By Erin Flynn Jay
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia radio station WURD-AM hosted a district attorney Democratic candidates debate Wednesday, as the race between Larry Krasner and Carlos Vega intensifies before the May 18 primary.
When asked about Krasner’s ongoing tensions with the police union, Krasner said they distinguish between the police department led by Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
Krasner said his relationship with the higher-level brass within the police department is “quite good” and that is entirely different than a relationship with John McNesby, who leads the FOP.
So far, (FOP president) McNesby “has defended the wearing of Nazi tattoos in uniform by a Philadelphia police officer while on duty. He has permitted members of the Proud Boys into the officers’ only area of FOP Hall to drink beer with police officers,” Krasner said.
“A couple of months before the insurrection (he) referred to Black Lives Matter as ‘a pack of rabid animals’. He plays to the retired membership because most of the members of the FOP are retired. And so, he is not the voice of the present; he is not the voice of the police department,” he continued.
Vega, who was endorsed by the police union, said he will hold the police accountable. He has put police officers in jail and prosecuted an officer for killing two people. Vega noted Krasner investigated 51 cases of arrested physical officers and has yet in his tenure to put a police officer in prison. Vega said he is going to be at odds with the FOP many times, if elected as DA.
WURD moderator Joanne Bell said when Vega served as an assistant DA for over 30 years, unconstitutional stops and frisks occurred and there was mass incarceration of members of the Philadelphia minority community.
Vega explained why he is running for office now.
“I’m a Philadelphian. I’m a single father. I raised two children. My youngest is 17, my daughter is 24. I’ve seen the numbers of murders that have been happening since he’s (Krasner) taken office every year. It has escalated,” he said. “Think of this past year, 499 murders. So why am I running? Because I care about this city and we need to bring in reform, but also we need to make our citizens safe.”
Bell asked Krasner about the police misconduct in framing innocent people and news of people being released because of that misconduct.
Krasner said there is not a single memo, not a single initiative during Vega’s 35 years that suggested he was opposed to that past misconduct.
“He has actually sat and said under oath in the last couple of years that in 35 years, he never saw a coerced confession. He never saw a police officer planting any kind of evidence. You really got to have your head in the sand to actually see the world that way,” Krasner said.
WURD radio host Solomon Jones said the police union blames the DA for the increase in shootings and homicides, but the DA can’t try cases unless there are arrests. Vega said the record here is dismal — in 2020, just one in six shootings resulted in there being a suspect in custody.
“How does the DA prosecute cases when nobody’s being arrested for the shootings? And at what point do the police have to show them some blame? When you talk about the FOP and that you have to hold them accountable, let’s talk about holding the DA’s office accountable,” he said.
“There are no more serious crimes than shootings and gun homicides. We focus on them intensely. We have a very talented staff, and we do a very good job with them,” Krasner added.
Vega said for people’s exclude the FOP and talk about the Philadelphia that is backing him. “I’ll talk about accountability. A special adviser of (Krasner’s) who left her child in the car for two hours when she was arrested. Where is the accountability on that when this person is making decisions of someone’s freedom or not and wasn’t knowing not to take their child out of the car in the summer?” he asked.
Bell asked how Vega can in good conscience take money from the FOP, which donated to his campaign. Vega said he grew up poor and know what hunger was. “I’m a person of color. I’ve seen my friends die, worried about my mother. So, when you say it’s blood money — no, not at all. When you talk about violence, let’s talk about the reality. We suffer violence at record rates. I’m trying to stop the blood that has happened in our community.”
Krasner said Vega suggested that he fired him because of race.
“He (Vega) sued me for firing him. And do you know what he said? The reason was because he was discriminated against based upon age. He never once said it was about race,” Krasner retorted.
Krasner said he did not fire Vega because of his age.
Vega said he wasn’t running against Krasner because of the firing.
“I’m running because I’m a father. I’m running because I’m a person of color. I’m running because my city is dying. We’re going to have 600 murders this year,” he said.
Krasner was asked if the detectives and/or prosecutors involved in wrongful convictions should face criminal charges and will he charge them. Krasner said some of them may face criminal charges, but he is not going to comment on what might or might not be any open investigation.
Vega was asked why there was a precipitous drop in homicide clearance rates when he was assistant district attorney. Vega said he wasn’t district attorney; he wasn’t a union chief then.
Krasner was told by one of the WURD moderators that it looks like he is not prosecuting violent crimes as much as he needs to. Krasner said the courts have effectively been closed during this pandemic with tremendous problems.
Bell brought up the large number of dismissals of gun charges.
“I think a lot of people don’t quite understand what our power is. We do not release people. We are not the ones who set bail. Bail is set by judges,” Krasner said. “We’re not the ones who sentence; sentencing is done by judges. We make our recommendations on bail and then the defense makes their recommendations. And then a judge decides whether to impose bail and that’s become in some ways a more difficult decision during a pandemic, because you don’t want to have death caused by having an excessive number of people in custody.”
Krasner said his office also don’t want to have death on the street.
“So, there are times when we have very strong disagreements with judges, especially when it comes to shooting cases. We’ve been very vigorous in seeking basically a million dollars bail on every shooting case that is nonfatal so people will be held without bail on federal cases,” he said.
Erin Flynn Jay is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.