Television

How a Story About Philadelphia Became One About All of America

In Philly D.A., a local hero has a lot to teach us about a national crisis.

Larry Krasner in Philly D.A.
Larry Krasner in Philly D.A. PBS

With the dancing mailboxes from the 2020 election headed to the Smithsonian and Four Seasons Total Landscaping rebranding as a concert venue, Philadelphia’s place in the turbulent political history of the last year is already assured. But another important bellwether came in May, when the city’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, handily won the Democratic primary on his way to likely re-election in the fall. One of the most prominent progressive DAs in the country, Krasner used his first term, which began in 2018, to reduce mass incarceration, decrease the use of cash bail, and pursue exonerations for the wrongfully convicted , and the primary was cast as a referendum on whether those priorities could survive in an era when some crime rates are rising rather than hitting record lows. It’s a narrative that has also been attached to New York’s recent mayoral primary and is likely to remain prominent through the next election cycle, as Republicans play up the rising murder rate and centrist Democrats argue that progressive criminal justice reformers have overplayed their hand (both the Philadelphia Democratic Party and the city’s Democratic mayor pointedly declined to endorse Krasner in the primary).

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But Krasner’s decisive victory indicates there’s still substantial public support for reforming the justice system. And Philly D.A., the documentary series now streaming in its entirety on Topic, shows how Krasner himself is the reason why. Over the course of eight episodes, co-directors Ted Passon and Yoni Brook take us through the difficult, often messy process of dismantling the old order and assembling the first pieces of a new one, while fighting very public battles with a police force actively hostile to change and a populace to whom Krasner sometimes struggles to make his priorities clear. (The sixth episode, in which Krasner faces a group of residents from the opioid-ravaged Kensington neighborhood, is an object lesson in the difference between setting policy and making it into political action.) Like the COVID postscript to Steve James’ City So Real, it’s a necessary and sometimes painful exploration of what happens when progressive dreams become reality, and how hard it is to change the system without being swallowed by it.

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Slate talked to Philly D.A. co-director Ted Passon about watching a longshot campaign become a national story, and why changing the narrative is just as important as changing the law. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Sam Adams: How did you first connect with Larry Krasner?

Ted Passon: I’d come up in activist circles, and I had heard Krasner’s name for a long time. He represented a lot of friends of mine, who were activists. I was in protests with his phone number written on my arm. But I’d never met him and I didn’t really know anything about him. A friend called who was involved in his campaign early on and said, “Hey, you know that guy Larry Krasner? He’s running for district attorney.” There was no inkling in my mind that he would win. But it was like, oh, what a brilliant stunt. What a great idea.

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As someone who had paid some attention to the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, you had always taken the punitive agenda of the district attorney as just part of the job. But him being in this race questioned that. It was something new—you could tell just by the way people were talking about the race early on. It was getting attention and discussion like no other DA race ever before. So it felt like this is a really interesting moment. This might be something worth documenting.

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Philly D.A. points this out, but it seems important to underline for people who don’t know that, while Philadelphia is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, it hasn’t been remotely progressive in terms of criminal justice. Lynne Abraham, who held the district attorney’s position for 20 years, was known as the deadliest DA in America, because of how often she pursued the death penalty, and until last summer a statue of famously abusive[AF6]  police chief-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo stood in front of City Hall. So Krasner’s election wasn’t a baby step. It was a leap.

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Totally. When we were starting the project and talking to other folks who weren’t as familiar with the city, I was like, you just can’t understand how ridiculous this is. It’s just so impossible. People assume that you’re a Democratic stronghold city and that there’s a liberal attitude that goes with it. But for whatever reason, the criminal justice system has always been the exception to that in Philadelphia.

[Read: Philadelphia’s New Top Prosecutor Is Rolling Out Wild, Unprecedented Reforms.]

How did you get Krasner to agree to you following him around for several years?

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[We were kept at] kind-of arm’s length at first, but that’s to be expected when you’re starting a process like this. And then we just kind of kept going. “You seem to be letting us into more and more, so let’s just slowly follow this lead”  In the beginning, we said, “On the off chance, if you were to win this”—I’m sure it was phrased more diplomatically—”we would want to keep going.” But we didn’t have much of an expectation that that would be the case. Then, of course, when it became clear that he was going to win, then we were like, “So the real question is, are you actually going to be able to make change? Are you going to be able to do any of the things that you’re promising? Why or why not? And we want to see that.”

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You’re never sure if your idea of access is the other person’s idea of access. But the one thing that made us somewhat hopeful was that Krasner was like, “I really believe in this thing. I really want there to be progressive DAs around the country. To me, the biggest barrier to that happening is we need people to run who would never have imagined that they could’ve done this. I can see the value in a document where somebody gets to go, gets to experience it, as if they’re there—gets to see what works and what doesn’t work. I can see how that would make it easier for them to imagine themselves doing the exact same thing.” He even said at one point, “This documentary may be more important than even what we accomplish. Because if it inspires other people to do it, then maybe that’s better.”

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Did you have a sense of the larger progressive prosecutor movement when you started?

If I’m being honest, not really. Larry running in Philly was the first I’d heard about there being a national movement. Embedding with him and starting to film with him, we would hear about it, because he would be having conversations with some of these other folks or he would be dropping their names and things that they did. It’s a movement with a lot of Black women prosecutors at the head of it, and we had the benefit and good fortune to meet some of these people. Some of them made cameos in the series.

