In January 2018, Larry Krasner walked into the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office fresh from a historic victory. A PBS camera crew followed, capturing him and his core staff mapping out a plan to drop prosecution of a series of low-level offenses, including possession of small amounts of marijuana, crack and powder cocaine possession under a few grams, and prostitution. The meeting offered Krasner more than just a chance to set policy. As he sat back in his chair and declared the old ways of thinking about prosecution in Philadelphia had to go, no matter the political consequences, Krasner was girding his office for battle. 

“A lot of the entrenched power in the city believes in things based on ideas they formed 25 years ago, and they are going to attack us for doing different things,” Krasner said. 

“Then we make decisions that we have to own for better or worse,” he added, shrugging before the camera faded. 

“Philly D.A.,” an eight-part, Independent Lens documentary from PBS, kicks off in the early days of Krasner’s first term. We see the new prosecutor taking selfies with constituents, glowing with optimism. His agenda: Beyond slowing the tide of drug-based incarceration, he saw the war on guns as another example of a criminal justice system tilted against Black and Latinx residents. During his first two years in office, Krasner supported an effort to redirect those arrested for basic firearm possession into rehabilitation programs like the ones courts prescribe for drug arrests.

But as Krasner runs for reelection in a May 18 primary, the honeymoon is over. Philadelphia’s homicide rate soared in 2020, and Krasner’s position on guns has drawn criticism from all corners. The city’s police are using the crime surge and Krasner’s tactics against him. “Krasner’s catch-and-release plan is not working,” said John McNesby, who leads the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police union. “We have people on the street who should not be on the street.” 

Since Krasner’s successful run in 2017, the nation’s political landscape has changed. If the protests in the summer of 2020 were a litmus test of support for police reform, Krasner seemed to be on the right side of history. The mainstream caught up to this once-novel theory. “Defund the police” became shorthand for deeper efforts to transform public safety. But the protest movement wasn’t the only event dominating the news. Even as COVID-19 lockdown measures reduced overall crime, homicides in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Nashville, and St. Louis either remained relatively high or increased. In Philadelphia, 499 people were killed in 2020, the highest total in more than five decades. According to Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, shootings rose by 53 percent in a single year, and are up 83 percent since 2017, the year before Krasner took office. 

Critics say Krasner’s stance on guns drove the historic surge in homicides across Philadelphia in 2020, although there’s no evidence to support any causal claims. Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., all took softer stances on so-called quality-of-life crimes like drug possession and sex work, but in all cases law enforcement engaged in aggressive pursuit of firearms. In Philadelphia, gun conviction rates dropped from 63 percent in 2017 to 49 percent in 2019, even as more people were arrested for carrying illegal guns. According to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, just 3 percent of those arrested for illegal gun possession from 2017 to 2020 were subsequently arrested for a shooting. 

The numbers align with Krasner’s vision of what justice looks like. During a televised debate on Wednesday, Krasner tried hard to sell his vision less than two weeks from the primary. “There is no higher obligation on the part of  a prosecutor than to try to stop and prevent the next victimization,” Krasner said. “We have to go to prevention… no family wants to hear my child is dead and that man got a long sentence. What they want to hear is my child was never shot.”  

Still, the high number of shootings can reinforce old narratives around violence and crime, and it’s hard to change public perception. “People have been told for the last 40 years [that] the only resource they can have to produce safety is policing and incarceration,” said Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing.

It is against this backdrop of surging gun violence, and the belief that Krasner’s policies are the cause, that Carlos Vega decided to run. 

’Help Wanted New Philadelphia District Attorney’

Vega is the first Latinx prosecutor to work in a Pennsylvania homicide division. He has strong backing from the police union. In summer 2019, as the police feuded publicly with Krasner, the FOP paid for a series of billboard ads on Interstate 95 that read, “Help Wanted New Philadelphia District Attorney Please Contact FOP Lodge #5.” 

In a majority-minority city, Vega is betting on his ability to leverage his personal story of battling the same systemic racism Krasner says he is attempting to dismantle. He presents himself as the candidate for people who agree with Krasner on reducing the number of people incarcerated for drug possession and reducing the use of cash bail. But Vega believes the criminal justice system must still use the full force of law enforcement and prosecutors to pursue those accused of violent crimes. “I can bring about a change of bringing in safety and reform. We need both. And we have to reduce that murder rate,”’ Vega told The Trace. “As a Latino, as a father, as a Philadelphian, I had to step to the plate.”

