Opinion

The backlash to police reform in Philadelphia

Police don't like being held accountable. Will voters support them?

Philadelphia is holding a primary election Tuesday that will decide the fate of District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former public defender who has put into practice a number of important criminal justice reforms. In response, the Philadelphia police union (Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP) is sparing no expense to crush him. They have funded a right-wing challenger, Carlos Vega, blanketed the city in advertising, and are trying to convince Republicans to register as Democrats so they can vote in the primary.

The cops think they own the city, and they are outraged by how Krasner has moderately infringed on their power and impunity. This election is an important test case in whether democratic authorities can successfully rein in their corrupt and incompetent police departments.

As Chris Brennan and Mike Newall write at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the political context here is that violent crime is up a lot this year in Philly, and the FOP is blaming Krasner. They've parked a soft-serve ice cream truck outside his office to illustrate their accusation that he is soft on crime. (As an aside, it's important to note that many of Krasner's reforms, like decriminalizing marijuana possession and releasing elderly prisoners who are vanishingly unlikely to re-offend, which has saved the city tens of millions of dollars in incarceration costs, are not even tangentially related to the crime problem.)

The theory of the FOP's attitude is that when someone commits a crime, they should be reliably punished as a deterrent. There's just one problem when it comes to Philadelphia — in order to punish criminals, first the police must catch them. Krasner has not been at all lenient towards murder or violent assault — on the contrary, he has prosecuted over 99 percent of homicides, and over 98 percent of non-fatal shootings, in which an alleged culprit was found. (As I have previously written, while Krasner is about as good as it gets when it comes to DAs, he is not some "abolish the police" radical.)

But Philly cops only make an arrest in about 40 percent of homicides, and less than 20 percent of non-fatal shootings. Insofar as we accept the FOP logic here, Philly cops' abysmal investigative record must be the primary culprit behind any failure of deterrence. (In reality, it is far more likely that the pandemic is the real reason why violent crime has risen, since it has happened in almost every major city regardless of whether their DA was a reformer or not.)

Indeed, even that 40 percent figure should be viewed with suspicion. After Krasner was elected in 2017, he restarted a defunct Conviction Integrity Unit to review disputed cases involving possible abuses by the justice system. Since then, 20 murder convictions in the city have been overturned (most recently on May 4), often because Philly detectives coerced false confessions from people or fabricated evidence. That figure is certainly not complete, either — a painstaking Inquirer investigation has identified 89 instances "in which witnesses and defendants made allegations that detectives fabricated statements, coerced confessions, or engaged in other improper techniques."

Someone being imprisoned for a murder they did not commit — one man was exonerated after 28 years in prison, including 23 years on death row — is of course a grotesque miscarriage of justice. But it also means that the real culprit has gotten away with it. The FOP, naturally, doesn't care at all about its members beating confessions out of the wrong person. For instance, seven murder cases built by Detective James Pitts have fallen apart, and as the Inquirer's Samantha Melamed writes, "he has also been the subject of at least 11 citizen complaints and five internal investigations," and "dozens of convictions fraught with similar allegations about Pitts remain intact." But he remains on the force, thanks to misconduct investigations being handled through the police department's own notoriously lax Internal Affairs division — a system the FOP protects. The union reacted with outrage when some years ago the Justice Department recommended that police misconduct investigations be handled by an independent agency. (Even when Internal Affairs does recommend an officer be fired, they are usually reinstated thanks to the FOP's preposterously slanted contract.)

One reason might be that coerced evidence is useful for cops in other ways. When Danielle Crawley's brother was shot and killed by a Philly officer, she told Melamed that a detective ruthlessly bullied her (including threatening to take her infant baby) into signing a false statement that her brother was holding a gun when he was shot. This kind of thing is why Krasner developed a list of problem cops (building on one his predecessor put together) who are not allowed to testify or need permission to do so, and had to fight Internal Affairs to get the necessary records. (The FOP sued Krasner over the list, though the case was dismissed.)

This is not the behavior of a clean, honest police department that is genuinely concerned with crime. What the FOP cares about is the appearance of justice — punishing somebody or other for crimes, so as to maintain the department's political legitimacy and hence stranglehold on the elected government of Philadelphia. (The abysmal clearance rate shows they're not even that good at framing people.) This isn't the first time the FOP has tried to take down a DA who wasn't deferential enough to police, either — they backed Seth Williams' primary challenge against Lynne Abraham in 2005 when she mulled prosecuting police shootings, and then turned against Williams when he declined to prosecute former Eagles player LeSean McCoy over a fight with some off-duty cops in 2016.

The reason the George Floyd murder sparked such boiling outrage across the country is that most police departments in this country have exactly the same problems as the one in Philly, if not worse. They constantly abuse the citizenry (especially poor minorities), and react with scalded outrage to even a tiny threat to their unaccountable power. Partly as a result, they are terrible at solving crime.

A defeat of Krasner would be a massive setback to a criminal justice reform movement that has barely even started. If we want to halt the epidemic of police brutality in this country, American voters must stay the course.

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