The D.A. Candidate Who at 13 Saw His Father Murdered in the Street

Richard Negrin knows violence all too well. He wants to fight back — with the community's help.

Rich Negrin

Richard Negrin | Photo courtesy of Mark Nevins

Richard Negrin knows the trauma of gun violence firsthand. When he was just 13 years old, his father was shot dead in front of him. “It’s not fun to talk about, but I talk about it because it gives me credibility with young people,” he says. “I stand in front of classrooms and say, ‘How many of you have been touched by violence in your immediate family?’ In a first-grade class last year, 80 percent of those kids raised their hand.”

That life-changing experience, Negrin says, is why he became an assistant district attorney years ago, prosecuting hate crimes and other felony cases. He’s against a “heavy-handed, authoritarian” District Attorney’s office, he says, and wants a “community-based model that cares about all of us.” He points to Philly Rising, an initiative aimed at fighting poverty and crime that he led while working as the city’s managing director, as an example of that approach. Negrin, who once sat on the local ethics board, is also positioning himself as the good-government candidate in the district attorney’s race. The Democrat has sworn off gifts and campaign contributions from defense attorneys who may stand across from him the courtroom. Some positions he’s taken — or refused to take — may frustrate some progressives. For instance, he won’t say for now whether he wants a super PAC to back him or if cash bail should be abolished for low-level, nonviolent offenders.

Rich Negrin’s Platform at a Glance

  • Death penalty: Supports Gov. Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty.
  • Civil asset forfeiture: He wants to “totally retool” it: “You can’t put people out of their homes because their son is selling a little weed.”
  • Cash bail: Wants to talk to experts before deciding whether cash bail should be ended for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
  • Gifts: He wouldn’t accept gifts as D.A.
  • Super PACs: “It depends on the PAC. … The rules are what they are. I don’t like them.”
  • On how to fight crime: Supports increased foot patrols, “community policing” and working closely with neighborhood leaders.
  • On whether bad cops are sufficiently held accountable: “The arbitration system is broken here in Philadelphia because officers who commit acts that are clearly in violation get their jobs back.”

Negrin sat down with Philly Mag this month for an interview at La Iglesia Del Barrio, a church in Kensington that he hails as doing “heroic” community work. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Read our Q&As with the other D.A. candidates in the May 16th election here.

Why are you running for office?
I started my career 21 years ago in the D.A.’s office. I loved representing and helping people who are victims of crime and trying to make a difference — not just arresting people, but being able to use your discretion as a prosecutor. So now, after my time as city manager, I see an opportunity to build on what I’ve done and I think I’m uniquely qualified. I don’t think there’s anybody in the race that has the leadership and management experience that I have, that has the proven record of integrity. I’m not just a good person. I’ve actually served on the ethics board and drove ethics and integrity though the city government by training and by changing the culture.

How would you rate District Attorney Seth Williams’s job performance?
He’s been a colossal disappointment. Being the first African-American district attorney, there was a lot of hope and a lot of pride in him, and I know that I was wishing he would do well. I think it has been sad, whether it’s his personal failings or financial failings or a federal investigation into him. The chief law-enforcement officer has to have credibility and integrity to represent the D.A.’s office. When I was a young A.D.A., and you ask the jury to believe you and your facts, you walk in with your integrity. Your reputation and who you are as an attorney is the most valuable thing that you have. There are all these great people who are working underneath him, who are trying to do their jobs and have to stand in front of juries and judges, and it makes their job that much harder. That’s a problem. You can’t enforce the law if you can’t follow it. That’s why I’m not taking any money from folks who practice against the D.A.’s office. The D.A.’s office is not for sale.

You’ve said that you became a prosecutor, in part, because you saw your father shot and killed.
My dad was kind of a crazy Cuban in North Jersey. The rumor in our family was that he came here disguised as a priest, with help from the Catholic Church and some false papers, and that’s how he snuck out of Cuba. I like to believe that. He became active in the community, and he wanted to unite families. There was a segment of the Cuban community that believed in a dialogue between Castro and the United States, and he was a part of that. So he went to Cuba with a group of pastors and leaders and academics and helped negotiate the release of 3,000 prisoners who were rotting in Cuban jails for almost 15 years after the Bay of Pigs. This was in 1975. And because he did that, specifically, he was targeted by a radical, right-wing Cuban terrorist group called Omega 7. They threatened him for many years. They actually blew up his office in Union City, New Jersey.