We often get asked, “Why Philadelphia?” But it was just for the pragmatic reason of we had no money and we couldn’t have afforded to make a film about anyone else or anywhere else. One of the reasons that we even felt like this project was doable was just because my production company office happened to be across the street from the DA’s office.

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Krasner talks a lot about how “culture beats policy all day long,” especially when he’s cleaning house in the DA’s office. But changing the culture is a much bigger and more difficult task than changing policy. So much of the resistance Krasner faces is because people believe certain things—that mass incarceration lowers the crime rate, or that safe injection sites increase drug use—and the data showing they’re wrong just gets pushed aside. So it’s not just a battle about changing what the DA’s office does, but the narratives people have about crime.

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That was something that we realized as we were filming. It wasn’t one of the initial things that we thought we were going to be talking about in the series. But as we spent more time in the DA’s office, as we just watched what was going on, we always kept asking ourselves, “What are the challenges? What are the obstacles? What are the things that make it hard to make change?” And we just realized that storytelling and narrative are the biggest hurdles, because that’s driving the entire conversation. There was an intern at the DA’s office who I remember we talked to one day, who was just there for a couple months. And he said something that crystallized this idea for me. He was like, “I realized the campaign never stopped for Krasner. Every single time he speaks in public, he has to re-outline the mission, re-outline what he’s doing, re-sell people on it.”

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That really comes to a head in the sixth episode, about the opioid crisis in Kensington. Krasner is trying to sell people whose loved ones have been fatally overdosing on the idea of public injection sites, and he just keeps citing numbers at them, saying that the sites don’t promote drug addiction without really acknowledging the crisis they’re in.

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To have somebody tell you that reality is other than what you’re seeing in front of your face, your own lived experience, feels like a trap. It feels crazy. It feels like you’ve heard that before from politicians. But on the other hand, because the media narrative and the way we talk about crime is all about punishment, then we have this idea that you can get to safety through punishment, when the reality is that’s not true at all. Something that I really took away from this experience is that by the time the police and the prosecutors get involved, it’s too late. The crime’s over. We always talk about making people pay for things as if it has anything to do with safety. What the narrative should be, but never is, is the next time the city council cuts funding for education or for after chool programs or for healthcare, that’s causing crime right there. Not to put all the blame on the media, but when we would see the questions they would ask, we realized they all imply that this relationship is true. That punitiveness is stopping crime. And if the whole conversation is guided by that, then nothing’s ever going to change.

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[Read: If You Want to Reform the Police, Get Prosecutors on Your Side.]

Speaking of media narratives, the series was airing as Krasner was coming up to the Democratic primary, which many political observers framed as an acid test for the progressive prosecutor movement—although that idea seemed to go away once Krasner handily defeated his opponent. We’ve seen the same thing in the New York mayor’s race, where Eric Adams’ victory has been cited as a sign that progressive Democrats are being hurt by rising crime—even though he just barely eked out a victory over a candidate who promised to thoroughly overhaul the NYPD. But the narrative is that crime is on the rise, and now is not the time to reform the system.

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Right, right. And this is one of Krasner’s favorite lines: We weren’t safe before this. The death toll under Lynne Abraham was as high as it is now under COVID, without the extraordinary circumstances of the collapsed economy from the pandemic. So why do we think that [punitive strategy] works? You know? It’s just kind of fascinating how much we will not question it. But it goes to show you how much emotion plays into this. Because as soon as you’re scared and as soon as you feel unsafe, you don’t care about the analytics. That part of your brain is not functioning. It’s the survival part. And it’s not about blaming people for being scared, it’s about challenging ourselves to see change as the only way to actually get out of the scary situation.

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The series won’t air on PBS in Philadelphia until after the fall election, but what has the reaction been like elsewhere?

For the most part, the reaction to the series has been phenomenal and totally surpassed our expectations. In the beginning, something we would hear from other networks … was, “Oh you know, the story’s just so local.” In our minds, it had ramifications for the rest of the country, but we also were from Philly, so we knew we could be called to second-guess that. We actually changed the name of the series when we were pitching it to American Prosecutor. But then we were like, wait, doesn’t every story take place somewhere? What does it matter? To our delight and surprise, what we’ve been hearing time and time again is that people are able to see their city, their story, their place in the series. We became the first doc series to ever stream at the Berlin Film Festival. We were shocked that we got a call from them, and they were like, “This is so similar to what’s going on here right now. We really see our own system in this.” We’re like, really?

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Krasner’s re-election in the fall is all but assured now, after his primary win. Where do you see him, and the progressive prosecutor movement, going in future?

All of the things that the progressive prosecutor movement is pushing toward, I feel that history shows us that they’re going in the direction that history has always gone—which is more human, more inclusive. Now, it’s not necessarily a straight road. A lot of times it steps forward and steps back. I think the defund-the-police movement has actually taken hold in a way that in some ways was surprising. We’re starting to see places divest and do different things already and perform experiments that, I think a year or two ago, nobody would’ve thought a city would be ready to do. Will something come up that could slow us down? Possibly. For sure. But I think at the end of the day it’s still going to keep moving in this direction.

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