Philadelphia Trying to Quash Open-Air Drug Markets With Massive Police Presence

Philadelphia is now into its second week of Operation Safe Streets, a massive police crackdown on some 300 identified open-air drug markets in the City of Brotherly Love. While its predecessor, Operation Sunrise, targeting the tough Kensington and North Philadelphia areas, led to some 20,000 drug arrests over three years, this time police are trying a different tack: Instead of mass arrests, police are flooding those areas with uniformed cops to prevent and deter drug dealing.

"Law enforcement will never solve this problem. We will never arrest our way out of this problem," said Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson as he unveiled an operation that will flood the streets with hundreds of officers.

"You're going to see police officers where you saw those drug dealers," Mayor James Street said at the May 1 press conference announcing the operation. "We're going to put all those people out of business," he vowed, raising the politicalstakes on the operation's success. "This is going to have a huge disruptive effect, their customers won't know where to find them," he predicted.

But Philadelphia drug policy activists are much less sanguine. "This is essentially a great big band-aid," said Diane Fornbacher, the executive director of the Tri State Drug Policy Forum ( "A heavy police presence will indeed reduce the number of open-air drug markets, but the black market will still exist and people will still be buying, selling, and using drugs," she told DRCNet. "It would be better if drugs were regulated -- there would be less crime, fewer overdoses, and with regulation, Philadelphia could also begin to ease those with addiction problems into considering treatment."

Arun Prabhakaran works with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (, whose members have witnessed the predecessor Operation Sunrise. Reflecting the needs of KWRU members, Prabhakaran pointed to what he saw as a fundamental flaw in Operation Safe Streets. "The most important aspect of the Operation Safe Streets is that it doesn't address the fact that Philadelphians lack health care, jobs, housing and other basic necessities of life," he told DRCNet. "They need to find real solutions to these economic human rights problems. The mayor's office can pay overtime to hundreds off police officers to stand in the neighborhoods as a show of force. As long as people are structurally unemployed, they are going to work in the second largest industry in Kensington... the drug industry."

Prabhakaran's mention of the renewed drug trade in Kensington raises other questions about the efficacy of Operation Safe Streets. Without the kinds of social reforms he listed, suggests Prabhakaran, there is little reason to believe that temporary police offensives will make fundamental differences in the conditions thatgenerate drug use and make working as a dealer seem desirable.

Prevention Point Philadelphia, a needle exchange program serving 8,000 registered participants in the city, has its ears close to the ground, but according to executive director Casey Cook, it is still too early to tell what the immediate impact of the operation will be. "In these first few days, we've seen a decrease in the usage of our needle exchange program and an increase in the number of requests for treatment and particularly detoxification," she told DRCNet. "There is clearly, absolutely a visible difference in police presence across the city," she said.

Cook suggested that demand for drug treatment could increase, but herein lies another problem: There isn't any money. "There's always money for the police," said Fornbacher, "but even though there is a system in place to give people the option of treatment, there isn't enough money to provide it."

Prabhakaran agreed. "They have the mayor's office put out the word that they want people to get treatment," he told DRCNet. "The contradiction is the beds in the detox places filled up quickly after the Operation Safe Streets started. They were pretty full on a regular basis before this, anyway. The drug courts are starting to offer treatment as alternatives, but they haven't increased the funding to programs or access to healthcare services."

And if there isn't enough treatment, neither are there are enough courts. Philadelphia judges have been throwing out drug cases with increasing frequency because of clogged jails and courts, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on May 1.

Critics also pointed to a class-war element to Operation Safe Streets. "The mayor says that the strategy is to force drug dealers off the corners and into housing or out of the city," Prabhakaran said. "Then the police could raid, make arrests inside the houses, and search and seize the property. Then they will be able to sell the property at a sheriff's sale as a public nuisance. This is part and parcel of the city's neighborhood transformation initiative, which is an effort to reclaim the tax base by attracting international big money people to invest in the city. Of course, the flip side of that is pushing poor people out of the city into the decaying inner-ring suburbs. This is a forced relocation, but it isn't going to make the second largest economic activity in Kensington, the drug industry, disappear," he said.

In an article heralding the success of Operation Sunrise, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about how persistent neighborhood activists had transformed the corner of 9th and Indiana, calling it a "success story." But, the paper noted, "only a block or two away in any direction, the dealers and addicts lurk."

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