front windows of the NAACP Philadelphia Branch and the windows at a state senator’s office next door.
“Thank goodness it happened after hours,” said Catherine Hicks, NAACP president, standing in the spot where a bullet entered the office’s meeting area. “But you could imagine if it was daytime and we were having some kind of meeting.”
Sending more cops to the area is “a step in the right direction,” she said. “But, of course, we do have to look at other avenues, as well. Because I still believe that the crime and a lot of things that are going on with our youth are poverty-driven, along with mental health issues.”
Some of the officers said they believe they are making a difference.
“It’s going well. It seems like we’re out here doing our job. We get out, walk around, say what’s up to the people in the neighborhood,” said Officer Robert Harris, a 25-year veteran who was parked with his partner on Kensington Avenue. “Just earlier, we were at Walgreens, and the lady was ecstatic to see us.”
Others are still hesitant about the impact the redeployed police might have, even as they feel more visible in the targeted districts.
“Honestly, I can’t tell you if this is going to work. But it does provide a bigger presence,” another newly redeployed officer said. The officer, who declined to give his name, was with his partner waiting for a lunch order at Porky’s Point takeout restaurant at Fifth Street and Rising Sun Avenue.
“When I used to work the streets, I didn’t have this opportunity to see as many cops, but you do see us,” he said. “I drive up and down the street to the corner, and I see a cop. I drive to another corner, and I see a cop.”
Porky’s employee Matt Maldonado, 31, said he has also been seeing more cops in Hunting Park. “Throughout the day, I see them quite a bit, driving by. You would think if there was more police presence there would be less gun violence,” he said as a police car with sirens on whizzed by the restaurant, which his uncle owns. “Like everywhere else in Philly, you hear gunshots. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. I don’t hang around past 7 o’clock. I go home. I’m too old for that.”