Philadelphia’s Top Prosecutor Is Prepared to Arrest Federal Agents
After Trump said he would send agents to more cities, Philly’s district attorney lays out how he might criminally charge federal officers.
After numerous reports and lawsuits in Portland regarding un-badged and un-uniformed federal officers arresting, beating, and detaining people in unmarked vehicles, the Trump administration’s response is that they’re going to do it even more, and in more cities. Saying that his federal agents are doing a “fantastic job,” Trump has suggested that he will also deploy agents in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Milwaukee to do the same.
In one of those cities, the city prosecutor has already preemptively warned Trump’s police forces what he will do if they bring the same tactics to Philadelphia:
“My dad volunteered and served in World War II to fight fascism, like most of my uncles, so we would not have an American president brutalizing and kidnapping Americans for exercising their constitutional rights and trying to make America a better place, which is what patriots do,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in a statement. “Anyone, including federal law enforcement, who unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people will face criminal charges from my office.”
Trump claims the federal intervention is needed due to excessive violence, particularly around federal statues and monuments. But legal experts have said the reported federal actions in Portland far exceed legal boundaries.
“[T]he use of a secret federal paramilitary force in Portland (and soon Chicago and likely other cities) is every bit the abuse of power that it appears to be,” legal scholar Elizabeth Goitein, of the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote on Twitter, noting that Trump’s claim of protecting federal property is pure pretext for his intent to have federal agents do the work of local police.
Trump’s dare to deploy additional troops to more cities will test the mettle of reformist prosecutors like Krasner, who has aggressively pursued police reforms and taken steps to eliminate what he calls unethical and unconstitutional police practices that Trump has said he’d like to see more of.
A clash between local and federal law enforcement over how to manage protesters in Philadelphia — if it comes to that — would be unprecedented.
CityLab spoke with Krasner about how exactly the city’s police force will be able to police federal authorities, especially when given marching orders from the White House. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you received official confirmation from the Trump administration that it is in fact deploying federal officers in Philadelphia?
Nope. We have not.
What is your understanding of the legality of the Trump administration deploying officers in any city in this context?
There are certain areas of shared jurisdiction between federal and local authorities, and frankly, there’s a frequent collaboration between federal and local law enforcement on certain types of cases. Often it’s cases involving drugs and guns or explosives, for example. So there’s nothing unusual about feds being involved in law enforcement in the city. And there’s nothing unusual about collaborations between local and federal authorities. They’re going on right now in my office.
What’s unusual here is the fluffy rhetoric about taking over cities. What’s unusual is the politicization of a normal relationship between federal law enforcement and local law enforcement. And what is really unusual is the apparently illegal stormtrooper tactics that have been used by federal law enforcement in Portland.
It is not OK to fracture skulls with what they like to call non-lethal rubber bullets or tear gas canisters. It is not OK when there is no probable cause to jump out of a rental van and just requisition people off the street. That looks like a dictatorship. That looks like a kidnapping. That looks like a crime. So there’s nothing unusual about federal law enforcement doing law enforcement work, where it may follow the law and where they have jurisdiction to do so. That’s not what we’re dealing with here, though. We’re dealing with a shiny object that the president is waving around to distract from his outrageous failures in many other areas. And to try to use his usual tactics of neo-fascist division, hate, and racism to improve his almost deceased campaign.
So you are prepared to prosecute federal law enforcement officials if they do in Philadelphia what they are doing in Portland?
If we have clear probable cause for the commission of crimes, by anyone, including law enforcement, including federal law enforcement, we will prosecute that. We’re not going to tolerate any kidnappings and assaults going on in Philadelphia streets. We’re not going to tolerate showing up under the guise of making things safer and [instead] causing violence.
Is there precedent for this — local police arresting federal police?
There are instances, and there have been in many major cities. Often it relates to corruption where you have arrests that are made. Sometimes they’re made by federal authorities. Sometimes they’re made by local authorities. The Philadelphia police department and the Philadelphia D.A.’s office, absolutely have jurisdiction to arrest and to charge federal law enforcement officials if they commit crimes. The only wrinkle to this is that under certain circumstances the case may eventually end up being handled in federal court. But there’s no question that the law applies to the feds, including the president, whatever he may want to say otherwise.
Can you walk us through what that would look like?
It can come in a number of ways. It can come through the police, because the primary investigative agency is the police department. But it can originate within the D.A.’s office, where we then collaborate with the police or where we do it without the police using our own attorneys, D.A. detectives, etc. Sometimes there is simply an arrest and we charge them by complaints or we can convene a grand jury where in a less public fashion, civilians decide whether or not there is probable cause to arrest a person for the commission of crime. So there are a few different ways it can be initiated.