My parents were divorced — broken home at the age of five — and my time with him was really precious. Because he lived with some threats and because of his community work, I didn’t see him as much as I wanted to. In 1979, in November, I was spending the week of Thanksgiving with him, and we were getting in the car, and a speeding car came by and two men were wearing ski masks and firing a MAC-10 machine gun out the window. Without any regard for me or anybody else on the streets, just sprayed the whole street, bullets everywhere. I was on the other side of the car, he was across from me as they sped by firing at us in a drive-by assassination. My dad never made it into the car. I went around to the back of the car and saw him and held him as he died, at 13 years old.

It’s not fun to talk about. But I talk about it because it gives me credibility with young people. I stand in front of classrooms and say, ‘How many of you have been touched by violence in your immediate family?’ In a first-grade class last year, 80 percent of those kids raised their hand. That’s something I could make a difference in. I can do what I’ve done as city manager and stand across from those kids and say, ‘Me too, I’ve seen those things too. The truth is that if you work hard and you pay attention and you focus on whatever it is — whether it’s school or that sport or that instrument or that church, whatever is the thing that can keep you safe and help build hope and empower you to make a difference — that you can go on to be the first person in your family to go to college or law school or play in the NFL.’ That’s an important message for our young people, and I hope to continue that work as D.A.

What are the biggest accomplishments of your career, in your opinion?
The hate crimes cases that I prosecuted as an A.D.A. were incredibly important moments. Hate crimes are unique in that they are a crime against an entire class of people. There’s something really disturbing about them, and I prosecuted a number of different hate crimes, including something that should have been a hate crime that wasn’t, which was one of the first gay-bashing cases here in Philadelphia. There was this psychiatrist walking to a block party, badly beaten, left naked. That guy left Philadelphia because of that attack. We convicted those individuals of a state sentence for what they did. Pennsylvania doesn’t have a hate crime statute, so they were just charged with standard assault, even though, and I got a defendant to admit this on the stand, he was beaten because he was gay. Whether it was the man in East Falls close to where I lived who was accosted on the road by a bunch of students who were beating him because he was black, calling him racial epithets, or whether it was a man who was angry that the children were playing football on the street like I grew up doing and told his wife he was going to go “kill a nigger” and went out there and fired his gun into a crowd of children playing football in the street just in a hateful, racial rage, I prosecuted those cases. They stick with me and I remember them.

As managing director, I’m proud of so many things. I guess if I was going to throw a blanket over, it was the people. I thought we brought really good people into the government and met great people, like the pastor [at La Iglesia Del Barrio] and others. I thought we did a really great job of making government accessible to the people. Whether it was the 311 mobile app, our whole kind of mobile strategy, or our focus on customer service and being customer-centric, I think we created a culture of continuous improvement in a way that is hard to do in government. I’m incredibly proud of that.

Seth Williams has made a number of controversial decisions that I’d like to ask you about. In 2016, labor leader John Dougherty was accused of assaulting a non-union electrician. Williams referred the case to the Attorney General’s office because, he said, he had a “long-standing professional relationship” with Dougherty. Was that the right call?
First, I’ll give you the professional answer, which is that I don’t make charging decisions based on what I read in the paper, so it’s hard for me to judge that. You’d have to look at the video tape, you’d have to look at the facts, you’d have to look at all of the interviews.

Second, there’s going to be moments where there are conflicts. As D.A., you have to have the ability to separate your political apparatus from what you’re doing running your office every day with integrity. And I think there are enough great people in the D.A.’s office — most of whom are not politically engaged at all, they’re just lifetime prosecutors doing their job — who you can put in the right place to do the right thing in the right way, so you’re not giving up and punting every time you have an issue. If you don’t prosecute people who are involved in organizations who may have supported a political campaign in the city, you’re not doing your job. There’s got to be a way to build a wall of integrity around decision-making that allows your office to do its job.

