Midway through the series Philly D.A., District Attorney Larry Krasner and his beleaguered press team can be seen workshopping responses to reporters’ accusations that the most reform-minded prosecutor in the city’s history is soft on crime.
Then-communications director Ben Waxman advises a reaction of anger and indignation. Krasner counters with a sarcastic approach: “What about this: If they say, ‘You just love criminals’ — if I say: ‘You’re right. I’m crime-y.’”
They play out this joke scenario for a moment. Then Waxman, in a tone of quiet panic, warns, “Don’t actually say any of that.”
It’s a moment that captures the extraordinary (some would say, inadvisable) level of access Krasner granted to a team that began shooting a documentary of his wild-card campaign — and then, when he defied conventional wisdom and won, pivoted to a sweeping exploration of what it means for a high-crime city when a reform prosecutor takes office.
The eight-episode series, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival, will premiere on the PBS documentary anthology Independent Lens on April 20. It can be viewed on the app PBS Passport and on TV stations around the country — though it won’t broadcast in Philadelphia until after the election in November.
The filmmakers are present, of course, for the mass firings of Krasner’s first days in office, and for the moment when the Conviction Integrity Unit unearths a file labeled “Damaged Goods” on tainted cops. They, without comment, locate archival footage of Krasner’s youthful ponytail. And they catch the moment when a brutal murder case brings the D.A. to tears.
But they keep the cameras rolling for two years, covering contentious internal meetings, explosive encounters with Kensington residents desperate for responses to the drug crisis, and eye-opening, naked politics. (After Krasner whiffs a particularly tense hearing, City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, an ally, is seen warning a DA staffer, “Not one member of Council said, ‘The DA’s budget is my priority.’ … Until I can be assured that he gets what happened, I’m not going to put no more political equity on the street.”)
They capture the complex human reverberations of Krasner’s policies: For instance, watching a former juvenile lifer inhale the first breaths of freedom after 26 years in prison, but also riding to court for his resentencing with the victim’s mother, who remarked, “If they’d have gave him the death penalty, I wouldn’t be going through this right now.”
Other episodes focus on the rippling consequences of probation, the fight over supervised-injection sites, the debate over the death penalty for the killers of police officer Robert Wilson, and the decision to charge officer Ryan Pownall with the murder of David Jones during a traffic stop.
Philly D.A. creators Yoni Brook, Ted Passon, and Nicole Salazar spoke with The Inquirer about the project. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did this project evolve from what you thought you were getting into back in 2017?
Passon: In the beginning, the thought was this is a short project about an unconventional election. But then, the story was: Is this kind of change possible? Will it succeed, and should it? It became a much bigger story about institutional change. And then it became bigger than this institution. We realized pretty quickly that we need to meet the people whose lives are being impacted by these decisions. Those are victims of crime, incarcerated people. The lens got wider and wider. It was really important to not make a story that hinged on one person, to make him a hero or a villain. The reality is it’s an entire system: We’re seeing all these different people that are coming at it from all these different backgrounds and different points of view.
The series drops less than a month before the DA primary — but won’t be aired in Philadelphia. What conversations did you have around that?
Brook: When we discussed filming this project with DA Krasner and the DA’s Office, we made it clear from the beginning that we would need to have complete editorial control. That’s the deal. The timing of it coming out in Krasner’s political life is irrelevant to us. I hope people in Philadelphia will see it. That said, every PBS station made its own calls about what goes over the air.
How did you get such great access?
Brook: We asked Larry’s team, “Can you send an email out to the whole office and let them know what we’re doing?” That didn’t happen. Instead it became a much more ad hoc process. It was always a negotiation.
What we didn’t have was access to the courtrooms or to a lot of the case-specific discussions inside the DA’s Office — so those weren’t where our stories were. We tried to make that an advantage, to say if you think of courtroom TV as the main stage, the DA’s Office is the wings. It’s behind the scenes. We had to make a different kind of film, a series that was more about policy than individual cases. You’re telling the story about the systems underneath them, and the broader policy questions that maybe don’t seem like they would be the most sexy television but are what’s driving mass incarceration.
The DA is shown locked in conflict, with the press, police, and community — and not gaining much ground. What’s your takeaway?
Salazar: One of the big obstacles is the same kind of public-safety knee-jerk debates that have been going on for decades: that if crime goes up, it is the fault of the DA and the police. That can be a little bit of a trap preventing broader and deeper conversations around thinking about public safety in other ways.
People don’t like to think about this, but a lot of times people who commit crimes have been victimized in the past, and a victim today might find themselves on the other side of the courtroom tomorrow. So the way we try to pretend that this is a fight between good and evil misses the bigger point: that there are underlying social issues creating the conditions in which crime happens and harm between people happens, and those root causes need to be thought about holistically.
Something that the project really helped me understand in a more direct way is that institutions are made up of people. When we want systems to change, we have to recognize that we are also asking human beings to change and to reconsider the things they have done before in a new light — and all human beings have a hard time with being told we were wrong about something, or didn’t see something fully. We have to keep that humanity in focus.