“It looks like a scene from ‘The Walking Dead,’ doesn’t it?”
I recall nodding my head in agreement to the retired detective who drove me through the mean streets of Kensington a few years ago. We drove under the El and around the Market-Frankford Train Station and up and down nearby streets. We passed by the many homeless, mentally ill and alcohol- and drug-addicted people who swayed and staggered along the neighborhood, much like the zombies from the apocalyptic horror TV series.
The retired detective, who asked that I not use his name, worked this area for many years. After a conversation with me about the neighborhood, he offered to return to the scene of the crimes with me riding shotgun. He pointed out the places where drug addicts can buy drugs easily in what has been described as “the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast.”
Seeing the seemingly hopeless drug addicts on the streets of Kensington reminded me of the heroin epidemic in the late 1960s when I was a teenager in South Philadelphia. Pathic-looking heroin addicts, many of whom I knew from the neighborhood and school, wandered the streets at all hours looking for opportunities to rob cars, homes and businesses to pay for their next heroin injection. Many of the young men I grew up with died from overdose and drug-related issues.
I was no angel back then, but I was spared this fate largely because I had a tough father, a former WWII UDT frogman, whom I suspected would have killed me if I crossed that line. I also joined the Navy at 17 and shipped out.
I remember how families were devastated by the 1960s heroin epidemic, from the thefts from their homes by their own drug-addicted offspring to the tragedy of their sons and daughters dying so young.
But as bad as the scene was during this earlier drug epidemic, the drug use never looked as blatant or the city streets so dilapidated as it did in Kensington during my drive-through.
“Look at these people. It’s heart-breaking,” the retired detective said. “These people are someone’s son and daughter. Someone’s mom and dad. And there’s a lot of decent people living around here. It’s a shame they have to put up with this squalor and drug crime.”
To the embarrassment of Philadelphia officials and residents alike, the story of Kensington’s rampant and open drug use has been picked up by the national and international press.
To combat the Kensington drug scourge, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced last month that his office had shut down another large drug trafficking operation in Kensington.
According to Shapiro, the investigation, conducted by the Kensington Initiative, resulted in the arrests of eight individuals, including the organization’s ringleader and two high-level dealers. Agents also seized seven firearms, including a ghost gun and a semi-automatic shotgun, more than 8,000 doses of heroin/fentanyl, and $30,000 in cash.
Announced in 2018, the Kensington Initiative is a partnership between local, state, and federal law enforcement formed to target major criminal drug organizations in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“As part of our ongoing Kensington Initiative, we are committed to doing our part to protect communities and families that call Philadelphia home. That means holding accountable the individuals directly responsible for pumping poison and committing violence in our neighborhoods,” Shapiro said. “My office is committed to this goal, and we are not leaving any block behind. We’re also grateful to our partners in law enforcement for their support in this difficult and often dangerous work, and to the city’s managing director’s office for beginning to restore and recover these communities that have been ravaged by violence.”
The Attorney General’s office stated that, on June 3, agents from the Office of Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigations, Gun Violence Task Force, Homeland Security Investigations, officers from the Philadelphia Police Department, FBI, Warrington Police Department, Hatboro Borough Police Department and the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Department executed eight search warrants in Kensington. During the execution of the search warrants, agents seized 259 grams, or 8,633 doses, of heroin/fentanyl, 560 grams of crack cocaine, 1,533 grams of cocaine, seven guns, and $30,139 in cash.
Eight individuals were arrested on June 3, including the drug operation’s ringleader. They have each received charges that include Corrupt Organizations, Dealing in Illegal Proceeds, Possession with Intent to Deliver, Conspiracy, Knowing and Intentional Possession of Narcotics, Criminal Use of a Communications Facility, and Possessing Instruments of Crime. Fourteen people are still at large with warrants issued for their arrest.
“This work is important – it saves lives, it saves families, and it protects neighborhoods,” Shapiro said.
More needs to be done.
Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. You can contact him via pauldavisoncrime.com.