When Lynne Abraham was District Attorney, it was her policy to refer basically all cases involving elected officials to state or federal authorities. What’s your position on that?
To have a blanket policy that says we’re just going to kick every case involving an elected official to the attorney general is a mistake. I think it makes more sense to handle each case on its own merits and make a decision based on the facts in the individual cases. The District Attorney’s office should be able to resolve potential conflicts and help ensure integrity in government.

Another high-profile decision Williams made was keeping employed a number of prosecutors who were ensnared in the Porngate scandal. He said most did not send offensive emails, and ordered them to go to sensitivity training. Was that the right decision?
You can never have someone in a managerial position or representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who has questionable, racially insensitive and misogynistic emails that show that they’re compromised. Some of the folks involved in that supervised people. That’s shockingly unprofessional. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and that’s not going to be solved with sensitivity training. That requires a much harder hand and probably disqualifies individuals from serving the D.A.’s office.

So would you have fired the prosecutors if you were in Williams’s position?
I’m going to tell you the same thing: I haven’t seen those emails, so what I’ve seen is what I’ve read in the newspaper. Based on what I read, I can’t imagine those folks ever working for me. But I’d have to look at it.

What would you have done in the LeSean McCoy case? Williams declined to press charges against him for his alleged role in a bar fight that put two police officers in the hospital, a move the FOP strongly criticized.
I never saw the video. The one thing I think gives me pause is that it felt, at least as an outsider observing this, that there were different standards of justice. If people are assaulted, we need to represent our victims consistently and not make highly charged political decisions, which is how it feels and happens. That’s why the integrity matters so much. It impacts your ability to do your job as an office. What I do from day one is restore that integrity and restore that credibility, and start to make good, factually based decisions across the board that are not politically motivated. But again, I know there’s a videotape there. I never saw the uncut, unfiltered version, and I haven’t talked to those folks.

Let’s talk about ethics. You’ve said you won’t take any campaign contributions from criminal defense attorneys who may stand opposite you in the courtroom. What about super PACs — should they be involved in the D.A.’s race?
I guess it depends on the PAC and who they are and what they’re doing. Look, the rules are what they are. I don’t like them. I don’t like Citizens United. I was on the ethics board helping to champion campaign finance limits and enforce them. I wish we had the ability to have public funding for our races so that folks like me weren’t influenced by money. Money plays this huge, huge role, and I’m not going to let it influence me. So I’d have to have that conversation depending on the PAC. I think the worst thing we could do is not play by the rules and allow bad candidates to use the rules and get elected. So it’s something I’d have to decide whenever a super PAC offered to support me, which hasn’t happened yet.

Larry Krasner, another D.A. candidate and criminal defense attorney, has criticized your decision to not take campaign contributions from some criminal defense attorneys. He accused you of seeing those lawyers as “bad people” and having “a basically authoritarian view.”
There is a world of difference between talking to criminal defense lawyers and taking money from criminal defense lawyers, and if Larry doesn’t understand that then, frankly, he’s not qualified for the job of district attorney. I have always had a strong dialogue with defense lawyers. I sit on the board of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, where I work with defense lawyers on death-penalty issues. But I refuse to take campaign contributions from defense lawyers who have a financial interest in the outcome of the cases they bring before the District Attorney’s office. Avoiding that conflict is just common sense.

Would you accept any gifts if elected D.A.?
No gifts.

What’s your position on cash bail?
We need to reform our bail system. If we’re criminalizing poverty, meaning that nonviolent offenders and drug offenders are spending hours and months in jail awaiting trial, that impacts and cripples their entire family and it just makes no sense to me. On the flip side of that, I think we need to have higher bail for people who are engaged in violent crime. The number of people who are engaged in violent acts and gun violence, specifically, is relatively small. And I think that if we can be tougher on bail and tougher on how we dispose of and sentence those folks, and more understanding of the nonviolent side, I think we’ll be better off overall as an entire community.

Some progressives want to eliminate cash bail for low-level, nonviolent offenders. They argue that many offenders are locked up simply because they’re poor. Would you support that?
It’s tough to make that final decision without talking to the experts. I want to see what some of the other cities have been doing around the country. I want Philadelphia to be the national model around criminal justice reform. I think we’re the greatest and most progressive city in the country. I think our institutions should reflect that. Right now, they look to Brooklyn for what they’re doing around conviction review units. They looked at Dallas for transparency and things like open files. I championed open data as managing director. The whole country should be looking to Philadelphia, leading the way on creative, innovative approaches that utilize technology, to help us revamp and drive criminal justice reform. We should be the national model and we’re not.

