The rise of reform-minded prosecutors in some of America’s biggest cities, and their moves to decriminalize offenses such as marijuana possession and fare jumping, created concern and confusion in their local police departments. The sudden changes in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York went against decades of police practice, and sometimes the changes were made over police objections — or without their knowledge.
So the police chiefs had an idea: a national summit meeting. The chiefs and prosecutors of 10 of the largest American cities would gather in one room, in Washington, to hash out their differences away from cameras and citizen activists. New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill launched the notion with his colleagues on the police side, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. pulled in his counterparts from the prosecutors’ offices. The meeting would be held in the office of the Police Executive Research Forum, a police think tank that advises nearly every big-city chief, and moderated by its director, Chuck Wexler.
And last month, the summit quietly happened. The chiefs and prosecutors from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Washington, Miami, Baltimore and Boston gathered on June 24, with only the Dallas police chief and the Boston prosecutor unable to attend. The participants agreed afterwards to discuss the meeting with The Washington Post, and they released a “Statement of Key Principles” drawn up by Wexler on which they achieved consensus.
Several of the officials who attended said the face-to-face discussion was valuable, and a number said they would attend more such meetings to smooth the path to criminal justice reform. The summit could also serve as a model for other jurisdictions amid a well-funded push by activists to elect more liberal prosecutors nationwide.
“In my 31 years as a cop,” said Superintendent Eddie Johnson of the Chicago police, “this is one of the more important meetings I’ve attended, because prosecutors and police have to be on the same page.” He and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said they had a strong working relationship and agreed on one of the “key principles” that “Police and prosecutors should collaborate in advance of enacting criminal justice reforms,” to give police the chance to adapt to new prosecution policies.
Foxx said she learned that lesson early in her term when she announced in her first week that her office would not prosecute shoplifting as a felony unless the items stolen totaled more than $1,000, though the state law set the felony bar at $500. Chicago police weren’t troubled, but suburban police and businesses in Cook County were outraged. “I had to apologize to our partners” for making the change without consulting them, Foxx said. Cook County has 119 police departments in addition to Chicago. Longtime Miami-Dade County State’s Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she had learned to meet with the smaller departments in her area first, then move up to the larger departments, to start smoothing the path for changes.
Foxx said she thought the Washington meeting was long overdue and “went well,” but at the outset she felt defensive as Wexler and others quizzed her about reform policies such as not seeking bond for nonviolent offenders. “Is this a real opportunity for us to have an exchange of ideas?” she said she asked Vance, the Manhattan prosecutor, at a break. “We’re getting cross-examined about our impact on policing.”
But by the end of the meeting, she felt it was worthwhile to hear from other prosecutors and chiefs, and Johnson had supported her in many of her reform initiatives.
Less impressed by the meeting was Larry Krasner, the veteran Philadelphia defense attorney who was elected prosecutor in 2017 on a strident justice reform platform. “There’s a collision between the anecdotal approach and the statistical approach to criminal justice,” Krasner said. “We like the statistical approach. ... I didn’t think it was worth my time. I just felt like it was a pretty scientific-, statistic-free discussion. A lot of opinions of police chiefs that were unburdened by facts.”
Most big-city chiefs say they favor reform and understand the inequities of urban justice systems, which can result in long jail stays for those unable to afford bail and hang criminal records on young first-time drug users. But some feel the reforms are going too far, too fast. “In some instances,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is also head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, “it appears we’re going so far that we’re putting the criminal and their interest in front of the victim’s interest ... it just appears to us that the prosecutors are starting to take the law from misdemeanor areas and applying that mindset to more serious crimes like gun violations.”
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said “there’s frustration with a number of prosecutors around the country ... Our legislators write the laws; the police and prosecutors take an oath to enforce them. What makes them [prosecutors] think they can unilaterally decide they can decline to prosecute certain crimes?” Newsham said when prosecutors do make such policy changes, it’s police who often take the heat from the public, but that prosecutors need to publicly own their decisions.
Vance is fine with that. He wanted to stop prosecuting marijuana possession and subway fare jumping, and New York police “simply would not go there with us. I had to make decisions to go forward without them. It’s caused some friction.” He said fare evasion cases have dropped by 96 percent and marijuana cases by 80 percent, meaning 20,000 fewer cases have entered the system annually.
“I understand the frustrations of police officers who go out on the streets,” Vance said, “make an arrest and the prosecutor says I’m not going to prosecute that. The answer is we just may have to agree to disagree. I have constituencies that may be different from theirs and sometimes the police don’t recognize that.”
In Philadelphia, Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr. said, “Reform is not something I take issue with.” But he said Philadelphia is the poorest of the 10 largest U.S. cities, and that “we have to be very very careful about the timing of some of these reforms.” He said emptying jails without having services in place for those leaving them, or launching diversion programs without people available to manage those diverted from arrest, is a problem for cities like Philadelphia.
Ross and other chiefs said they also saw a problem with violence in the world of marijuana dealing, in cities where pot remains illegal. “We have a lot of marijuana-related shootings,” Ross said, and Acevedo said the same of Houston. They feared prosecutors were taking marijuana too lightly while ignoring the violence surrounding the black markets there.
Foxx and Krasner were not moved by the marijuana violence arguments. Foxx said that did not rate among Chicago’s problems, and Krasner said he hadn’t seen any cases or data to back that up in Philadelphia. Both support legalization of marijuana. “You don’t see anyone getting shot over a bottle of vodka,” Krasner said.
The chiefs also raised the issue of “quality of life” crimes, such as people smoking marijuana in public or selling it on a neighborhood corner. O’Neill, the New York chief, said he’s heard frequent complaints about these in community meetings.
O’Neill said enforcement of such crimes in New York helped drive overall crime down significantly, along with targeting troubled neighborhoods and specific offenders. “We get tens of thousands of calls to 311 about this,” O’Neill said of people complaining about marijuana in public. “What do we do, ignore them?”
The chiefs also worried that crime victims were at risk of being shortchanged by the justice system if too many cases are dismissed or downgraded. “We’ve done a lot of reform, but sometimes there are unintended consequences,” O’Neill said. “We have to make sure we’re looking out for the people who are victims.”
The prosecutors said they were mindful of victims, though Foxx noted that many victims of violence in Chicago are also prior offenders. Krasner said police can take enforcement of “quality of life” crimes too far, such as in Ferguson, Mo., where police “found a way to control poor people” by rigorously enforcing minor code violations and unpaid fines, causing people to fall into spiraling debt or jail.
“ ‘Quality of life’ is a very very amorphous term,” Krasner said. “There are some things that need to be prosecuted, and some other stuff that just doesn’t need to be prosecuted.” He has instructed his prosecutors not to charge sex workers, but to charge johns and pimps and human traffickers, believing that prostitution is a public health issue, not a criminal one.
“There are some social issues that don’t have as its remedy a pair of handcuffs and a criminal record,” Krasner said. “We did that with mental health. It didn’t work. We need to stop presenting criminal justice as a solution for many issues.”
The police chiefs largely agree with that view, but they note they are appointed — and often can be fired by their politician bosses at any time, as chiefs in Baltimore and Chicago have been in recent years — while prosecutors are elected and have wider capacity to directly enact change. Until the next election.
Summit participants, police: New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill; Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore; Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson; Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo; Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr.; D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham; Boston Police Commissioner William Gross; Baltimore Police Chief Michael Harrison; Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina.
Prosecutors: New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.; Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey; Cook County District Attorney Kim Foxx; Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg; Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner; D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine; Suffolk County First Assistant District Attorney Dan Mulhern; Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby; Miami-Dade County District Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.