By Ayana Jones
As homicides continue to rise, District Attorney Larry Krasner is calling for greater accountability from law enforcement and reforms that would give the public more oversight of the Philadelphia Police Department.
During a news conference Monday at the West Philadelphia YMCA, Krasner said accountability and integrity in law enforcement is necessary for public safety.
He highlighted two shootings that occurred Friday in West Philadelphia, where no arrests have been made and witnesses have yet to come forward. Krasner said restoring community trust would encourage witnesses to come forward to help the DA’s office with its gun crimes prosecution.
“One of the reasons we do not have witnesses is that there has been a distancing — a breaking of trust between law enforcement and the police and that is true of the prosecutor’s office,” Krasner said.
“We have tried to do something about that. We have tried to go back and make sure that innocent people sitting in jail get out.
“It is also true in policing — that there is a sense among people in the community — nationally, locally that there is insufficient accountability on the part of police at times and that is why it is so important to highlight our Special Investigations Unit,” he said.
Since 2018, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has opened more than 50 criminal cases against Philadelphia police and other law enforcement officers, including campus police and transit police.
“I think that it is important to understand that while the conduct of police officers off duty is important, because much like prosecutors they should maintain a higher standard, the real issue on police accountability is, what do you do in uniform?” Krasner said. “Police accountability primarily is about what you do on the job, what you do in your official capacity. Nevertheless, secondarily it is also about the things you may do as a private citizen.”
Assistant District Attorney Tracy Tripp, supervisor of the SIU, gave an overview of the unit’s work.
“Prosecuting law enforcement — no matter whether they are PPD or not — is challenging, just as prosecution in general is challenging,” she said.
“We do get cases dismissed and just like the trial division, we refile those cases.”
Due to loopholes in state and federal law, it is difficult to appropriately discipline officers for misconduct.
The SIU is currently prosecuting former police officer Ryan Pownall for fatally shooting David Jones during a traffic stop in 2017, and former police officer Eric Ruch for fatally shooting Dennis Plowden following a car chase in 2017. Both officers were fired from the force after they were arrested and charged by the district attorney’s office.
More than 10 current or former Philadelphia police officers have been arrested and charged for criminal conduct so far in 2021.
Krasner was joined by state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-7th District, and City Councilmember Curtis Jones. Jones sponsored a bill that would replace the Police Advisory Board with a more robust Citizens Police Oversight Commission. The goals of the commission are to restore public confidence in the oversight of police misconduct and police-community relations, and reduce large city payouts stemming from lawsuits over police abuse.
“Justice can’t just be us,” Jones said. “It has to be balanced. It has to include no one being below the law and no one being above the law and that police are held accountable.”
During the news conference, Krasner provided a weekly gun crimes update.
As of Monday morning, there were 159 homicides in Philadelphia for the year. Krasner said that during the week of April 18-24, there were 170 gun violence incidents, law enforcement made 93 arrests, and 83 cases were opened or charged by the DA’s offices. During that week, there were nine homicides and 15 non-fatal shootings.
“The DA’s office remains committed to appropriately prosecuting the right people, the drivers of gun violence in Philadelphia for their crimes,” Krasner said.
He said his office had a nearly 85% conviction rate as of the first quarter of 2020 for all shootings — fatal and nonfatal.
“That is an extremely high rate,” Krasner said. “It is among the highest rates in the last five years and it is an accurate rate because we make sure that we are prosecuting the right people as much as we possibly can.”
He highlighted strides being made by the newly established gun court, which holds preliminary hearings for gun cases.
Krasner said that as the courts have opened up, caseloads have tripled during in the last five weeks from 45 cases to 136 cases a week. He said 92% of those cases were held over for trial in the preliminary hearing during the last five weeks.
Krasner also announced that the district attorney’s office’s Community Engagement Unit will hold a One Stop Job and Resource Hub on May 6 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the West Philadelphia YMCA, 5120 Chestnut St., with information and services for businesses and residents affected by the civil unrest of 2020.
Krasner is being challenged by Carlos Vega in the May 18 primary. More than 150 former prosecutors recently issued a letter to the editor encouraging people to back Vega for district attorney.