One of the most complicated and delicate relationships a district attorney must balance is their relationship with the police.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical for one moment.
A few months into his term, District Attorney General Rich Negrin is pacing around his office. He is consumed with thoughts about how to act in the aftermath of a shooting of an unarmed black man by a Philadelphia Police Department police officer.
On one hand, the DA can pursue a grand jury, following the choice of the DA in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown and Staten Island’s prosecutor after the killing of Eric Garner. (Reminder: Neither resulted in charges being filed.) Another option is not to press charges at all, following the example of Seth Williams here in Philadelphia after the Brandon Tate-Brown shooting.
The sound of the phone ringing cuts through Negrin’s thoughts. He picks up. On the other side of the line is president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, John McNesby. “Rich, you know we are on the same side. We were with you from the start of the campaign! I’m telling you, that cop is a good guy.”
One of the most complicated and delicate relationships a district attorney must balance is their relationship with the police. It is a daily, never-ending balancing act. After the police make arrests, the DA, by choosing to press charges or not, sends a signal back to police regarding the quality of their work and priorities in pursuing certain types of crime. When the prosecutor is in court, representing “the people,” they build their case with the police, the ones who provide evidence. They prep police officers as their witnesses. The officers use the DA files to take notes for cross examination. They work together closely as colleagues and, naturally, these working relationships also become personal. However, when policing goes wrong and there are issues of abuse or police brutality, it is the same DA who is expected to impartially seek justice. Even if you set aside our criminal justice system’s history of racial tension, the relationship between the DA and police is extremely complex and delicate.
Instances of police brutality and the killing of civilians by police, although they happen too frequently, are much rarer than the total sum of most other interactions between the DA’s office and the police. The relationship calculus is simple. One “mistake” by the DA when handling a police misconduct case could risk the cooperation in multiple other interactions by creating animosity between the two. Crossing the line doesn’t require much when it comes to law enforcement. Remember how one speech by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio made a whole group of NYPD officers literally turn their backs on him at the funeral of two slain officers? From day one, a DA needs to manage this inherent conflict of interest.
For many, when Rich Negrin accepted the endorsement of the FOP this week, he signaled that he won’t be able to manage the conflict of interest between the DA’s office and the police. Given the low turnout in DA primaries, and given that winning the primaries in Philadelphia in essence means winning the seat, the endorsement from the FOP, the Guardian Civil League, the Spanish American Law Enforcement Association, and the National Black Police Officers Association, could be a game changer for Negrin.
After the current DA, Seth Williams, decided not to seek re-election (perhaps also because of losing the FOP’s endorsement), the field was left open. Now, following that endorsement, Negrin who is the closest in the race to be an “establishment candidate” seems to have a lead. If elected DA, Negrin will be seen to owe that to the FOP. Even if the FOP was a completely apolitical organization, this relationship would have been problematic.
It is extremely important to recognize how political the FOP actually is. After the Mothers of the Movement, a group of nine mothers whose unarmed black children had been killed by police, made a speech at the 2016 DNC, John McNesby, the president of the Lodge 5 of the FOP (the Philadelphia chapter that endorsed Negrin) wrote in a statement that the FOP is “insulted and will soon not forget that the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton are excluding the widows and other family members of police officers killed in the line of duty who were victims of explicit and not implied racism and ‘being on duty in blue’ … Mrs. Clinton, you should be ashamed of yourself if that is possible.”
A couple of months later the FOP nationally endorsed Donald Trump. A few days after the national endorsement, McNesby declared Lodge 5’s endorsement. During a radio interview, McNesby said about Hillary “she disregarded and blew the police off …. I met with [Donald Trump] in New York … [Hillary Clinton] has a blatant disregard to law enforcement.” The FOP agenda for the presidential candidate was quite different from what we heard from Hillary and other Democrats: support for the death penalty, passing Blue Live Matter Acts, and no gun control. This is the agenda they hope to see in Philadelphia as well.
Locally, FOP Lodge 5 was a big advocate for H.B 1538, which if passed would have prohibited the identification of police officers who have been involved in a shooting. The bill, which the ACLU called “the antithesis of transparency and is an apparent backlash to a social movement that is asking for fairness from the police,” was vetoed by Gov. Wolf. The bill was introduced by Rep. Martina White, which Lodge 5 endorsed. The FOP also had a turbulent relationship with Seth Williams. In 2005 and in 2009 the Lodge endorsed Williams, but by 2017, Lodge 5 paid for billboards reading “Help Wanted. New Philadelphia District Attorney. Please Contact FOP Lodge 5.” Seth Williams isn’t exactly known for being hard on law enforcement. However, after incidents such as not charging a 16-year-old girl who got into a physical altercation with a police officer, McNesby called Williams, “a morally and ethically challenged sideline playboy.” It seems you are either with the FOP and law enforcement, or against them. If you want their endorsement, you’d better be with them 100 percent.
Rich Negrin is an establishment Democrat with a good chance of winning. Perhaps the FOP just wanted to jump on the bandwagon early, and that explains the distance between policies the FOP supports and Negrin’s campaign promises. But the argument is inconsistent with FOP endorsement history. In 2012, unable to choose between Romney and Obama, the FOP chose not to endorse at all. The FOP had that chance in the 2016 presidential election and in the 2017 Philly DA race. But they found a candidate. It was Trump then and now it is Negrin. Even if the FOP endorsed Negrin, although they don’t like him, and only because they thought he would win, it shows that the FOP believes that the endorsement will carry favor. By accepting the endorsement, Negrin has affirmed that position.
Now let’s go back to my imaginary phone call. Seth Williams won the primaries in 2009 with 43,672 votes. The Lodge 5 of the FOP represents 14,000 active and retired officers in Philadelphia. Add family members, and this endorsement could translate to 20,000 votes. We know that the FOP has an agenda. We know that the FOP has access to Rich Negrin, and let’s be real — if he wins, he kind of owes them one. When the phone rings and McNesby is on the other side, will Negrin, who called receiving the endorsement “emblematic of what I hope to accomplish for our city,” be able to say, “Sorry John! I’m transferring this case to an independent prosecutor from a different county. Can’t help you!” That is hard to imagine.
Unfortunately, statistically, it is likely that the next DA will have to handle a fatal police shooting of an unarmed black Philadelphian. We must have a DA who can deal with that situation in a fair and just manner. Negrin should have politely rejected the endorsement, in order to leave the door open for him to actually be the DA of “ALL of Philadelphia” (as his statement reads). For me and many others, Negrin has shut that door.