Republican Candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia Vows To Use Drones To Clean Up District Plagued by Crime and Open Drug Use, Despite Civil Liberties Concerns

Crime has become a central focus in Council Member David Oh’s campaign against Democrat Cherelle Parker in the race to become the city’s 100th mayor.

Philadelphia City Council
The Republican candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, David Oh. Philadelphia City Council

The Republican candidate for mayor of Philadelphia is vowing to deploy police drones to clean up the squalor in the city’s Kensington district, which has become notorious for open-air drug use and prostitution, if he is elected this November, despite concerns being raised by civil liberties activists.

As Mayor Jim Kenney’s second term comes to an end, crime has become a central focus in Council Member David Oh’s campaign against Democrat Cherelle Parker in the race to become the city’s 100th mayor. 

Ms. Parker, who previously served on City Council with Mr. Oh, won the Democratic nomination for mayor in part because of her own platform to crack down on crime. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Oh told The New York Sun that while promoting drone use tends to have a negative reaction, crime is now so severe that the idea is gaining traction.

“When you look at a place like Kensington, it’s just a horrific place, mental health problems, behavioral health, trauma,” he said. “And so the idea of cleaning that place up is really resonating with a lot of people, but how do you do it?”

The latest available city statistics show Philadelphia drug overdose deaths at their highest level ever recorded, with 1,276 fatalities in 2021 alone. Fentanyl was involved in 77 percent of those drug fatalities. And the avenue’s drug trade creates ripple effects far beyond city limits.

The Kensington neighborhood is plagued by fatal overdoses in broad daylight, as the Sun has reported, and has been described by the New York Times as a “Wal-Mart of Heroin.” 

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - JULY 19: Rich and Peg prepare to shoot-up a mix of heroin and fentanyl on a street in Kensington on July 19, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, over 93,000 people died from a drug overdose last year in America. These numbers and the continued rise in opioid use made 2020 the deadliest year on record for drug overdoses. Officials have said that the increase is being driven by the lethal prevalence of fentanyl and stressed Americans due to the Covid pandemic. Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, has become one of the largest open-air heroin markets in the United States.
Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, seen here on July 19, 2021 is plagued by rampant drug abuse. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns over the increase of drone surveillance usage by police departments, warning that it could lead to suspect surveillance, anticipatory drone checks in certain areas, and patrols over entire cities. 

The ACLU said it feared “without strong privacy protections” Americans could be subjected to “a mass surveillance regime in the skies.”

Drone usage by police in other cities, such as New York City’s announcement that drones would monitor backyard parties during Labor Day weekend, have received backlash.

“Deploying drones in this way is a sci-fi inspired scenario,” a New York Civil Liberties Union strategist, Daniel Schwarz, said of New York’s announcement, the Associated Press reported.

When asked about privacy concerns, Mr. Oh said he would implement safeguards and keep the drones to public areas. In his view, drones are a more effective version of security cameras. 

“The idea of using cameras, like video cameras, is very problematic, because they’re not mobile, they’re usually fixed,” Mr. Oh said. “Here in Philadelphia, and maybe a lot of the cities in the United States, our technology level is not that good. And what happens is we have a lot of cameras that don’t even work.” 

As the opioid crisis draws national attention, eyes will be on Philadelphia, a clinical psychologist who grew up at the corner of Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street, Geri-Lynn Utter, said.

“Look at the White House — they were a little late to the party — but they said xylazine is an emerging threat when in reality xylazine has been an issue in the Philadelphia market for at least four to five years,” Ms. Utter told the Sun. 

“I’m sure with Kensington being the epicenter of the opioid crisis it’s going to get a lot of attention and a lot of questions,” she added. 

City outreach services are encouraging those living in tents to move into temporary housing, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kenney, Sarah Peterson, told the Sun. Last month, the city finished a resolution process in response to tents and other health hazards in the Kensington district. 

“In a single day, 34 people connected to services and temporary housing — the most we’ve ever recorded in one day,” Ms. Peterson said. 

Yet Mr. Oh says the city is not doing enough. 

“I think like all this verbiage, rhetoric that makes people feel like this is actually a good place, is simply not true,” Mr. Oh said. “People who go up there, any reporters with their cameras go up there, and they are shocked by what they see.” 

Mr. Oh said he believes that drone’s abilities and how to use them are misunderstood. By employing them, first responders can get visuals and be better prepared before arriving on scene. 

The candidate said his goal is not to put people in jail, but to make the area safe for families and businesses. Drone monitoring would identify drug criminals, their backgrounds, and their methods, and then that data would be used to enforce the law, Mr. Oh said. 

Drones could be a useful tool, but the city’s drug crisis calls for an “all-hands-on-deck” effort, Ms. Utter said, including working with the criminal justice system, law enforcement, doctors, and addressing underlying issues of homelessness and food insecurity.

“Drones are a nice thing to have. Do I think that a drone is going to address the fundamental issues that are happening on Kensington Avenue? Absolutely not,” Ms. Utter said. “Because right now if you go to Kensington Avenue, you can have a patrolman in his vehicle two feet away from an individual who is injecting drugs. And there’s not anything from a law enforcement perspective that’s done because the city has made the decision to treat it as such.”

One area resident, Josh Barker, who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia in part to avoid crime in the city, told the Sun he isn’t optimistic the upcoming election will make much of a difference: “It’s sad, but with Democrats winning with 80-plus percent of the vote in citywide elections the last several cycles, I don’t expect anything to change down here.”

The New York Sun

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