I confess that I played a part in enabling Larry Krasner to become Philadelphia’s District Attorney.
In the late 1970s and 1980s I wrote many columns against police brutality for several city publications. Police culture in Philadelphia was at its worst in the 1970s when I had my first unpleasant experience with the PPD.
On two separate occasions while walking through Center City late at night I was apprehended by the police.
The first abduction occurred when police were looking for a red-haired male suspect. This became apparent as soon as I was inside the police van and noticed that the ten guys crammed in like sardines were all twenty-something redheads.
When we reached the Roundhouse, I was shocked to learn that we were going to be put in a lineup so that a woman victim of a crime (committed by a redhead) would be given a chance to identify her attacker. I’d seen police lineups on TV in various movies, but to actually be in a lineup is something else entirely. We were arranged across a stage and placed in front of identifying numbers, bright lights spotlighting our faces.
At that moment I was suddenly seized with the thought: what if the emotionally-wrought crime victim picked me out for some reason?
There was no drum roll when the victim began reviewing the lineup. Happily, none of us was signaled out. When the process was over, we were told that we could go. We were released without an apology for having been inconvenienced. We also had to find our own way home. The rudeness of the process was monumental.
Another time, police ordered me inside a van to join a group of men they had scooped off the streets at random while driving through Center City. The men had been walking downtown after a night out at the bars. While there was no police lineup this time, our group spent the night in jail, and in the morning put before a judge and a galley of heckling spectators who were there for entertainment purposes. The judge mumbled something then dismissed us with a smirk.
Philadelphia needed a Larry Krasner in the 1970s. In fact, if there had been a Krasner DA at that time, I would not have had to write letters about my police van experience to the ACLU. As it happened, I sent copies of those letters to The Inquirer (where they were published and generated some action, like a face-to-face with the police captain then in charge of the Center City District in question). Individual ad hoc appeal processes like this, however, were still a crapshoot.
I did not soon forget my experiences at the hands of bad police officers, so I welcomed every opportunity to attack the politician that most represented the police: Frank Rizzo.
I attacked Rizzo in print in The Drummer newspaper and in columns in the Welcomat. Years later, in the 1980s, I interviewed Rizzo when he was a radio talk show host. I was pleasantly surprised when the former mayor greeted me like an old friend, invited me to lunch, and repeatedly clutched my shoulder in a brotherly way while telling me to write about him “anyway I wanted to.”
“Call the shots as you see them,” he said.
Over time, I began to notice positive changes in the city when it came to the police. The process didn’t happen overnight but the change was so apparent in the late 1990s going into the 2000s, so that one rarely thought of the police as “the enemy” at all.
In 1993, then Mayor Wilson Goode issued an executive order regarding the formation of a Police Advisory Commission, which has grown over the years to achieve a budget of $668,700 in 2020.
But while the police were now doing their job in a much more humane manner, criminals were slowly becoming bolder in their exploits.
DA Larry Krasner appeared on the scene just as crime was spiking in the City of Brotherly Love.
Born in 1961 in St. Louis, Krasner is the son of a writer father and a minister mother. He spent his childhood years in both Philadelphia and St. Louis before getting degrees at the University of Chicago and Stanford Law School. As a young law student, Krasner was already working for homeless people, the urban poor, and for “indigenous” rights. Those impulses were still strong in him when he returned to Philadelphia in 1987 to work as a public defender and civil rights attorney. In 1993, he opened his own law practice.
Krasner’s decision to run for district attorney in 2017 was greeted on all sides with derision. A 2018 New Yorker article quoted Philadelphia FOP president John McNesby calling the idea of a Krasner candidacy “hilarious.” Krasner’s own law firm was said to have broken out in laughter at the announcement of his candidacy.
If Krasner had a hard road at first, he soon found celebrity status thanks to a PBS eight-part documentary series, Philly DA. He has also become one of the faces of the national “progressive prosecutor” movement.
Yet Krasner was soon presiding over a crime wave that rendered him unpopular in many areas of the city. Since he took office, shootings and homicides soared. As of April 15, 2021, 145 homicides and 442 non-fatal shootings have been registered in the city, including 55 children shot. So far this year, homicides have increased 32 percent from this point in 2020, itself a year when the city experienced its second-highest homicide rate in 60 years. Many of the perpetrators have been found to be repeat offenders or men released on reduced bail due to decisions from the district attorney’s office. The unbelievable was happening. While Krasner was making some needed reforms, he was tipping the scales to the far left just as Frank Rizzo had gone to the far right when it came to the criminal justice issues.
Sentiment against Krasner began to build, especially in city neighborhoods such as Fishtown, Port Richmond, Bridesburg, and South Philadelphia, all traditionally Democratic areas.
Before the May 18th primary, a recent story in Billy Penn reported that a coalition of Democratic elected officials gathered at the statue of civil rights hero Octavius Catto in front of City Hall to deliver their endorsement of Krasner. “The next morning,” the story continued, “officials with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 parked a Mister Softee truck across the street from the DA’s office and gave out free soft-serve” to mock Krasner’s position on crime. “Soft on crime. Soft on sentencing,” tweeted FOP president John McNesby. “Come enjoy a mister softee cone on the cops.”
Despite the vehement anti-Krasner sentiment throughout the city, the DA sailed to an easy victory in the May primary.
Carlos Vega, Krasner’s challenger, received 35 percent of the vote, a small piece of mince pie considering the intensity of the campaign to unseat Krasner. Vega put up a good fight but in the end the Philadelphia Democratic Machine and campaign money from George Soros and wealthy left-wing philanthropists proved far too powerful.
Krasner will now meet Republican challenger attorney Chuck Peruto in the fall. But no Republican ever gets elected in the City of Philadelphia. As the journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote in “The Shame of the Cities,”
All our municipal governments are more or less bad, and all our people are optimists. Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.
Krasner’s primary win all but guarantees his re-election in November. Philadelphia can expect four more years of the DA’s social justice reform agenda.
We can also expect many more shootings and deaths.