Philadelphia’s new District Attorney, elected on a promise to clean house and reassert citizens’ civil rights in a city where police have violated them for years with impunity, is trying to take an inclusive approach to his reform platform.
But when Larry Krasner met with a group of police academy cadets on Tuesday to talk with them about how his office will approach police use of force investigations, he got an immediate and unhinged response from a police union official who doesn’t even know what the new prosecutor said.
Krasner’s attempt to share practical information with the soon-to-be officers was “ridiculous and dangerous” and “intentionally sought to endanger your lives,” Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) leader John McNesby wrote in an open letter to the cadet class. He told them to “completely disregard any and all advice received from self-appointed ‘experts’ who seek to deceive or mislead you.”
Given the pepper in McNesby’s pen, you might think Krasner said something outrageous. Usurped the authority of academy instructors. Rewrote police training policies on the fly. Called somebody’s mother a nasty name. Something.
But McNesby wrote the letter without actually knowing what Krasner had said. The prosecutor’s office invited the FOP head to take a look at video of the conversation, Krasner spokesman Ben Waxman said, but McNesby refused. “We found out about the letter via social media. No one reached out to us. I spoke to him directly via telephone and he declined [to view the tape],” Waxman said in an email.
Now, that video is public. Krasner’s office released about 10 minutes of the speech on Friday afternoon. An officer recorded nearly all of the speech, which was “about 12 to 14 minutes” total according to his office. Watch for yourself:
The approach he lays out in the clip seems like it should make cops happy, not outraged. Krasner said he sees a big difference between “honest mistakes” and those that are “willful,” promised that his office will take a thorough, nuanced approach to any given investigation involving police, and insisted that officers, like elected officials, must embrace that they are “held to a higher standard.”
“People make mistakes. There are mistakes that are just honest mistakes, that are accidents, that are violations of your oath in a sense,” Krasner said. “And then there are mistakes that are violations of your oath that are willful, that are deliberate, that are intentional, that are in many cases criminal.”
He gave three different examples — two where someone ended up dead at the end of an officer’s gun where perhaps a different outcome could have been reached but officers did nothing maliciously wrong. Then he described a video he’s seen of a Philadelphia cop slamming a handcuffed drug suspect into a telephone pole and breaking his bones. “Is that a crime? Yeah, that’s a crime,” he said — but immediately assured the cadets that the full emotional circumstances of a situation will be factored into investigations even in such cases of malicious violence.
“Is it one where we might have some compassion? Sure we might have some compassion, people get hyped. But it’s also your duty…to step away from that. It’s your duty not to inflict an aggravated assault…on someone who is already in custody,” he said.
After a further discussion of how crimes committed “from a position of trust” are deemed more serious under national sentencing guidelines, and some mentions of disgraced former Senate candidate Roy Moore’s serial predation against girls and young women while he served as a prosecutor, the video released by Krasner’s office ends.
It’s unclear what part of all that McNesby deems villainous. Unless the two-to-four minutes not captured in the officer’s cell phone video contained some radical departure from the rest of Krasner’s remarks, there’s nothing in this that should anger a reasonable officer or a union rep who cares about getting policework right more than they do about fighting off any challenge to the status quo.
Indeed, the conciliatory, thoughtful, sympathetic tenor of Krasner’s remarks suggests the FOP might simply be looking to overshadow the reality of its perceived enemy’s stance on policing and professionalism. If cops get wind that Krasner not only doesn’t want to charge cops willy-nilly when they make “honest mistakes,” but can even find “compassion” for the rage that leads some cops to abuse handcuffed suspects, the narrative McNesby’s crew wants to pin to Krasner’s jacket won’t stick so easily.
McNesby’s kneejerk ragespasm is as unsurprising as it is out of touch. The change Krasner’s victory last November represents is a direct threat to the FOP’s power. As in cities around the country, the Philadelphia police union contract mandates oversight and accountability processes that make it very hard for cops to ever face real punishment even when evidence of misconduct is plain. Krasner’s hardline reformer impulses will inevitably require changes to those systems if he is to make good on the promises that got him elected — and changing those systems will chip away at the FOP’s strong hold on the city’s cops.
Krasner’s office will struggle to be effective if the FOP can poison the rank-and-file well against him. Prosecutors need cops to make good casework stick. If they believe his ears are closed to their point of view, or that he will treat police corruption or shooting investigations in a biased fashion, much of the change Krasner wants to help lead will become almost impossible.
The police union has therefore been eager to play up any tension it can. Back in the spring of 2017, when Krasner supporters chanted “Fuck the FOP” at a party celebrating his victory in the Democratic primary, McNesby was all over it. Krasner’s crowd were “bottom-feeders” and “professional protesters” who hate the very concept of law and order, he said at the time.
McNesby’s echoing of the right-wing media portrayal of civil rights activists as greedy connivers is again common among hardline cop union officials. Police leaders often cannot accept that criticism of their departments is sincere, or that the patterns of harassment, disrespect, and violence that big-city police have inflicted on low-income communities for decades have discredited their institutions with the publics they serve. Too stubborn to concede that masses of young black citizens marching in the street might have a point, they insist that movements like Black Lives Matter are part of a grand conspiracy against cops.
It’s a self-defeating paranoia, as Krasner’s actual words make plain. The goal of reformers is not to have cops over a barrel. It’s to draw meaningful, intelligent, precise lines between avoidable tragedies, honest mistakes, and malicious criminality performed from behind the cover of a badge. That’s something every honest cop should be interested in — but all the FOP can see is a threat to its own absolutist defense of each and every thing any cop ever does.