Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker will name Kevin J. Bethel as her pick for Philadelphia’s next police commissioner, according to a source with direct knowledge of the talks, ushering in a new era for one of the nation’s largest police departments.
Bethel, a former deputy commissioner and the current chief of school safety for the School District of Philadelphia, is expected to be announced Wednesday as the next head of the 5,500-member force. His appointment would come as the Philadelphia Police Department tries to navigate the city out of a three-year wave of gun violence while it has been gripped by low morale and a shortage of nearly 1,000 officers.
The hire will be the first staffing decision made by Parker, who won the mayoral election earlier this month and takes office in January. She campaigned on a pledge to end “lawlessness” in the city by hiring hundreds of police officers, increasing the number of cops who patrol on foot and bike, and embracing tough-on-crime tactics such as stop-and-frisk.
Bethel, 60, has for months been seen as a top candidate. He spent three decades rising through the ranks of the Philadelphia Police Department, culminating in 2008, when Commissioner Charles Ramsey named him a deputy commissioner charged with leading patrol operations across the entire city.
Bethel also has significant experience in juvenile justice, including working with the Stoneleigh Foundation to expand diversion programs for students who commit low-level offenses at school.
Parker has for weeks projected that knowledge of Philadelphia was a key consideration, saying on several occasions that she would pick someone who “doesn’t need a GPS to make it to 52nd and Market.”
During her first news conference after winning the Nov. 7 general election, Parker said she’d make her decision based on both the candidate’s credentials and his chemistry with other officers.
“They not only need to have the trust of the mayor,” she said, “but they need to have the support of the rank-and-file.”
All the top candidates had ties to the city. They included John M. Stanford, the interim commissioner; deputy commissioner Joel Dales; Joel Fitzgerald Sr., a former Philadelphia police officer who is now chief of police for Denver’s transit system; and Branville Bard, the vice president for public safety at Johns Hopkins University who started his career in Philly.
Stanford has been leading the department since September, when Danielle Outlaw abruptly resigned to take a job with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Outlaw, who had never worked in Philadelphia before being hired, was sworn in weeks before the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life and created myriad challenges for policing. The rest of her tenure was marked by mass protests, a staff exodus, and a record-breaking number of shootings and homicides.
Bethel will be expected to address serious public safety challenges in the city and is inheriting a department — with an $850 million budget — that has for years been mired by internal strife.
The most urgent challenge that impacts almost everything else the department tries to accomplish is staffing. Like many other industries and city agencies, the Police Department bled officers during the pandemic, losing hundreds to retirement and resignation. At the same time, hundreds of cops were out of work on injury leave — some of whom were abusing the program.
Outlaw also blamed the political environment and a perceived lack of support for police after the protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. And she said the problem was exacerbated by a 2020 rule that was championed by Parker and required most municipal workers to live in the city for a year before applying for a job.
That rule was waived for police recruits in early 2022. Despite millions of dollars in new funding to support hiring efforts, there are still nearly 900 officer vacancies and hundreds more are expected to retire in the next four years.
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That attrition came as the city was gripped by record-setting rates of shootings and homicides in 2021 and 2022, leaving more than 1,000 people dead over two years. Thousands more people were shot and survived, and the violence has been intensely concentrated in some of Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged communities.
Gun violence rates have improved markedly this year. Police statistics show homicides are down about 30% compared to the same time last year, an encouraging sign — but the 372 people killed this year is still higher than at almost any other point in the last 15 years.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.