Exit Interview: Pit Bull U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger

The prosecutor who brought down Chaka Fattah and flexed his muscle against the ironworkers union talks Philly-style corruption, police-community tension and what his successor needs to know about the gig.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Attorney's Office

U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger. | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Attorney’s Office

In Philadelphia, Zane David Memeger is a feared man. During his six-year tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, he helped end the decades-long political career of Congressman Chaka Fattah, put Ironworkers Union boss Joseph Dougherty behind bars for extortion, and cleaned house at the city’s ticket-fixing Traffic Court. He’s also successfully prosecuted terrorists, human traffickers, pill mill operators and international arms smugglers.

This month, Memeger will step down. We talked to him Friday about the incoming Trump administration, how to clean up the city’s political system, and whether there is truly justice for cops who commit crimes. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You’re intimately familiar with corruption in Philadelphia politics. What laws or attitudes could be changed to reduce it?

A lot of it deals with culture and money, contributions being made to certain individuals. Are they taking those contributions specifically in exchange for a benefit, versus just taking the contribution with no expectation? You also have individuals who are trying to keep up with the Joneses, and if you’re in the public sector in government, you don’t get paid like you do in the private sector. If you’re trying to live a certain lifestyle, you try to maybe figure out ways to get those type of gifts, benefits and money that’ll allow you to live a lifestyle you feel like you’re entitled to. Over the course of time, you lose your way, and your conduct becomes more and more egregious, and you forget why you were elected to office in the first place, which was to help the community improve. There is just this culture here, unfortunately, that ‘this is what we’re entitled to.’

But don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people that work very hard on behalf of the citizens of Philadelphia and do things the right way. I don’t think everyone is Philadelphia is corrupt. I think it’s unfortunate that a small minority of individuals is able to create an environment where Philadelphia is looked upon very negatively as a corrupt city.

Some politicians start their careers in law enforcement. Would you ever run for office?

I have no desire to run for office whatsoever. It’s a difficult environment to be in. Unfortunately, you spend a lot of time trying to raise money for the next election. It doesn’t allow you to focus in on what really brought you into office in the first place. There’s different ways to serve the public. One is being a prosecutor. Another way to serve the public is being out there in the private sector and finding what interests you. Whether or not it’s pro-bono work, whether or not it’s getting involved with nonprofit organizations and being a leader in that way.

Speaking of which, what’s your next move?

I’ll be in the private sector. I haven’t made any final decision as to exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve been with law firms before, so I imagine that’ll be what I end up doing. We’ll see what happens.

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General. What do you think of his choice?

I’m not in a position to comment.

I thought you might say that. How about this: What should the next A.G. know about the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania?

The most important thing to know is that he has a team of committed professionals that are really dedicated to pursuing the mission of justice. There are a number of prosecutors, support staff, paralegals and law enforcement coordinators who really want to see their communities thrive. It’s also important for them to know that the landscape is very different than what it was in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s really a post-9/11 world. Having been briefed on matters of national security, there are a lot of threats out there. But you have diligent individuals working to mitigate those threats, and hopefully that successful effort will continue.

Another thing that’s very important is that community-police relations are strained right now. There are a lot of good law enforcement officers who work very hard to do the right thing, and I’ve worked side-by-side with them. They’re asked to go into—when no one else is willing—some really dangerous situations. But that’s not to say that in the past, there haven’t been problems with how law enforcement has engaged with the community. Certain groups may be targeted more by police than others. Sometimes it may be an appropriate law enforcement tactic that leads to certain types of interactions, but it can also be improper tactics being utilized. When it’s improper tactics being utilized, it’s incumbent on the department to really follow up on that.

We all want the same thing, which is a safe community where we can grow up, raise our kids, live, go to school. And in order to get there, there has to be some common understanding and respect.

In this era of strained relations between police and the community, what is one thing that community members ought to understand about police officers, and vice versa?

The most important thing for community members to know is that police really want to make the community safe. They signed up for the job because they really care. They think the community should be free of violent activity and criminal activity, and that people ought to be able to live in an environment where they can thrive.

Law enforcement ought to know that the community really appreciates them in what they do every single day. What they are asking is to make sure that they’re training their officers to do their job the right way, and engage with us in a respectful way and not look at us as a monolithic group. Sometimes that’s hard because you keep going into an environment day after day, and you see things don’t seem to change. But you have to remember that there are individuals in that community, and they need to be treated like individuals and they need to be treated with respect.

