Apr 12, 2023 - News

Republican David Oh proposes Kensington Avenue crackdown

Homeless people on the streets of Kensington.

Homelessness and drug addiction are rampant in Kensington. Photo: Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Republican mayoral hopeful David Oh says he knows how to combat the city's opioid epidemic: Shut down Kensington Avenue.

Why it matters: The city has deployed numerous tough-on-crime initiatives over the decades with little success. This would be an escalation of some of those approaches.

State of play: Kensington’s business corridor, dubbed the “Walmart of Heroin,” is considered one of the largest open-air drug markets on the East Coast.

  • Crime, homelessness, prostitution and quality-of-life issues are rampant along the main drag.
  • Nearly 1,300 people died of drug overdoses in Philadelphia in 2021, the last year of complete available data — and the highest rate in the city's history. Kensington had 169 overdose deaths that year, making it one of the worst parts of the city for drug-related deaths, per the Inquirer.

Zoom in: The proliferation of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer that leaves users with open sores sometimes requiring amputations, has worsened the problem, Oh says.

  • He tells Axios the city has tolerated Kensington’s drug problem for too long and the best way to address it is through increased policing.

How it would work: Oh says he'd dedicate at least 20 police officers for around-the-clock operations for the first three months, then assess the impact. He’d ask State Police to provide officers for supplemental patrols.

  • Streets wouldn't be sealed off to traffic, but he'd add additional driving checkpoints to discourage people who come in from neighboring areas to score drugs.
  • He also wants to see drones deployed to track suspected dealers, and more field tests conducted on suspected narcotics as a way to boost drug seizures.

What they’re saying: Officers are currently too hands-off, Oh tells Axios. Kensington residents “have the right to expect the government to enforce the laws,” he says.

The other side: Law-enforcement proponents like Jerry Daley of the Liberty Mid-Atlantic High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas are skeptical that Oh’s proposal would put a dent in the drug trade, pointing to past crackdowns that had limited success.

  • In 1998, it was Operation Sunrise, a coordinated effort by city and federal law enforcement to address crime and blight. In more recent years, the city cleared drug and homeless encampments from the area only to see problems return.
  • “It’s a little bit idealistic and underbaked to think you’re just going to go in there and create a very tight policing environment and have everybody happy with you,” Daley says.

Be smart: Oh is running unopposed in the May primary. He will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November’s general election.


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