I would like to think that this mayor and this reform commissioner mean what they say when they say we’re not going to tolerate federal law enforcement committing crimes on Philadelphia streets. I think they probably do. But I can tell you to some extent, it doesn’t matter because I’m not going to tolerate it. And the D.A.’s office is able to act either independently or in collaboration with the Philadelphia police department.
What about the fact that the city is currently being sued due to how its own police department has treated protesters?
I can tell you that we have a very large number of ongoing investigations relating to, among other things, the things that were done by civilians or law enforcement during the period that people are generally calling the unrest or the uprising. The police commissioner referred some investigative information to our office relating to the use by an officer of OC spray on the faces of three people who were kneeling or sitting, and he pulled masks away from their faces when he sprayed them. There is other ongoing activity. I can’t be more specific in the middle of investigations, but stay tuned. We will all be seeing more about at least some of the activity that occurred there and also very similar activity that occurred in a less affluent area of the city in West Philly where there were fewer cameras, but there was some pretty outrageous use of tear gas and other forms of sprays on people that needs to be carefully considered by my office.
Acting Homeland Security Chief Chad Wolf said he doesn’t need cities’ permission or invitation to send troops in. What’s your response to that?
It is true that the feds can travel pretty much wherever they want, as long as they’re obeying the law. It is also true that it is inappropriate and uncommon for them to try to do law enforcement activity without coordinating with local authorities, because all kinds of problems can come up when you do that. But the president has made it clear that he's basically opposed to and against large groups of diverse people, he's against big cities and he is against all the freedoms Philadelphia stands for. So I am not surprised that that would be their response.
Do we need clearer laws and guidelines around what federal law enforcement officials can and cannot do when they’re in a city jurisdiction?
No, I actually think the law is adequate. What’s not adequate is our president who doesn’t really care what the law is, and he doesn't really care what the truth is. He’s perfectly willing to behave like his heroes in tyrannical countries. He’s perfectly willing to act like Putin. He’s perfectly willing to act like some historical Argentinian dictator. He likes it. He likes the image of the strong man. Never mind that he avoided military service. He wants to be a strong man who is somehow going to use his singular force and not let any law or constitution get in the way to get what he wants. That’s all a bunch of crap. I mean, here’s the reality. He’s talking about deploying 150 federal law enforcement [officers] to Chicago. The police force in Chicago is over 12,000 people. He’s talking about deploying maybe the equivalent of 1% of their ordinary active police force. This is fluff. This is politics. This has nothing to do with actual law enforcement. It is a diversion of tax funds to try to bolster a campaign that is close to defunct. It’s just the worst kind of deception, division and hate, and we all know what happens to haters, which is they lose.
Do you have any concerns that this deployment is leading to a further erosion of trust and legitimacy in law enforcement in general?
Absolutely. You know, the whole point of the George Floyd protests was that they somehow became emblematic of, I don’t even want to say decades, but more than a couple hundred years of police abuse and unaccountable policing. That was the whole point. And when you respond to a national outcry for more police accountability, more racial justice by sending in law enforcement dressed and behaving like military to engage in conduct that’s clearly illegal, and anonymous requisitioning of people on public streets, then what you are saying is that the police should be above the law. There should be no limits on their conduct, and there should be no limit on this president’s conduct. It goes in exactly the wrong direction. It erodes trust even more. You might say it dynamites trust.
What about the looting, property destruction and other violence that has occurred in the uprisings? Is there any obligation for the federal government to intervene if it looks like local authorities don’t have it under control?
There have not been any kind of widespread burglaries, criminal trespass or looting, as you put it, in Philadelphia for weeks. The protest activity that was going on in the past weeks has been almost 100% peaceful. [Trump] is saying things that are not true. He is manufacturing a crisis that does not exist. I’m not going to tell you that there’s no city in America that has some unrest that includes things like looting. I’m going to tell you what I see in my city. He’s saying he's going to come here to take over. And there’s nothing to take over. We don’t have rioting, we don’t have looting. We haven’t had anything like that going on here for a very long time. What we have is a precipitous decline in his polling over the past few weeks.
There might be some city that had some problems, but that’s not what he's talking about. What he’s talking about is going to pick a list of cities, which not coincidentally are mostly big cities in battleground states. They are mostly or completely Democratically controlled. And perhaps most importantly, they have a very large population of people who are Black and Brown. He knows what he’s doing when he attacks Kim Foxx in Chicago. And he attacks Philadelphia where the white population, which includes me, is about 35-40% of the total city. He’s going after Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore. He’s going after Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn. He has an agenda. It is a strictly political, racist, divisive, fear-based fictional agenda. All of this stuff comes out of the fascist playbook. All this stuff comes out of the white supremacist playbook.