The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The White DA, the Black ex-mayor and a harsh debate on crime

550 people have been killed in Philadelphia this year, prompting a clash between two well-known figures and imperiling a push to overhaul policing and criminal justice.

Police tape blocks a Philadelphia street where a resident was shot in July. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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PHILADELPHIA — When Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s liberal district attorney, was asked this month about the city’s crime surge that includes an unprecedented 550 homicides this year, he appeared to play it down. “We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness,” Krasner said. “We don’t have a crisis of crime. We don’t have a crisis of violence.”

Krasner, who is White, has been an ally of Black leaders pushing for changes to the criminal justice system, but Michael Nutter, a former Philadelphia mayor who is African American, erupted at Krasner, accusing him of dismissing the pain of Black residents who suffer from the violence while purporting to support them.

“It all goes back to supremacy, paternalism. 'I’m woke. I’m paying attention. I spend a lot of time with Black people. Some of my best friends … ’ All that bulls---," Nutter said in an interview. “And so you get a guy like Larry Krasner who is the great White hope and ‘I’m gonna ride in on a white horse with a white hat.’ ”

It was a jarring rebuke of one Democrat by another. But it also laid bare a broader turbulence within the party and the progressive movement, as those pushing a message of racial equity sometimes do so with a zeal or tone that fails to resonate with portions of the Black or Latino communities. The dynamic is even more fraught when those ideas are championed by White leaders.

The year 2021 in the City of Brotherly Love will always be marked by the shocking number of people whose lives came to an abrupt and violent end: an 18-year-old shot two weeks before his high school graduation, two men killed in a hail of gunfire at a July Fourth cookout, a pregnant woman gunned down as she unpacked presents from her baby shower.

On Wednesday, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) was carjacked at gunpoint in the city. She was unharmed, and five suspects have been taken into custody.

The Krasner-Nutter exchange is complex. Nutter — who was known as a blunt, tough-on-crime mayor — wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that if Krasner “actually cared about [Black and Latino communities], he’d understand that the homicide crisis is what is plaguing us the most.” Yet Krasner has twice won election in a city with a large African American population, and other Black leaders praise his approach, which includes such actions as reducing sentences, cutting prison time and treating drug use as a public health issue.

City Council member Jamie R. Gauthier, for example, said that Krasner “is an ally and a partner” and that his record on criminal justice cannot be erased by a few ill-chosen words. Gauthier, who represents communities that have been battered by homicides, said a return to policies defended by Nutter, a two-term mayor first elected in 2007, would only intensify the city’s problems.

“We had that Philadelphia in the ’90s — we had that same Philadelphia that people are advocating we get back to — and we had a ton of homicides then,” Gauthier said in an interview in her City Hall office. “Not only did that not make us safer, it probably also helped us to get to where we are today. It destabilized our communities.”

Krasner has apologized for his words, saying at Love Zion Baptist Church, a Black congregation in North Philadelphia, that he “did not acknowledge the pain and the hurt that people feel in the city of Philadelphia” and that “those words were the wrong ones.”

Krasner also cites other crime statistics that have remained flat. In an interview, he added that in answering a reporter’s question about the jump in crime, he had failed to supply critical context.

“One of my mistakes was, I was having a conversation that I’ve had hundreds of times, I was saying things poorly that I’ve said hundreds of times,” Krasner said. “But the fact is, to some extent, I was situationally unaware that I was talking to everybody in Philadelphia. It’s just like foundational that we all care about victims and what happens to them, and we know how wrenching and horrible that is.”

He said his approach — including less jail time and a public-health view of drug use — is widely embraced in Philadelphia’s Black community. He rejected the notion that, as Nutter suggests, he sees himself as a woke White savior riding to the rescue of embattled Black people.

“It is 100 percent accurate that I am a White man that has enjoyed some White privilege,” Krasner said. “But it wasn’t just skinny White vegan lefties who liked what I was saying. It wasn’t just well-educated White professionals. It was in many ways the kinds of clients I had represented for 30 years as a public defender, as a civil rights lawyer, as a criminal defense lawyer. It was those people who thought what I was saying resonates.”

Krasner’s controversial comments came after he was asked about a string of robberies and carjackings that have plagued the tourist-friendly Center City. Republicans quickly seized on his response, saying it shows that Democrats’ push to change policing indicates they are radicals who coddle criminals at the expense of their victims.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel penned an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer saying rhetoric like Krasner’s is “leading to distrust and unrest across the country.” The op-ed was titled: “Why aren’t Biden and the Democrats doing more to stop crime in big cities like Philly?”

Philadelphia is contending with twin aims: stemming the tide of killings and responding to calls for police reform that remain stuck in a bureaucratic morass or hampered by legal restrictions. Like communities across the country, Philadelphia was spurred to rethink policing by the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the killings of other African Americans by law enforcement.

Nutter argues that reform can coexist with the amplified police presence needed to combat crime. One of the best things city leaders can do for embattled Black communities, he said, is to rid them of criminals.

