Interview With Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel: The Philadelphia School Diversion Program

Kevin J. Bethel is a Deputy Police Commissioner in the Philadelphia Police Department, the 4th largest police department in the nation with 6,600 sworn personnel.  He is presently in charge of Patrol Operations for the entire city.  As part of his duties he oversees 21 Patrol Districts, Neighborhood Services Unit, Philadelphia School District Police, Police Athletic League and Community Relations Unit.  Since completion of the Police Academy in 1986, his assignments have included positions with the Patrol Bureau, Special Investigative Bureau, Narcotics Strike Force, Narcotics Field Unit, Narcotics Intelligence Investigative Unit and the Internal Affairs Division.  Prior to his appointment to the position of Deputy Commissioner, he served as Commanding Officer of the 17th Police District. 

Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Chestnut Hill College, and a Masters Degree in Public Safety from St. Joseph's University. He was recently inducted into Chestnut Hill’s Libris Society, an honor given to graduates of the College who distinguish themselves in their personal and professional lives while exemplifying the College motto; Fides. Caritas. Scientia. Faith. Charity. Knowledge.

In the spring of 2014, Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel led the Philadelphia Police Department’s and Philadelphia Department of Human Services’ collaborative first effort to bring a Police School Diversion Program to schools. The Philadelphia School Diversion Program is a new and innovative program that aims to reduce the number of unnecessary referrals of children to the juvenile justice system and eliminate racial disparity in these arrests in the School District of Philadelphia. As an alternative to arrest, professionals intervene with a range of social services and counseling for students—and, crucially, their parents or caregivers—when children first get into trouble. Deputy Commissioner Bethel granted us an interview for the National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline focused on this program.

Q: What is your district/school doing to improve school climate, and what was the motivation for taking this approach?

A: By providing community-based social services to students as an alternative to arrest, the Police School Diversion Program can address young people’s needs while keeping them out of the justice system, thereby increasing their chances of staying in school and reducing the risk of future misbehavior. Qualifying students are not arrested, but rather diverted to prevention services to meet their underlying needs. Multiple entities work together to ensure the success of the Police School Diversion Program. Key partners include the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, which supplies social workers for in-home visits; the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office; the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, which operates the juvenile courts; and the city’s police department and school district. Drexel University’s Psychology Department provides academic reviews of our work.

Q: What were the origins of your reform efforts?

A: I’ve been at this for 29 years. I’ve always had issues with young people getting arrested in schools. About 2 years ago, there was a shift in the structure of the Philadelphia Police Department. We currently have two systems: (1) school officers who are hired by the school district and don’t carry guns and (2) school officers who carry guns outside of the school. In previous years, most arrests of students were due to minor offenses. I’ve been aware of trauma-informed care [an approach that integrates knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices] and the things these young people were experiencing. I looked at prearrest to divert students to other programming. The city’s Department of Human Services had six programs already established and allowed me to divert these kids to those programs. The current program targets first-time offenders. Now, students are not arrested. Home and community assessments are conducted by a social worker, and the child is moved into a community-based program for upward of 90 days and provided academic support and additional family support services. We work hard to find out why these behaviors come about and what is causing some of the behaviors. Most other programs have a carrot and a stick. We don’t have a stick. More than 90% of parents and children take advantage of the available programming.

Q: What were the most important planning/development and initial implementation steps?

A: The most important step was getting the data, which was easy to do because we are in law enforcement, and homing in on the areas we knew we could have a significant impact on in a timely manner. We knew that weapon offenses and minor drug offenses were the largest group of incidents. This is an example of how we used the data to inform where we could have the most impact. We went into a 3-year plan with the goal of having a 50% reduction in arrests. In Year 1, we already had a 54% reduction.

Q: What trainings were necessary for specific stakeholder groups?

A: We have 84 sworn school police officers. We capture a lot of data, so we have training sessions on making sure the paperwork is done correctly and efficiently. In addition, Drexel University provides training on adolescent behavior and the adolescent mind. We also have mediation training about conflict resolution for school police officers provided by the Good Shepherd Mediation Program.

Q: What strategies are you implementing to change the mindsets of adults, students, and families?

A: For students, we will be hosting sessions in schools on the diversion program and collateral consequences. The 15- and 16-year-old students appear to have a higher contact rate with law enforcement, and we’re going to present what will happen if a student hits an officer or if a male grabs a female. We think there’s a breakdown in communication, and students need to be educated on what they can and cannot have or do.

Q: What are the key obstacles to establishing long-term change? What are some strategies to address them?

A: Some of the challenges are getting all those who are involved on the same page. We have to centralize our efforts, focus on the children, and rise above our lack of consensus as adults. The “school-to-prison pipeline” [policies and practices that push students out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems] can be turned around by law enforcement. If we choose not to arrest for low-level offenses, we can push back against it.

On the school side, we have educated the principals who had been accustomed to a certain system, changed the culture of reporting requirements, and communicated what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Q: What are the major lessons learned thus far? Do you have any other advice for those who are about to embark upon similar journeys?

A: Have the courage to say you’re not getting it right, and don’t be fearful of exploring the opportunity to do things differently. If you take on a venture like this, the reward is tenfold. Have empathy and know what it means to be an adolescent.

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