Philadelphia Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker, who won her post by promising gun-violence-weary residents to get tough on crime, on Wednesday selected longtime police official Kevin J. Bethel to become the next police commissioner of the nation’s sixth most populous city.
The move is Parker’s first major personnel decision in a heavily Black city where her campaign tried to connect with voters who are increasingly worried about public safety as well as quality-of-life issues, from faulty streetlights to trash collection. On the stump, Parker argued that her mayoral administration can both invest in policing and address broader societal problems at the same time.
In an interview with ABC Philadelphia announcing the decision, Parker said Bethel is “a leader who is not afraid to make the tough decisions that we need to bring some order back to our city.”
Bethel, 60, is a former deputy police commissioner in Philadelphia who since 2019 has served as the chief of safety in the city’s school district, where Bethel earned a reputation as a reformer interested in breaking the school-to-prison pipeline in the majority Black district.
In 2008, Bethel became a deputy police commissioner in charge of patrol operations in the city and in 2016 went to work for the nonprofit Stoneleigh Foundation, where he worked on policies to create alternatives to sending juveniles into the criminal justice system.
During a press conference Wednesday, Bethel described himself as data-driven, saying that will guide where to put police officers and direct efforts.
“I’m proud to be a cop. But we’re not your enemy. We’re here to serve. We have our issues and we can address them,” he said. “Give us the opportunity to be what you want us to be.”
Parker, a former state legislator and City Council member, has said she wants to hire hundreds of additional police officers to walk their beats and get to know residents. The Democrat wants to devote resources to recruiting more police and says officers should be able to stop and search pedestrians if they have a legitimate reason to do so.
Parker said she started holding informal meetings with candidates in her backyard over the summer. She was impressed Bethel came well-versed with her neighborhood safety and community policing plan.
In addition to hiring 300 more officers, her public safety plan also called for fixing broken streetlights, removing graffiti and investing in programs for at-risk youth. She promised a well-trained police force that is engaged with the community along with mental health and behavioral support.
Parker also defended her support for “Terry stops,” or for officers to use “just and reasonable suspicion” to stop pedestrians. She and other candidates faced criticism including a protest at City Hall during the primary campaign from those opposed to “stop and frisk.”
The policy has riled the city in the past, with critics saying it was used disproportionately against people of color. The ACLU sued to stop the practice and monitors police use of stop and frisk under a settlement with the city.
Philadelphia has been buffeted by violent crime, tallying a record number of homicides in 2021, most of them gun-related. That number fell from 562 to 516 in 2022 but was still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, and advocates have said they are on track to decrease further this year.
“Let me be clear: The challenges that our city faces are significant, but they’re solvable,” Bethel said. “Experience has taught me that the right strategy, the right tactics and solid solutions will deliver a safe city and will make our police department the best police department in the nation.”
Bethel will lead a 6,000-member force that has been hit with morale problems, clashed with the city’s progressive prosecutor Larry Krasner and seen a parade of officers being prosecuted.
Officers also have been killed and wounded this year, including last month when officers Richard Mendez and Raul Ortiz confronted several people breaking into a vehicle at Philadelphia International Airport. Mendez was shot multiple times, dying shortly afterward, and Ortiz was shot once in his arm, police said.
Philadelphia drew headlines in September for what authorities called social media-fueled mayhem in which groups of thieves smashed their way into stores in several areas of the city, stuffing plastic bags with merchandise and fleeing.
In July, Philadelphia was the site of the nation’s worst violence around the July Fourth holiday when a gunman went on a shooting rampage that left five people dead and four others wounded, while a 2-year-old boy and a 13-year-old youth were also wounded by gunfire.
Bethel will succeed Danielle Outlaw, who stepped down in September to take a top position with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a New York-area transit system. Outlaw, the first Black woman to hold the position, was hired from Portland, Oregon.
Parker will take office in January. Outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney named First Deputy John M. Stanford Jr. as interim police commissioner.