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‘Philly D.A.’ a winning documentary that captures a moment of landmark change in law and social justice | COMMENTARY

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke/AP)

You might wonder what a documentary series about the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has to tell us about Baltimore and the nation. The answer is quite a bit.

“Philly D.A.,” an eight-part backstage look at the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, skillfully and dramatically captures a moment in law enforcement where a reform movement for social justice in American life meets head on with reactionary forces within some police departments and civic life.

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The series on PBS from Independent Lens, one of the nation’s finest and most daring producers of documentaries, offers a deep-dive, granular look at what happened in Philadelphia when Krasner, a longtime criminal and civil rights attorney, was elected district attorney in 2017 on a platform of reform. And we are talking serious and controversial reform from no-cash bail to no-prosecution for prostitution and marijuana possession. His office also identified no-call cops who were deemed so dishonest and untrustworthy that they were not to be called to testify in criminal cases. Furthermore, cases in which they were involved and had testified were reviewed to try to determine if they had lied, planted evidence or otherwise engaged in serious misconduct.

If some of that sounds familiar to Baltimore readers, that’s because Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for Baltimore City, was implementing similar changes here before Krasner was elected.

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Here’s a headline from The Sun in 2016: “Mosby announces slate of proposals to reform process for investigating, prosecuting police misconduct.”

She continues the campaign of change today.

“Declaring the war on drugs over in Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced Friday she will make permanent her COVID-19 policy to dismiss all criminal charges for the possession of drugs including heroin,” a March 26 story in The Sun reported.

And, like Krasner, there has been criticism of her, much of it from the Fraternal Order of Police. But there has also been some from citizens, as a recent story in The Sun noted.

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“When State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she would stop prosecuting people for certain crimes, advocacy groups and progressive politicians applauded her decision,” The Sun reported. “In neighborhood meetings, however, Baltimore families expressed mixed feelings. Can they no longer call the cops when a man walks through their neighborhood tugging the handles of car doors?”

“Philly D.A.” characterizes Mosby as part of a national reform movement. Early in Part 1, it connects the dots from the specific story of Krasner’s election to a larger movement taking place in criminal justice.

After taking viewers backstage at Krasner’s campaign and election night victory, viewers hear the voice of a newscaster: “Across the country, voters are electing a different kind of district attorney. Choosing to go with the progressive candidate signaling major criminal justice reforms.”

Others also weigh in on the wave of reforms. Keisha Hudson of The Justice Collaborative, a team of legal experts advocating for justice reform: “In the last few years, you’re seeing reform-minded prosecutors come into office. Women of color, people of color, come into these incredibly powerful positions.”

Aramis Ayala, elected state’s attorney for Orlando in 2016: “The energy is coming from the ground. It’s coming from the people who are over-impacted by the policing of their communities, the police shootings, the higher sentencing generation after generation after generation … And the progressive prosecutor movement is a response to that. We are redefining what a prosecutor should be.”

Mosby is shown in a video clip standing before a microphone. “Members of the community no longer have to be at the mercy of the justice system. We are the justice system,” she said.

For all the similarities among the reformers, it is an oversimplification to think of the movement as monolithic. For example, Krasner is a white man, whereas Mosby and some of the other reform prosecutors are Black women.

Putting the size of the movement in context, Hudson points out that it is still a small group compared to the country’s 2,500 prosecutors. “But it’s happening in California, Chicago, Brooklyn, Orlando, Florida, Baltimore,” she said. “And look at what’s happening in Philadelphia. The movement is rising. Change is happening on a local level.”

Being deeply embedded in Krasner’s campaign, office and public life, “Philly D.A.” offers a vivid, concrete picture of what reform and justice mean in one large East Coast city as change arrives with Krasner taking office on Jan. 2, 2018.

One minute into the series, just as the opening credits end, viewers find themselves in a meeting with Krasner and his top aides where they are able to witness how some policy is being made by the new district attorney and his team.

“Is there any way we can find out every pending marijuana possession case?” Krasner asks.

No one answers.

“Is this every pending case?” he asks holding up a sheet of paper.

“No, that’s just seven days worth,” multiple aides say.

“Any pending case involving this nonsense, I think we should be dropping,” Krasner says.

“Can we have the exact same conversation about prostitution?” an aide asks.

They do and it ends with Krasner saying, “To me it’s not that tough a call that we’re not going to prosecute sex workers? Does anybody think it is a tough call?”

When no one says it is, Krasner closes the meeting with an informal statement of purpose for his new administration.

“The thing we have to do, we have to avoid falling into this pit of how government behaves, which is a pit of meetings to think about naming a committee to think about having a series of meetings,” he said. “We’re here because we’re different from that. A lot of the entrenched power in the city around these issues believes in things based on ideas they formed 25 years ago. Right? And they are going to attack us for doing different things. And then, we make decisions, which we have to own for better or worse.”

One of the decisions he and his team make early on that brings considerable criticism involves firing 31 members of the office in one day shortly after taking over.

In what’s labeled on-screen as “first all staff meeting,” Krasner speaks in generalities and platitudes about change.

“Change is not easy … but sometimes change is good,” he says.

As the meeting ends, an aide tells him, “That was really good.”

“It was?” Krasner asks. “I wasn’t scaring them?”

“You basically said there’s going to be change without saying come Friday friggin’ this is going to be Hiroshima.”

I don’t like any part of that exchange. I think it shows a lack of authenticity and compassionate leadership on the part of Kramer and also suggests an insensitivity and unpleasant arrogance.

The handling of the mass firing on a day when city offices were closed because of snow also shows a lack of managerial skill. Perhaps the firings were needed to bring about change, but could have been handled a lot more humanely if the account of 10, 20 and 30-year veterans dismissed with no explanation is accurate. Local TV news pounded Krasner’s administration for its handling of the purge.

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The filmmakers presented a compelling story of the firings and included the criticism from TV journalists and some who lost jobs. One of the questions that needs to be asked when filmmakers have this kind of access is whether the subjects of the film felt they would be friendly or controllable. Coverage of the firings helped allay some of those concerns.

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“Philly D.A.” is the kind of documentary series that makes me feel good about the future of documentaries and nonfiction storytelling. Local newspapers might not be doing as many deep-dive, multipart series in these austere times, but independent filmmakers are filing the void and finding large audiences on streaming platforms and TV.

I would love to see skilled documentary filmmakers like Ted Passon and Yoni Brook and producer Nicole Salazar, the team responsible for “Philly D.A.,” take us inside the Baltimore office of Marilyn Mosby.

In the meantime, I feel I understand the tensions and fault lines of law enforcement and the reform prosecutor movement in Baltimore a little better with each episode of “Philly D.A.” that I see.

Part 4 of the eight-part series airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on MPT. The first three episodes are available to stream at https://www.pbs.org/video/philly-da-vuyiid/.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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