In 2015, you told Al Dia that “you can’t talk about stop-and-frisk and not realize that our people, the Latinos, are safer today because of it.” Do you still feel the same way?
You have to define what you mean by stop-and-frisk. It is constitutionally illegal, impermissible for you to stop anyone without reasonable suspicion. There’s a proper way to do stop-and-frisk that’s required by law and the constitution in a case called Terry v. Ohio. … People forget there’s two standards outside of Terry v. Ohio, and here’s what it is. It’s a valuable tool when you do it constitutionally correct. You can’t stop people on the basis of race. You can’t stop people on the basis of no information or a hunch or because you feel like it or because you’re having a bad morning. That is illegal and unconstitutional, and you are violating their rights when you do that. You can’t put your hands on people even when you have a reasonable suspicion to stop them unless you believe that you have an additional legal requirement, that they are armed and dangerous. So that either means you have either very specific, reliable information that tells you that they have a gun or a knife, or you see something that a reasonable person would believe they’re armed and dangerous. If you don’t have those things, you can’t put your hands on people.

So when people talk about stop-and-frisk, what they’re usually talking about, depending on how they define it, is people having the right to stop people for no reason and putting your hands on them. That’s illegal, we can’t do it, and I’m going to make sure we hold folks accountable on that. And we’re not going to prosecute cases where evidence is found where an illegal, constitutional violation has occurred. I want to be really clear about that. Where you have rightfully stopped someone under the terms of Terry v. Ohio, where you have a legitimate legal basis, whether it’s a radio call or a person who calls you aside that’s a witness, where someone’s engaged in a crime and that they are armed and dangerous, and you stop them on the basis of that, that’s what the law allows based on those factors that are constitutional and permissible for you to investigate. In that context, where you are legitimately applying stop-and-frisk in a constitutional way, that’s a valuable tool to help keep people safe in our neighborhoods.

What’s your position on civil asset forfeiture, a practice that enables the D.A. to seize cash and property from someone even if they aren’t criminally charged?
It’s not the answer. It’s not a piggybank. A lot of D.A.’s offices use it as a piggybank. This one certainly has. When you look at the anecdotal evidence of the injustices and the unfairness impacting poor people, and senior citizens are being taken out of their homes, ruining their lives through no fault of their own … I think you have to look really hard at those things. It’s overly applied right now, and needs to be something that I look at very carefully.

How would you change it?
The intent of civil forfeiture was that, where there’s a direct link between crime and assets, it allows you to take those assets so that folks who are engaged in crime are not profiting and buying homes that are part of a criminal enterprise. Let’s follow the intent of the law, on a case-by-case basis, and make sure we’re not impacting people who are innocent. You should not apply a just law in an unjust way. I think that’s happening far too often based on what I’ve read. You can’t put people out of their homes because their son is selling a little weed. That’s asinine. You’re ruining families and you’re driving people back into the system in a way that creates more issues and lack of opportunity and crime.

Some have argued that the reason the law is being applied so broadly is because there’s a financial incentive to do so: The D.A.’s office gets to keep the money it seizes. Would you support the idea of instead funneling assets to, say, the school district or the city’s general fund in order to remove that incentive?
That’s something I’d certainly love to look at. One of the first impulses I have is, how about we fund it right back into the neighborhood that’s been impacted negatively by that drug operation?

Should a conviction be required before the D.A. is authorized to seize someone’s assets via civil asset forfeiture?
I’m open to a conversation about making that part of the policy in the D.A.’s office. In the big picture, I think we need to totally retool the civil asset forfeiture process. As it currently stands, it is simply too likely to result in injustice instead of justice. Grandmothers should never lose their homes because a grandson sold a bag of weed on their front step. Some experts believe Philadelphia is the national model for forfeiture run amok. That’s an embarrassment. Overhauling that process will be part of my agenda as the district attorney.

