Pa. Republicans respond to gun violence by trying to impeach Philly’s DA

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks during a news conference

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Monday, March 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Three state House Republicans have formally announced that they’re moving to remove Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney, Larry Krasner.

It’s a long-shot move that Democrats are decrying as “political theater,” arguing that if Republicans really had Philadelphians’ best interests in mind, they would allow the city to set stricter gun laws and not try to oust a recently-reelected official.

Pennsylvania allows the legislature to remove essentially any public official from office with a majority vote from the House, and a two-thirds vote from the Senate.

The House’s articles of impeachment aren’t public yet, but the memo that three GOP representatives circulated Monday says that “unchecked violent crime in Philadelphia has reached a breaking point and one obvious cause is the dereliction of duty by District Attorney Krasner in the willful refusal to enforce Pennsylvania’s criminal laws in the City of Philadelphia.”

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Those three GOP representatives are from districts far from Philly. Rep. Josh Kail represents parts of Beaver and Washington counties, outside Pittsburgh. Rep. Timothy O’Neal also represents part of Washington, and Rep. Torren Ecker represents parts of Cumberland and Adams counties, in the south-central part of the commonwealth.

It’s one of the major complaints that Democrats in the legislature raised following Kail, O’Neal, and Ecker’s press conference announcing their plans.

“They never listen to the members from Philadelphia … or talk about issues that we care about, because we represent these communities. Don’t you find that a little odd?” asked Philadelphia Democratic Rep. Chris Rabb, following the press conference. “There are no hearings, there are no bipartisan things that say, ‘Let’s get down to brass tacks and figure this out.’ Because it’s disingenuous.”

Asked whether they’d spoken to any Philadelphia residents about their move to impeach a city official, the three GOP representatives referenced Rep. Martina White, the only Republican state lawmaker who lives in the city, but no others.

O’Neill said that in the next few weeks before formally introducing impeachment articles, the Republicans plan to “continue to gather information,” in part by soliciting feedback through a new web page using the prompt, “Are you a victim of crime in Philadelphia?” The responses will be vetted internally, but will not be shared publicly, a spokesman for the GOP caucus said.

O’Neill added that even without the feedback from Philly residents, Republicans mostly know how they’ll approach the articles.

“The facts aren’t really in dispute,” he said. “You know, many of these many of the things that will end up in the articles are known facts.”

Some facts, indeed, aren’t in dispute — the dispute is over the best way to address them.

Philadelphia’s violent crime rate has gone up since the pandemic began. And while lots of major cities saw similar patterns over the past two years, the rise has been especially significant in Philly.

This year, 227 people have been killed in homicides, according to the Philadelphia Police Department – less than this time in 2021, a high water mark in recent history – but higher than the 145 who had been killed by this time in 2019.

During that time, Krasner, a former criminal defense lawyer, received a lot of criticism for his progressive approach to prosecution, which seeks to avoid mass incarceration. He has done away with bail for many minor crimes, and his office no longer charges for nonviolent offenses like prostitution. City prosecutors have also mostly stopped charging juveniles as adults.

Some of the most forceful criticism from fellow Philly officials has surrounded his conviction rate for illegal gun possession, which fell during his first term. He blames at least part of that change on police giving him weak cases.

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Through it all, Krasner has said he is committed to staying the course, and maintains that it’s shortsighted to blame his relatively new policies for all rising crime — a claim criminologists and academics have backed up. Last year, voters seemed to agree and re-elected him overwhelmingly, both in the contentious Democratic primary and in the general election.

Republicans’ move to impeach Krasner comes amid a flurry of action on gun violence, in the wake of a supermarket shooting in New York state that killed 10, a school shooting in Texas that killed two adults and 19 children, and a shooting on a busy Saturday night on Philadelphia’s South Street that killed three and injured 11.

As Republicans announced the impeachment plan, Democrats in Harrisburg were fighting for their own preferred approach to the slew of shootings: a slate of four gun control bills.

One would ban high-capacity semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. Another would allow guns to be temporarily seized if a person poses a threat to themself or others. A third would change a state law to allow Philadelphia and other municipalities to set their own gun laws that are stricter than the commonwealth’s, and the fourth would require guns to be locked up when not in use.

The Republican who controls the Judiciary Committee, where the bills were introduced, opposes them. Democrats were preparing to try and circumvent him by passing a discharge resolution to get the bills to the chamber floor, but they were stymied by committee members moving the bills into a different committee.

The bill letting municipalities like Philly make their own gun laws has long been a particular priority for officials and violence prevention advocates, who feel Pennsylvania’s gun laws are too permissive for a big city.

Asked if they supported letting the city set its own gun laws, Republicans demurred. “We are a law and order state,” Kail said. “At the end of the day, the bottom line is that every law in the world doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t have a district attorney that’s willing to enforce the law.”

Democrats said that’s a cop-out.

“If you remove preemption and you allow Philadelphia to pass its gun safety laws, you will see gun safety laws that get prosecuted by District Attorney Krasner,” Delaware County Democratic Rep. Mike Zabel said. “I’m positive of it.”

Republican House members said they’re confident leadership will move the impeachment measure, and that it will get a majority vote from the GOP-controlled chamber.

It will be harder to get such a measure through the Senate. Though Republicans also control that chamber, they don’t have a two-thirds majority. And Democratic Sen. Vince Hughes, who serves as minority whip, said he thinks it will be “a very difficult road to climb” for Republicans to get any Democrats on board with the plan.

Krasner’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Zabel said other Democrats should, likewise, ignore the impeachment attempt and focus on trying to get gun control measures passed.

“Make no mistake, the Krasner stuff is political theater,” he said. “It was intended to distract. Don’t pay it any more attention than it deserves.”

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