Driving in Philadelphia can feel like navigating lawless terrain, and the perception is that Philadelphia police do not stop people for traffic violations.
It’s a notion that makes Capt. John Walker, commander of the 15th Police District, laugh. He says it’s a myth — one that a recently formed detail is trying to debunk by increasing enforcement on Roosevelt Boulevard, long considered the city’s most dangerous road.
The Northeast Times rode along with Walker on Friday afternoon as the Roosevelt Boulevard Detail patrolled the 12-lane highway for the second time. It was first deployed March 28 and will be used sporadically and unannounced going forward.
Walker said the idea is to cut down on aggressive driving, which, at its worst, can lead to the fatal crashes and road-rage incidents that have plagued the Boulevard.
“The detail is important just to try and change the mindset of people that these are 3,000-pound vehicles,” he said.
Officers from all four police districts in the Northeast participate in the targeted enforcement, which, when deployed, covered the Boulevard from Adams Avenue to the Bucks County line from 8 a.m. to midnight. Anywhere from four to 16 officers can be part of the detail on a given day, Walker said.
On Friday, officers could be seen pulling over drivers who made illegal turns onto Harbison Avenue. Others were stopped for blowing through a light and driving with a broken tail light.
Walker said the Northeast Division came together in December and decided to launch the enforcement effort.
“A lot of people are afraid to come on this roadway because of the speeds that people travel,” he said. “It’s just part of our strategy to improve quality of life in and around this area.”
Another part of the initiative is removing panhandlers who set up shop at busy intersections along the Boulevard. Some are drug users from Kensington who think they can collect more money, Walker said.
“They’re putting themselves at risk,” he said. “We try to talk to them, ask them to leave on their own. Most do comply, but in a short time they come back again.”
The detail has begun working with homeless outreach organizations to get more permanent help for those begging on the street, Walker said.
Fixing the Boulevard has been a hot topic in recent years, and different approaches are being explored in an attempt to make it safer.
City planning officials are attacking the problem from a design perspective and have been gathering feedback on significant long-term proposals, such as turning the Boulevard’s middle lanes into a Vine Street Expressway-esque highway or adding traffic lights and reducing lanes.
Last month, City Council approved legislation allowing speed cameras to be installed on the Boulevard. Anyone caught going 11 miles an hour or more over the speed limit will be fined once the system is up and running.
Walker thinks speed cameras will help, and he said he hopes people can mentally adjust to driving the speed limit, which varies from 40 to 45 miles per hour.
“It’s manpower-intensive doing this,” he said during the ride-along. “Speed cameras clearly help.”
Meanwhile, the fatalities keep piling up.
Earlier this month, two teenagers were killed after their car veered off the Boulevard and crashed into a tree and house near Devereaux Avenue. It’s believed speed played a role in the fatal accident.
Two weeks prior, a man was shot to death after a minor accident involving his car and a group of ATV and dirt bike riders near Summerdale Avenue and the Boulevard.
Nearly 200 people were killed or seriously injured in crashes on the Boulevard from 2013 to 2017, according to the state Department of Transportation.
“We’re just trying to change the culture on what goes on on this long stretch of roadway,” Walker said. ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org