How do you think the unit reviewing potentially wrongful convictions has done under D.A. Williams? Would you make any changes to it?
I think the creation of a conviction review unit was a good start, it was a step in the right direction, but we haven’t gone nearly far enough with it. We started with one person reviewing cases part-time; now we’re up to three. We should have 10 to 12 people in that unit making sure we’re getting it right. We shouldn’t be playing catch-up with other cities. We should be setting the bar that other cities are trying to reach. The Philadelphia conviction review unit should be the best in the country. Why shouldn’t we lead the nation?

What is your position on the death penalty?
I support Gov. Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty. I was on the board of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. I’m intimately familiar with this issue. We have had 60 exonerations of wrongly convicted individuals in Pa. The fact is, death penalty cases disproportionately impact the African-American and Hispanic communities. We need to make sure we’re getting these cases right and until we’re sure about it. I support a moratorium.

Philadelphia’s homicide and violent crime rates have gone down in recent years, but they’re still far too high. What’s your plan to fight that crime?
I love foot patrols. They’re an example of what we need a lot more of, which is direct, positive communication and credibility between the police and the community. The way to make a difference, and the way I think we’ve made a difference here in Philadelphia — we dropped the homicide rate more than 36 percent — is by having true community policing. Our best cops are great de-escalators. It was one of the reasons why I trained more than 600 police officers when I was managing director about how to use the 311 mobile app. I wanted our officers to be so invested in their community that when they see graffiti, they clean it up. There’s a vacant lot and they can just put in a service request. We need a police force, and I think we need a D.A.’s office, that is a part of that larger community that is working to make things better over time.

When the right combination of people come together — that includes city officials, important influencers, pastors, principals, schools, social service organizations, CDCs, neighborhood groups, Friends of the Free Library — that’s how we’ve done it. That’s how we did it in our Philly Rising neighborhoods. Many times people were literally blocks apart from each other and they didn’t even know each other. So a big part of what we did is bring everybody together around a common goal. When I think of community policing, that’s what I’m talking about. If an officer shows up at the same exact stash that’s being hidden in the same tree in the same vacant lot year after year … the tree is dead. Get rid of it. We’ll come and remove it. We used to have five people ran an urban garden in Philly Rising. We said to the neighbors, ‘You guys just maintain it and we’ll give you the resources to get it started.’ Once that garden is in good shape, guess what, people stop dumping there. It’s common sense. That’s how you slowly start taking back a neighborhood.

Fatal drug overdoses in Philadelphia skyrocketed to 900 in 2016, a 30 percent uptick. What, if anything, should the D.A. do to fight this epidemic?
First, I’m glad that people are paying attention to it. Because if we’re not talking about it and folks like you aren’t writing about it, we’re not treating it seriously. What we’re seeing is kind of a unique saturation where it is hitting multiple communities. When it was only hitting certain communities, nobody was talking about it.

We need a comprehensive approach, where all our partners are working together around the issue. It’s too big of an issue for just the D.A.’s office. It’s too big of an issue for just the attorney general’s office or our federal partners. We need a task force that is aggressively pursuing not just those doctors who are overprescribing, not just those folks who are dealing, but also the drug houses that often are just a revolving door of arrests. We need to be very serious on the enforcement side in terms of working together across partners. If you don’t have the trust between the feds and the D.A.’s office, you can’t do that very well. If you don’t have the trust between the attorney general and the D.A.’s office, you can’t do that very well. That trust is not there today. So one of the things I do the moment I walk in the door is start to restore those relationships over time, start working together around these big issues.

But more importantly, what you’re seeing is the effects of the root causes of things like poverty, and I think the D.A. can play an important role around aggressive, thoughtful issues that help hit those root causes. We’re not going to arrest our way out of this situation. We shouldn’t criminalize addiction. We shouldn’t criminalize poverty. We need a smarter approach.

So how would you deal with drug users as D.A.?
I’m a huge fan of our drug treatment courts. I think they’re national models. I think we need to expand on that. The most important time in a young person’s contact with the criminal justice system is the first contact and their first felony. I think there’s an opportunity for us to have an additional level of review and make sure they have the support they need. The purpose of the criminal justice system should be to get them out of the criminal justice system, not keep them in. We’re not rehabilitating anybody by locking them up. So the conversation becomes who can we save and how, and what are the systems and programs we can put in place to get people off that track? That’s the only way, systematically, that we’re going to impact something like mass incarceration. Do we have the relationships in the community? Do we have the relationships with business leaders? Can we get them jobs? Can we get them the treatment they need to make sure that they don’t have to turn to that life and feel like that’s their only option and the only hope? I think that’s the way to do it.

