WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The aftermath of an eight-hour shootout Wednesday between Philadelphia police and a suspect with an extensive criminal record has escalated tensions between the city’s district attorney and its top federal prosecutor as a local debate over how to tackle crime and policing reform spills onto the national stage.
Six officers were wounded during the standoff in the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood after 36-year-old Maurice Hill allegedly opened fire on police trying to serve a narcotics warrant Wednesday afternoon. District Attorney Larry Krasner was among the officials who negotiated with the suspect trying to end the confrontation, but he was eventually forced out of the home with tear gas.
"It's pretty obvious there should be charges of attempted murder. It's pretty obvious there should be charges of aggravated assault in the first degree. It is pretty obvious that there are some pretty serious firearms charges, including the fact that he was a felon before he was handling this weapon," Krasner said Thursday, though he added the investigation is ongoing.
Hill had been arrested numerous times on state and federal charges since 2001, including a stint in federal prison for illegal possession of a firearm. None of his arrests came after Krasner took office in January 2018, but that did not stop U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William McSwain from placing blame for the shooting on the district attorney and his “disrespect” for police.
“There is a new culture of disrespect for law enforcement in this City that is promoted and championed by District Attorney Larry Krasner – and I am fed up with it,” McSwain said in a statement. “It started with chants at the DA’s victory party – chants of ‘F*** the police’ and ‘No good cops in a racist system.’”
Supporters reportedly chanted “F*** the FOP” at Krasner’s 2017 victory party, referring to the city’s police union. A former civil rights attorney, Krasner ran for office as a reformer, vowing to reduce the city’s incarceration rates, and his progressive politics have put him at odds with some law enforcement representatives and victims’ advocates.
McSwain, a former Marine nominated by President Donald Trump, has clashed with Krasner repeatedly since he took office last year. The district attorney brushed off McSwain’s latest attack Thursday.
"The U.S Attorney is not a political elected office,” Krasner said in a statement provided by his office. “I'm surprised that William McSwain would seek to detract from the great collaborative work of law enforcement last night -- for which bipartisan leaders in City Hall just minutes ago had nothing but praise, and rightly so -- for his own political agenda and personal gain.”
Local criminal justice experts say the latest dustup has little to do with the facts of Hill’s case.
“You should view the sniping as just kind of reflective of this general viewpoint in the U.S. attorney’s office that Krasner is soft on criminals,” said Paul Heaton, senior fellow and academic director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law.
Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology and criminal justice department at La Salle University and editor of “Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity,” said Krasner’s philosophy is well-suited to a city where a 2016 Pew Charitable Trusts poll found public safety is the top concern and less than half of blacks and Hispanics are confident that police treat black and white residents equally.
“Larry Krasner isn't engaging in ‘anti-law enforcement’ activities, he's engaged in smart policing in a city where one in four live in poverty and the city's law enforcement agencies are under-resourced,” Gallagher said.
Krasner policies that have drawn scorn from McSwain and other conservatives include not seeking bail for many low-level offenders, factoring the cost of incarceration into sentencing recommendations, opposition to the death penalty, and sending non-violent gun possession cases into diversion programs.
“My office is doing all that we can,” McSwain said Thursday. “We have prosecuted 70% more violent crime cases this year than we did last year, in response to the district attorney’s lawlessness.”
Last month, a state senator from Philadelphia slipped a provision into a bill that specifically allows the state attorney general to prosecute firearm cases in the city during Krasner’s first term if the district attorney does not. The attorney general has said he will not act on that provision and supports repealing it.
Critics say homicides and violent gun crimes are up since Krasner took office, but Philadelphia’s murder rate has been trending upward since 2013 and Krasner’s office insists he is prosecuting a greater share of gun arrests than his two predecessors. According to Gallagher, the shift away from prosecuting low-level crimes should allow investigators to focus on more serious problems.
“It’s just putting resources where you need them,” he said.
Though Krasner maintains he is getting positive results without putting the public at risk, mistakes have been made. Last fall, an assistant district attorney negotiated a plea deal in an attempted murder case, accepting a 3 to 10 year sentence without notifying the victim or getting their supervisor’s approval. In response, McSwain’s office filed additional federal charges aimed at keeping the gunman in prison for up to 20 years.
Heaton said it is too soon to tell whether Krasner’s policies have contributed to changes in the city’s crime rates, but his approach is undoubtedly outside the mold of a traditional prosecutor and that invites controversy.
“People who have that more traditional mindset, a number of them have been kind of critical of Larry because they have different views about what the problems are in the criminal justice system and how to address those,” he said.
McSwain claimed at a news conference Thursday his office is “going to be providing some adult supervision” to ensure Maurice Hill faces sufficiently serious charges. Krasner dismissed his attempt to interject himself into the high-profile case as a political stunt.
“I will not be part of a distraction from the serious work before law enforcement in Philadelphia, which is to fully investigate this assault on our police officers and neighbors, and to bring the perpetrator -- and any co-perpetrators -- to justice," he said in his statement.