During your tenure, you brought a case against six narcotics officers in Philadelphia, only to see them acquitted. A few days ago, in South Carolina, a mistrial was declared in the police shooting of Walter Scott. Black Lives Matter activists say incidents like these show that there is often no justice for bad cops. Are they right? 

Let me talk about it from this point of view: Prosecuting police officers is very hard for a couple reasons. In terms of potential civil rights violations, the burden of proof for the government in bringing those charges is very high. That makes it difficult to pursue cases that, if you were to see a video of the conduct, you’d say, “Oh, that’s a no-brainer.” But then when you start looking at whether or not there is some clearly articulated standard, whether or not there was efficient training, and what the officer believed was happening at a given time. Those are sometimes tougher questions to resolve. There needs to be some discussion as to what the standards of proof are going to be in terms of these law enforcement cases.

But I can tell you that law enforcement at the Department of Justice, we take these cases very seriously. Sometimes, you end up not getting the result that you want in terms of a verdict because, while there is activity by law enforcement officers that is bad and problematic, law enforcement officers still carry a perception with juries and the general public that they are the protectors, they are the guardians, and they ought to be given the benefit of a doubt. That can play out in the course of a trial where you think you’ve got all you need to get a verdict, but the jury turns around and says, “No, we’re not going convict in this matter.” I think, realistically, that perception of law enforcement officers can carry the day in certain cases.

For me, I know law enforcement officers have a tough job, and I want the very good law enforcement officers on the job and the problematic officers off it. That is why we pursue the bad officers, in part to protect the really good officers. And really good officers are dealing with environments sometimes where they don’t feel that they can come and speak out. You have that code of silence that exists. That’s something we as prosecutors find difficult to break. But I’ve also had law enforcement officers pull me aside after we’ve done one of these cases, where basically they thank us, because they’re very appreciative that we’re working very hard to make their environment safer.

During your time as U.S. Attorney, you worked with kids in underperforming schools in North Philly and spoke out about the difficulties that ex-cons face. Were you driven to that work because you saw problems in the justice system? 

The Department of Justice as a whole has moved over the last eight years in that direction. You’ve seen it sort of being really pushed by the top, the president, in terms of prevention efforts and reentry and the Clemency Initiative. Eric Holder, the former attorney general, was very much behind that, and Loretta Lynch has picked up that mantel and run with it. For me, I came into my role as U.S. Attorney having formulated in my mind what we as an office need to do to enhance community safety.

In law school, I worked with an organization called the Post-Conviction Assistance Project, where we worked with inmates at the local jail in terms of literacy. We also represented individuals who were incarcerated and challenging their conditions of confinement. So I had a chance to interact with a number of persons who were incarcerated, and you start to recognize their humanity. Then I left law school and went into private practice and got a chance to come in and assist the U.S. Attorney, where I was aggressively prosecuting people for criminal activity. And you start to see patterns in terms of who ends up getting involved with drug trafficking and violent crime, and it turns out they have a lack of opportunities, broken homes, substance abuse issues, mental health issues, a wide range of things. As you keep doing these types of cases and pushing hard for significant sentences, but also recognizing that there are issues in their backgrounds, you start to think, well, what could be done differently so I wouldn’t have to be dealing with these types of cases? How could society be improved?

I’m all for enforcing the law and going after really bad individuals, specifically individuals that use guns in order to enforce their drug trafficking territory or rob drug dealers and commercial establishments. Other individuals, people who traffic firearms, have gotten really significant sentences, and at times I’ve been criticized for being too harsh with that. I just don’t feel that people who are working hard to do the right thing should have to live in an environment where violence is a way of life. With that being said, I’ve also recognized that the vast majority of men and women that go to prison are going to come out at some point. And the question becomes for you, what do you do? Are you going to try and make them fail to put them back in jail? Or try to help them succeed so that you can use your limited resources to focus on other individuals? When they become productive, you don’t have to worry about them and the community is much safer.

We’re a country of second chances. That’s who we are. It’s been eye-opening for me and eye-opening for the prosecutors in my office who have more or less been trained on a certain level that we investigate, we prosecute, but we’re not social workers. But the reality is, you are a social worker. Because at the end of the day, what you want to do is accrue community safety. And in order to do that, there are some other things you have to do. I think U.S. Attorneys across the country have bought into that and are working very hard to implement innovative prevention and reentry programs across the country, and hopefully that work is going to continue into the next administration.

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