Reinforcing a position he took as a candidate, new Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner on Thursday night signaled his skepticism over the lack of prosecutions against city police for shooting suspects – and said his office won’t be shy about ending the near-two-decade trend.
Addressing a roomful of lawyers, judges, and community activists, Krasner noted that Philadelphia police have been involved in 50 fatal shootings since 2010 – and every one was deemed justified and unworthy of charges by the prosecutor’s office.
“Look, we came here to tell the truth, let’s tell the truth,” Krasner, nearing the end of his first full week in office, said during a panel discussion on police shootings at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia. “This ain’t fair, this is biased.”
Krasner’s comments echoed a stance he made clear on the campaign trail – and during 30 years as a defense and civil rights lawyer. Suing the city over police brutality became one of the pillars of his private practice.
The department’s current leadership has recognized the severity of the issue. After a U.S. Justice Department study on deadly police force recommended reforms, Commissioner Richard Ross formed a new unit last year to investigate officer-involved shootings. The department has also revised its use-of-force policy, enhanced training, and improved its relationship with the Police Advisory Commission.
But the department did not adopt all the recommendations, including that it allow outside agencies to investigate shootings.
“I don’t doubt for one second that this commissioner wants it to be better,” Krasner said during the discussion, arranged by Take Action Philly, created last year by the Philadelphia Bar Association with support from the city and nonprofit organizations. “I thoroughly believe that, but until there is a political will to fight back against this, to have a contract that doesn’t create this incestuous, conflicted situation where the entire thing is treated different than a normal shooting and the [police union] at multiple levels has control over it, you ain’t gonna have justice.”
From 2007 through the end of 2017, city officers were involved in more than 445 police-involved shootings, according to the Police Department’s own online accounting. And the department has tried to fire officers involved in the most controversial cases, such as Cyrus Mann, who remains on the job despite shooting three suspects between 2011 and 2014.
Still, the last on-duty officer charged in a fatal shooting was Christopher DiPasquale in 1999. And that case collapsed when two judges dismissed the charges.
In recent years, the Police Department has made public far more detailed figures on police shootings – a reform implemented after the U.S. Justice Department inquiry into officer-involved shootings. Then Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey asked the Justice Department experts to study the department after an Inquirer report in 2013 detailed a big spike in police gunfire in 2012. Police shot at civilians 59 times that year, the highest level in a decade, killing 16 suspects.
Since then, police shootings have fallen dramatically. There were 13 police shootings last year and four people died. Since 2013, prosecutors have charged two police officers in connection with incidents in which they fired their weapons, according to the department website. Both officers fired weapons while off duty.
Krasner told the crowd that his office won’t back down from pursuing officers who fire their guns while on duty.
“If we have facts and we have the law, if we follow the evidence instead of following anybody’s politics, and we have a case in Philadelphia County, we are bringing a case in Philadelphia County,” he said. “And no, we will not necessarily win. These cases have been lost all over the county time and time again, in a way that, frankly, puts more salt in the wound. But I’m not so sure we’re going to lose all these cases in Philadelphia County, because these juries are pretty fair.”
There was no representative from the Police Department or its union at the event. But Brian Abernathy, Philadelphia first deputy managing director, was on the panel and took no exception to Krasner’s comments.
“Larry has every right to prosecute. And I would encourage him to take that power on,” he said. “I would say, 99 percent of our police officers do their jobs with fidelity and do it well. And if they do something wrong, they should be prosecuted like anyone else.”
Krasner “feels he’s been given a mandate to respond to the public in this way,” said another attendee, Hans Menos, the newly named executive director of the Police Advisory Commission. He added: “I support him as the chief law enforcement officer.”
In a brief interview after the event, Krasner said greater scrutiny will benefit all officers in the department.
“They should be encouraged, because the vast majority of them are decent, law-abiding people who are trying to do the right thing all the time, and their reputations should not be dragged down by those few who aren’t,” he said. “So they should be thrilled that there is going to be accountability, which will increase respect for them and what they do, and that in turn will increase their safety.”
Staff writers Sam Wood and Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.
Correction: A previous version of this story quoted Krasner as calling the lack of prosecutions over police shootings “bias.” He said “biased.”