In the interview, he said that Krasner may have apologized but that he still holds an incorrect and dangerous worldview. He accused the district attorney of following the trend, positioning himself as a reformer with the aim of getting elected to a higher political office.

“I think he really just wants to tear the system down and tear it apart with seemingly no idea as to how to build it back up,” Nutter said. “Larry’s got that paternalistic mind-set of: ‘I’m going to take care of you and I’m going to right all the wrongs that have historically been going on.’ And there certainly are challenges in the law enforcement community, no question about it. But good people still want to be safe.”

The exchange gets at a broader national dynamic, as the rise in violent crime threatens to blunt efforts to make policing less aggressive and racially imbalanced. In Philadelphia, activists have asked the city to implement a system that identifies problem officers and to bolster a nascent effort to pair officers with behavioral health specialists when they respond to incidents involving those with mental health issues.

Anger over Floyd’s final moments, as an officer knelt on his neck, was widespread, as was the sentiment that systemic racism permeates many of the nation’s institutions. But an initial push for change, powered by street protests, lost momentum as crime increased and slogans like “Defund the police” prompted a backlash from Republican and Democratic officeholders.

In Congress, a criminal justice bill named for Floyd withered, and a bipartisan effort to find agreement foundered. Some cities that saw large protests ultimately increased funding for their police departments. Voters in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, rejected a proposal to replace its police department with an a­gen­cy that would take a broader approach to public safety.

Activists and change-minded politicians now worry that any significant chance their ideas had is slipping away. Proposals for change have been lambasted by Fox News commentators and other conservatives, they say, but they haven’t actually seeped into any public policy. And even people who support Krasner worry that his comments have given ammunition to those whose impulse is to respond to crime by adding ever more police.

Dennis Maurice Dumpson, an author and organizer who helped set up strategy sessions for activists during the Floyd protests, said demonstrators have always been wary of politicians who wrap themselves in the outrage of the moment. But he said Krasner has helped amplify the concerns of communities that for decades have been frustrated by heavy-handed policing tactics and a dearth of public investment.

“Is Krasner an imperfect representative? Possibly. But the reality is that [most Philadelphia leaders] haven’t listened to anybody. So don’t lay it all on him because he is a White man,” said Dumpson, who is Black. “The problem is, you weren’t listening to Black people, listening to Brown people. You weren’t listening to activists. You weren’t listening to politicians who were in the system and trying to make moves.”

Philadelphia’s political leaders have grasped for solutions, old and new, as the crisis has intensified. In a news conference this month, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (D) acknowledged that “we’re in a gun crisis,” but he refused to inject himself into a “back-and-forth between a former mayor and the DA.”

During the spike in homicides, Kenney redoubled his criticism of a state law that stops municipalities like Philadelphia from limiting access to guns. Under Kenney, the city sued the state last year, seeking to overturn the rule. The city has also spent $155 million this year for neighborhood revitalization and community programs aimed at violence prevention, including $22 million in grants to grass-roots organizations.

Gauthier, the City Council member, said Nutter’s mayoral tenure was hardly perfect, citing shuttered schools and a stop-and-frisk policy that often targeted minorities. She said Krasner’s brand of justice has been welcomed by the communities she represents.

Since being elected in 2017, Krasner has retooled the district attorney’s office, prioritizing prosecutions against unethical police officers and rebalancing a system he criticized as focusing more on punishment than reform. In 2019, the jail population declined by 40 percent, to its lowest level since 1985. His office has decreased the amount of time people spend in prison or on parole, particularly for drug offenses and property crimes. Krasner’s office also handled 98 percent of juvenile arrests in juvenile court, rather than treating the defendants as adults.

Colliding strategies for fighting violent crime have bedeviled cities like Philadelphia for decades. The landscape was further complicated by the pandemic, said Aaron Chalfin, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gun sales in Pennsylvania hit an all-time high last year, he said, reflecting fears amid the turbulence and putting additional weapons in circulation. At the same time, the pandemic closed schools, paused job programs and suspended other healthy activities for young people.

“It’s like a perfect storm — schools close, community centers close, there’s all this hardship and stress and uncertainty,” Chalfin said. He added that scandals about police brutality, especially those that go viral, can make officers more tentative and less willing to take proactive steps.

“I think that’s a mixed bag,” Chalfin said. “It means that they’re probably doing less of the stuff that can be harmful to communities. But it probably also means they’re doing less of the stuff that’s vital to keep communities safe.”

Dumpson, the activist, said the Krasner-Nutter furor is part of a conversation that is “politicizing life-and-death issues for Black people,” wasting time and energy that could be poured into Philadelphia’s most distressed communities.

“We continue to politicize Blackness. We continue to politicize the effects of harm that are done to Black and Brown communities, and what happens is that the people that are affected by it are never helped,” Dumpson said. “It’s really just squashing the people that are most proximate to the inequities.”