Mayor-Elect Cherelle Parker has made her pick for Philadelphia police commissioner, she announced Wednesday at a City Hall press conference.
It’s Kevin J. Bethel, a former deputy PPD commissioner and current chief of safety at the School District of Philadelphia. He is set to take over from interim Commissioner John M. Stanford Jr. once Parker becomes mayor in January.
It’s not the first time the 60-year-old Bethel, who spent half of his life working for the Philadelphia Police Department, has been mentioned as a contender for the top post.
So who is he, and what led him to earn the nod in the forthcoming administration? Read on to learn more about the soon-to-be-head of Philly’s force of 6,000+ police officers.
He rose through the ranks over three decades with PPD
Bethel joined the Police Department in 1986 and retired in 2016.
In between, he led the 17th Police District in Point Breeze, headed regional operations command for South, Southwest, and central Philly, did narcotics-related work, worked on special investigations and internal affairs, and served as the department’s LGBT liaison.
By the time he retired, Bethel had become a deputy commissioner who oversaw the city’s patrol operations, including the neighborhood services unit, school district police, and community relations unit, according to his bio on the Center for Children’s Law and Policy website.
Vocal on juvenile justice, he spearheaded a program credited with breaking Philly’s school-to-prison pipeline
With school safety falling under his purview as deputy PPD commissioner, Bethel came up with the idea for the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program, which shifted away from zero-tolerance policies and toward paths involving social services instead.
If a student committed a low-level offense for the first time that would have previously led to arrest, school officers would instead call a diversion intake center. A partnership between police, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, and the school district, the program was implemented in the 2014-15 school year — and cut student arrests in half. Per the Inquirer, the total number of serious behavioral incidents in schools declined, too.
After his retirement from the PPD, Bethel pursued a three-year youth justice fellowship with the Philly-based Stoneleigh Foundation, focused on expanding that diversion program.
Recognition of Bethel’s work has gone beyond Philly. He’s lectured on the topic of school-justice partnerships and diversion programs at Georgetown University, and he’s also given a TEDx Talk about the school-to-prison pipeline.
He founded a nonprofit called the Law Enforcement Juvenile Justice Institute, per his LinkedIn profile, with the goal of “transform[ing] encounters between youth and law enforcement.” It’s unclear if the nonprofit is still active, as recent tax forms are not available online.
He’s currently chief of school safety for the School District of Philadelphia
With his background in juvenile justice, Bethel was tapped to lead the school district’s 300 officers in late 2019, becoming special advisor for school safety at SDP.
Less than a year into Bethel’s tenure, the people previously called “school police officers” were rebranded as district safety officers due to a state code change, and at the same time shifted from wearing traditional uniforms to wearing polo shirts. (The officers did not previously and still do not carry guns.)
Bethel’s overall vision for the department has steered district safety officers away from “barking and screaming and hollering and cuffing,” he told The Inquirer, and toward mentoring students. He said at the beginning of his tenure that he would implement officer training in adolescent development and trauma, and direct the focus to de-escalation.
The shift in philosophy has faced some criticism — particularly once students returned to school after pandemic closures — with some officers and administrators saying students are behaving badly and not seeing sufficient consequences. Officer shortages have complicated matters, too.
He’s been in the Philly area most of his life
Parker has said that a priority for her when choosing a police commissioner was to find someone who would not “[need] a GPS to make it to 52nd and Market if that’s where they need to go.”
Even before his lengthy experience as a Philly officer, Bethel would’ve satisfied that requirement. He went attended at John Bartram High School in Elmwood Park — a Southwest Philly neighborhood about three and a half miles south of the El’s 52nd Street Station.
Bethel stayed in the area after graduation: he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Chestnut Hill College in Northwest Philly, and a master of science in public safety management from St. Joseph’s University.
This isn’t the first time his name has been floated for Philly’s top cop
Although he wasn’t seen as the number one contender at the time, Bethel was reported to be among a few top candidates for police commissioner back in 2015, when former Commissioner Charles Ramsey was getting ready to step down.
His name was mentioned alongside a few other possibilities, including then-First Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross, who ended up being Mayor Jim Kenney’s pick. Bethel went on to retire from the police force in early 2016, when he left to pursue the youth justice fellowship at the Stoneleigh Foundation.
After Ross stepped down in 2019, Bethel’s name was again floating around as a possible commissioner pick, before former Commissioner Danielle Outlaw was tapped for the spot.
Looks like the third time’s the charm.
Updated Nov. 22