Philadelphia voters defy police union, Trumpian mindset in picking their new district attorney

Criminal justice reform advocates are locked out of power federally, so they're changing venues and pressing ahead.

Larry Krasner, elected Tuesday as Philadelphia's next District Attorney, breaks just about every political mold for a prosecutor. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Larry Krasner, elected Tuesday as Philadelphia's next District Attorney, breaks just about every political mold for a prosecutor. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Larry Krasner has never prosecuted a case. Starting in January, he’ll run the office that charges every state and local criminal offense in Philadelphia.

His win Tuesday night defies the political axiom that prosecutors — even those who successfully groom “reformer” reputations in the media — always have to come from the attacking side of the courtroom.

Krasner was a quixotic longshot candidate earlier this year when he secured the Democratic nomination for Tuesday’s district attorney election. He has been a defense attorney his whole career.

Krasner has cautioned his fervent supporters that his election will not simply unmake the various injustices he hopes to target. “Not everything you try to do is easily within reach,” Krasner told the Philadelphia Inquirer during the race. “I think you’re going to see disappointment from people who have extreme views about what will happen, because that is life.”

But in pledging to end the death penalty, mass incarceration, cash bail, and a culture of impunity for police that has outlasted numerous high-profile corruption and abuse scandals involving officers and even previous city prosecutors, Krasner set expectations high.

His Republican opponent, Beth Grossman, came from the rank and file of the office she hoped to lead. Her own platform reflects the success that criminal justice reform advocates have had in making their ideas mainstream over the past decade. She opposed forcing nonviolent arrestees to pay cash bail, a system that effectively criminalizes poverty and ensures the guilty and innocent alike will spend time in a cage unless they’re wealthy.

Grossman is hardly a crusader for rightsizing the sprawling criminal justice system or trimming back its constitutionally questionable claws. She favors mandatory minimum sentencing rules in drug crimes and opposes so-called “sanctuary city” policies that seek to salvage police-community relationships vital to law enforcement work from the corrosive paranoia that comes with immigration sweeps.

Krasner’s platform — radical by comparison to Grossman’s and to the status quo, but hardly the stuff of police-abolitionist dreams — made him an instant enemy to Philadelphia’s police unions, as Philadelphia Magazine’s Abraham Gutman has reported in detail.

Krasner pledged to stop bringing cases tied to stop-and-frisk searches. If he succeeds, he would be vindicating the civil rights of the black and brown people disproportionately targeted for these searches and seizures. He would also be closing a cash faucet that incentivizes officers to make arrests that will lead to cases where their testimony is required, Gutman found — triggering overtime pay under union contract rules.

Krasner has also been an avid pursuer of civil cases against police and the city stemming from alleged wrongdoing by officers on duty. Police unions exist to protect their members, but are often so zealous in that duty that they refuse to countenance the possibility that a brother cop could ever have done wrong. Unions around the country are highly effective at forcing cities to retain cops they want to fire for misconduct.

Another axiom for elected prosecutors holds that they cannot succeed without the support of men and women in uniform. Police unions serve as the institutional representation of that support in elections. Krasner’s ability to win not only without these groups’ endorsement, but in spite of active campaigning against him by union leaders, breaks down those campaigner assumptions.

It remains to be seen how many individual officers may find themselves sympathetic to Krasner’s impulses to clean house, pursue cases against cops, or fiddle with uniformed officers’ ability to pull overtime. But the union’s opposition is only going to grow louder as Krasner moves from victorious candidate to occupying the office that serves as a stop-go valve on almost every piece of police work done in the city.

Whatever comes of the new outsider DA’s relationship with the men and women of the city’s police force, it will play out against a starkly divided backdrop.

While Krasner’s win was overwhelming, roughly tripling the votes Grossman was able to pull, the ward-by-ward map of the city’s preferences here is striking. Grossman won only in districts where the majority of residents are white. Krasner managed to take a majority of the vote in two of the city’s mostly-white wards, and won every patch of ground where white folk are a minority — in many cases a nearly invisible one.