If Krasner survives the primary, another candidate backed by the police union, Chuck Peruto, a Republican, awaits in the general election. If Vega wins, Peruto will step aside. The calculation is simple: The police union might not beat Krasner, but they can bruise him and diminish his ability to pursue a robust second-term agenda. As McNesby puts it, the gauntlet will “make [Krasner] earn it,” and perhaps get him to step back from his progressive platform. In some ways, he already has.

A photo of Carlos Vega.
Philadelphia prosecutor Carlos Vega in 2015. AP/Matt Rourke

COVID-19 hit at the same time violence began to explode. Krasner, who had promised to reform cash bail, began to seek bail amounts of $999,999 days into the pandemic. Under Pennsylvania state law, the district attorney can ask for any bail amount under $1 million without triggering specific holding conditions like being required to place the person in isolation before trial. Krasner’s office began demanding $999,999 in bail in felony gun possession cases. Still, the vast majority of those bail requests were denied, as judges and bail magistrates fear being sued for setting such high bail amounts. That signaled to some in the community that Krasner was striking the right balance between reform and enforcement. “Even though he has done the good stuff in terms of restorative justice, he hasn’t been on top of his job as a prosecutor,” said Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father’s Day Rally Committee, a gun violence prevention group in Philadelphia. “He is starting to do that now.” 

The pandemic also caused significant delays in the courts, creating a backlog of more than 7,000 gun cases. To address this, Krasner relaunched gun court, a program the city abandoned in 2011 because there was no convincing evidence that it reduced gun violence. His opponent points to his recent moves on bail and the gun courts as desperate attempts to save his job.

Krasner’s promise to scale back incarceration and his role in checking police authority appeals to Black and Latinx residents. At the same time, his stance turns off some who don’t believe he is being tough enough on violent crime to keep the community safe. The tension between safety and ending decades of tough-on-crime policies dominates the race, especially among nonwhite residents, who make up more than 80 percent of those victimized by violence.    

What exactly is a ‘progressive prosecutor,’ anyway?

Larry Krasner’s election came amid a wave of lawyers from Boston to San Francisco who sought to flip the role of a prosecutor on its head. Krasner’s contemporaries, like Kim Foxx in Chicago and Rachael Rollins in Boston, believe they can backstop the actions of the police department and reduce the rates of incarceration. The new crop of prosecutors wants to undo the harms of cash bail, which can leave people in jail for weeks or months before trial, costing them employment, wages, and so much more. “The reform that Krasner and others are proposing is more transformational, rather than we need a few tweaks to how things are done,” said Vitale.

Electing so-called progressive prosecutors is also about changing the criminal justice quotient. When Krasner or any prosecutor talks about deescalating the war on crime, it provides a counter narrative to an old paradigm in big city politics. From Rudy Giuliani to Martin O’Malley, urban politicians have waged full-scale wars on drugs, violence, and even petty crime. They often let police departments trample residents’ rights in a quest to establish order. Prosecutors often rode shotgun. But under district attorneys like Krasner, the police are no longer the purveyors of all things good. “It says to the public that it is possible to win elections and run this department without locking people up,” Vitale said. “And that talk matters.” It signals a shift so massive, according to Vitale, the police can’t help but react. 

Philadelphia has the second highest incarceration rate of any city in the country, more than double the rate of places like Los Angeles and St. Louis, according to the Prison Policy Institute.  The incarceration rate is an outgrowth of a tough-on-crime culture embedded in the District Attorney’s Office. 

At the time, these ideas moved voters. Ed Rendell, the former mayor and governor, talked tough on crime while he was district attorney, which helped him secure two terms as mayor in the 1990s. Lynn Abraham vowed to dole out longer sentences and asked the state to expand the number of prison cells, rhetoric that earned her four terms as district attorney during the 1990s and early 2000s. She left office in 2010, but Abraham still believes that incarceration is the solution to keeping crime rates down. “Mass incarceration, we’re going to turn out the jails, ” Abraham said in the “Philly D.A.” documentary. “Well, good luck with that when someone hits your grandmother over the head.” 

From rhetoric to governing

Getting elected was one thing; actually changing policy was another. Krasner came to office with a reputation for filing lawsuits against cops. He quickly made enemies in the city and beyond. To transform the culture in Philadelphia, Krasner fired 31 assistant district attorneys, among them Vega. The purge earned him few allies and presaged events to come. It was also something Vega never forgot. Right after the Wednesday debate ended, Vega’s mic was still hot when he said: “I’m your worst nightmare. You made a mistake a long time ago. I’ve been in your head a long time.” Krasner brushed it off. 

Beyond Krasner’s personnel decisions, the prosecutor’s efforts to charge officers for alleged wrongdoing has rankled the union.

