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Don’t-Blame-Me Policing

While Mayor Kenney hides and Police Commissioner Richard Ross and DA Krasner point fingers, the chalk outlines accumulate

While Mayor Kenney hides and Police Commissioner Richard Ross and DA Krasner point fingers, the chalk outlines accumulate

At a time when the murder rate of peer cities nationwide is significantly declining, you can make the case that, under Mayor Jim Kenney, murder has made quite a comeback in Philadelphia. The numbers tell the story of an epidemic: Year-over-year, murder in Philadelphia went up 13 percent in 2017 and 12 percent last year.  So far this year, it’s up 11 percent, as of yesterday. That’s a 36 percent increase under the watch of the Mayor, Police Commissioner Richard Ross and, since January of 2018, District Attorney Larry Krasner.

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Which raises the question: What if we had a crisis and no one showed? Have you heard from the Mayor on a strategy to deal with all these chalk outlines and body bags? Last week, State Senator Tony Williams—the guy who has twice lost to Kenney—was the one rising to the moment and proposing a state of emergency. Kenney’s underwhelming plan—“The Philadelphia Roadmap to Safer Communities”—was released in January, after three years in office and just four months before voters would, in effect, reelect him. It was short on specific goals, timetables and, at $4.4 million, serious investment.

It’s six months later and things have only gotten worse. Hello, Jim? Are you there?

Yesterday, as if to appear to be taking action, the administration announced it was doling out some $700,000 to nearly four dozen community organizations in order to “stem gun violence.” According to the City’s press release, these resources will go toward job training in the culinary arts and barbershops; “Peace Pop-Up Shops” that offer trauma-informed care for those affected by violence; and toward “safe spaces” for at-risk young men.

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Kenney’s plan is chock-full of bromides about treating murder as a public health epidemic—which would be fine, if the rhetoric were accompanied by state-of-the-art advances in policing. But there is little emphasis on adopting proven law enforcement tactics that have moved the needle on murder elsewhere. Conveniently, law enforcement leaders like Krasner have argued that no one really knows why murder rates fluctuate, advancing the notion that we’re helpless before the mysterious vicissitudes of urban street violence.

That’s not only an easy way for elected officials to evade being held accountable, it’s also not true. We know what works, yet don’t do it. “We’ve had improvements these last 20, 30 years in focused and targeted precise policing that has helped create a more secure society,” Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe told me last fall. He’s professor of criminal justice at Temple University and author of Reducing Crime: A Companion for Police Leaders. Ratcliffe ticked off all the innovations in policing that have contributed to lowering crime rates—crime mapping, policing hot spots, community policing, problem-oriented policing—which helped turn Cincinnati around, as I wrote last week. Locally, programs like Operation CeaseFire and Focused Deterrence have succeeded, yet we don’t invest in them.

Focused Deterrence makes for a fascinating case study. Ratcliffe says that six percent of the population commits 60 percent of the crime, and police can identify at least half of those perpetrators. Under focused deterrence, the brainchild of renowned criminologist David Kennedy, law enforcement targets that known population—convening them to both serve notice (“we’re watching you”) and offer social services. It’s the opposite of zero tolerance; neither right nor left, it’s just smart. And it’s been proven effective across the nation in lowering crime rates, most noticeably in Boston in the 1990s, when violent crime was slashed by 79 percent, in what has come to be known as the Boston Miracle. (A new dramatic Showtime series, City On The Hill, starring Kevin Bacon, chronicles this).  

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Here, during the 2017 campaign for District Attorney, Krasner was largely dismissive of most strategies not associated with his criminal justice reform agenda. Only one candidate, Jack O’Neill, consistently held up Focused Deterrence as an innovation worth our investment; in three South Philly police districts, the strategy had contributed to a 35 percent drop in shootings. Philadelphia spends over $45 million on violence prevention programs of dubious effectiveness, yet Focused Deterrence, which pretty clearly works? We spend $130,000 on it.

In part, chalk that up to the pettiness of our politics. The Focused Deterrence experiment was seen as a Michael Nutter program, so Kenney was naturally allergic to it. Kenney’s plan does make a nod toward innovative policing, announcing a program called Operation Pinpoint, which is, essentially, Focused Deterrence Lite. But Krasner did not even attend Kenney’s January press conference announcing his plan, and Commissioner Ross said at the time that the reason the city was adopting Pinpoint and not the state-of-the-art Focused Deterrence program was because Krasner wasn’t on board. “Focused Deterrence cannot be done without the District Attorney,” he said.

Last weekend, after five people were murdered and 23 others shot, Ross and Krasner engaged in a weirdly passive-aggressive public feud. Without mentioning names, both took aim at the other.

Well, let the finger-pointing begin. Last weekend, after five people were murdered and 23 others shot, Ross and Krasner engaged in a weirdly passive-aggressive public feud. Without mentioning names, both took aim at the other. Ross went first: “Some of these guys think they’ve figured something out relative to consequences or lack thereof,” he told the press, referring to criminals who, presumably, Krasner has treated lightly. “If you feel there [are] no consequences, there are many people who will disregard the law because they’re not worried about it. Not because we’re not arresting them…”

In other words, don’t blame me. A defensive Krasner shot back with a press conference of his own: “It is clear that we are more vigorous—not less vigorous, more vigorous—than the prior administration about bringing gun cases,” he said.

Both of these dueling CYA pressers were long on defensiveness and short on actual fact. For example, Krasner said a full data set on gun-related prosecutions would take more time to gather, begging the question: Why hold a press conference if you can’t tell us how many gun cases were prosecuted, how many were declined, and how many resulted in perpetrators being let right back out on the street?

“Politics rewards being smart more than being right. And the smart thing to do would be for Kenney, Ross, and Krasner to come out of a room, united to take on what has become an epidemic of murder in Philadelphia.”

For his part, Ross raised the issue of accountability, but admitted that he didn’t know how many gun cases were resulting in figurative slaps on the wrist. He didn’t even back up his claim anecdotally, and that evidence exists in spades. One high-ranking law enforcement official, for example, recently told me that drug dealers have taken to using Krasner’s name as a verb when they get arrested; “I’m just gonna get Krasner’d,” they say, shrugging, knowing they’ll be processed and back on their corner in a matter of hours.

So, let’s recap: We’ve got a crisis with a largely silent Mayor, two dueling law enforcement leaders trading weirdly passive-aggressive accusations, and hardly any facts. Good times.

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We’re coming to a tipping point for the Krasner revolution. His criminal justice reforms are long overdue, but they’ll be in jeopardy if he can’t also work with other law enforcement leaders and help keep the city safe. Across the country, Krasner’s class of reformist DAs have been treated to a rude awakening: that governing is more complicated, and harder, than outsider bomb-throwing.

In Florida, Aramis Ayala, the state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, recently announced she wouldn’t seek a second term, after she refused to seek the death penalty in any cases, including a horrific cop shooting; her popularity plummeted after then-GOP Gov. Rick Scott removed capital murder cases from her office.

In Boston, DA Rachael Rollins announced 15 charges that her office would no longer prosecute, and Republican Governor Charlie Baker accused her of putting at risk efforts to take on the state’s opioid epidemic.

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In Dallas, Texas, DA John Creuzot raised the threshold for prosecuting theft to $750 and announced his office would not prosecute thieves who stole due to poverty or hunger. “Reform is one thing,” wrote Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, in response. “Actions that abandon the rule of law and that could promote lawlessness are altogether different…[Texas law] grants no power to criminal district attorneys to categorically rewrite the law.”

Let’s be clear. I’m in agreement with many of the goals of the reformer DAs. Ayala was right about the death penalty, for example. But these are political positions that, by definition, require deft and discrete skills, like building coalitions and collaborating with stakeholders. When Krasner doesn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Mayor, when he engages in juvenile dueling press conferences with the Commissioner, one has to wonder if he has the political skill to make lasting reform, or if, like a number of the other reformer DAs across the country, he’s on his way toward tougher political times.

“…if we don’t rebuild trust between marginalized populations and the police, we’ll never make our neighborhoods safer.”

Politics rewards being smart more than being right. And the smart thing to do would be for Kenney, Ross, and Krasner to come out of a room, united to take on what has become an epidemic of murder in Philadelphia. And, as I wrote last week, the first step toward doing that is a public mea culpa from all three, an acknowledgment that all of their domains—police, prosecutorial, and political—need overhauling. How about that? Rather than dueling, antagonistic press conferences, imagine one where all three announce that, in conjunction with those they’re obligated to protect and serve, they’re starting over and reforming matters of crime and punishment in Philadelphia.  That would be real leadership.

Don’t take my word for it. Remember that legendary criminologist, David Kennedy? He argues that issues like racist cops on Facebook, runaway murder rates, and criminal justice reform are all inter-related. Because if we don’t rebuild trust between marginalized populations and the police, we’ll never make our neighborhoods safer.

“This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence…get wrong,” Kennedy told vox.com in 2016. “What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own—and that leads to violence.”

Forward-thinking political leaders see crises as opportunities for change and growth. Kenney, Ross, and Krasner could do that here. Until they do, I’m afraid we’re just in for more examples of their own unique kind of reform: Don’t-Blame-Me Policing.

Photo by Informed Images via Flickr

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