Krasner and Pennsylvania state Attorney General Josh Shapiro have clashed over the Philadelphia gun diversion program, which sends gun offenders to rehabilitation programs and probation instead of incarceration. Officials in Shapiro’s office said Krasner’s gun program would increase crime. 

In April, the federal government announced a joint task force to track and prosecute gun traffickers. Krasner didn’t attend the press conference. His absence became fodder for the police union president, who said, “He doesn’t work with anyone on fighting crime.” Krasner’s office said his absence had nothing to do with any perceived tension between him and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

In mid-January, the 18th District police headquarters held a Zoom call to answer questions about a rash of carjackings and muggings. Anxiety in the University City neighborhood was rising with each attack, and the call reached capacity. “This is the time for the citizens to ask questions,” said Rob Roy, a longtime University City resident. For 10 minutes, Vega unloaded on Krasner. That the cops would turn a police briefing into an opportunity for Vega to pitch to voters shows the degree of animosity between Krasner and the police union. At the same time, Vega’s proximity to that union makes him an easy mark for Krasner’s political attacks. The incumbent prosecutor paints his challenger’s reformer rhetoric as disingenuous, once calling him “a fake Democrat.” 

Despite his close ties to the police, Vega sees himself as a progressive prosecutor, like Krasner but effective and balanced. He supports the elimination of cash bail for nonviolent offenses, he wants diversionary programs for nonviolent offenders, and he supports the city’s recent resurrection of its focussed deterrence program, which leverages the threat of criminal prosecution against groups deemed most responsible for driving violence and offers incentives like job training and counseling if they stop the violence. “We can’t incarcerate ourselves out of this problem,” Vega said. 

As Vega and Krasner campaigned through the end of March, homicides were outpacing the 2020 rate. More than 500 people have been shot, intensifying the sentiment to remove the current district attorney. More than 3,000 Republicans have switched their party affiliation in advance of the primary — roughly twice as many as in the last two election cycles when the district attorney’s seat was up for grabs. 

Those watching the race closely expect Krasner to prevail. If he does, he will face an increasingly skeptical Philadelphia; the continued challenge of delivering both safety and reform remains steep. He will also get to help shape how the city spends a windfall: President Joe Biden is sending the community-based violence prevention programs $5 billion over the next eight years. 

In Philly, any fraction of that could help.

The real Larry Krasner

The fight over the district attorney’s seat is about more than the rivalry between Krasner and the police union, or the old way of fighting crime versus the ideology of the new wave of prosecutors. In part it’s about the future of reform. To people like Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, who served 31 years for murder and is now pushing to have his case reheard, Krasner is the safety valve between men like him and a police department and prosecutorial infrastructure that locked him up. “Carlos Vega was part of that system who put masses of people in prison,” Gonzalez said. “He is going to take us back to the old days.” 

To former Philadelphia Department of Prisons Captain James Love, a deacon at the historic Second Macedonia Baptist Church in Logan Square, the race is about never having to witness another daytime shooting outside a train station in his neighborhood. In Love’s estimate, neither the cops nor Krasner do enough to deter crime, while Philadelphia residents suffer. 

“The end result is those who don’t win in that situation are the people in my church like our seniors,” he said. “Most of the time the targets of this violence are the most vulnerable.” 

Still, Krasner faces a more personal challenge. He can be abrasive and combative, and according to more than a dozen people who spoke with The Trace, some perceive him as arrogant. “People in the community are harder on him now because of where we stand on shootings and homicides,” said Qayyum, the gun violence prevention advocate. “But when he talks he comes across as arrogant, and people don’t like him.”

Even a supporter like Gonzalez acknowledges the rough edges to Krasner’s personality. “Krasner is direct,” Gonzalez said. “It might not be the answer you like but he gives you the answer. If people don’t hear what they want to hear, they call it arrogance.” 

Toward the close of Wednesday night’s debate, Krasner acknowledged how his style may have hampered his work. “The one thing I would’ve done differently is that I would have done more retail politics,” Krasner said. “I would’ve spent more time, you know, calling members of council saying how are your kids doing, how is your cat.”

The Trace spent two months trying to interview Larry Krasner for this story. His office did not cooperate. In the same time period, he toured the national press. The PBS documentary’s eight parts offer unprecedented access to Krasner, while giving him the chance to frame the Philadelphia DA as the face of a larger movement. Right before his primary.

UPDATE, May 21: Krasner beat Vega by a wide margin in the primary.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed Carlos Vega’s entry into the Philadelphia District Attorney’s race to the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5.