It’s not just a role for law enforcement. That’s why I love our pastors. The pastor at [La Iglesia Del Barrio] has a drug treatment program in his church that is amazing. He not only brings them in to get through their addiction, but he also gets them jobs and gets them training around technical skills. That’s the way to do this. To build those coalitions and those relationships so it’s not just about the D.A.’s office. It’s about us being smarter and working with partners to get people off that incarceration track.

Other candidates have proposed charging more people with homicide who have delivered drugs resulting in death. What do you think of that approach?
In some cases, that may be appropriate, but that’s not a solution to the larger problem. My concern is that that approach is more about trying to get headlines than it is about solving the underlying issue: We have a massive heroin epidemic in this city, and unless we’re addressing the root causes of that epidemic, we’re not coming anywhere close to resolving it. It’s great that we are finally having a conversation about opioids in Philadelphia, but our heroin crisis has been a crisis in our communities for decades. We need a broad, holistic approach with more resources to resolve that.

Black Lives Matter argues that police are not treated fairly in the justice system, and that those who commit crimes or unjustly shoot civilians are often let off the hook. Do you think they are right in that assertion? And how should the D.A. deal with bad cops?
There’s no bigger advocate for holding bad police officers accountable than good police officers, and the overwhelming number of our police officers are good police officers. They got involved for the right reasons, and I think they’ll tell you just the same thing that I will, which is that when officers make mistakes or they cross a line, they need to be held accountable. One of the first things I did in city government was get put on an advisory board on police discipline. The arbitration system is broken here in Philadelphia because officers who commit acts that are clearly in violation get their jobs back with back pay after a couple years. We need to treat our officers with respect and our officers need to treat our citizens with respect. That’s why I love foot patrols, because you’re not just in a vehicle going from crisis to crisis to crisis. You’re out walking around, getting to know people, and they get to know you as part of the community. We need to do more of that.

You mention Black Lives Matter. I think it happens to black police officers and Latino police officers. I don’t think it’s necessarily a racial thing, I think it’s a police thing. … I think when you’re going from call to call to call and seeing people at their worst, whether they’re a victim being victimized or someone who’s offending, that does something to you over time. There starts to be an us-versus-them mentality that we need to make sure that we’re sensitive to and that we combat, and the only way to do that is through training and understanding and diversity, which I think matters in the police force, and which I’ve been a champion of my entire career. I think black lives absolutely matter. When they say that, it’s an important way to highlight the fact that blacks and Latinos are disproportionally engaged in the criminal justice system, and I think that’s the whole point of that. I don’t think that that’s a slight against police. We need to hold officers who do the wrong thing accountable. I think the [Fraternal Order of Police] will tell you that. I’ve heard [Philly FOP president] John McNesby say that: “We’re not here for bad cops, we’re here for the good ones.”

Are you seeking support from the Fraternal Order of the Police?
I am. I think we all should. That’s one of the most important endorsements. I’d like the support of all the fraternal orders, the guardians, the Latino law enforcement officers, and certainly the FOP.

Do you think that there is racial disparity in charging and sentencing in Philadelphia, and if so, what should the D.A. do about it?
I want to do some things on unconscious and implicit bias. I think you need to look carefully at how people charge, how they dispose of cases, and how they sentence. I don’t think you can do some of that analysis yourself. I think you have to get some help doing that, and you should do it right away. A professional H.R. expert on bias can come in and look at data and make recommendations and provide training in a way that puts it at the forefront of how you make decisions to make sure that every time that you get a charging sheet with a Latino surname, you’re not automatically inclined to believe that that guy’s a drug dealer and he should be charged on every drug charge available.

The whole point of implicit bias is that you don’t really know you have it. We’ve seen studies in the legal profession where two associates have gotten the same paperwork and they’re told one thing about one and another thing about the other, and the names imply a disadvantaged racial group, and the reaction and the scores that they get are very, very different. That’s what implicit bias is, and certainly prevalent, smart people in the legal profession do it across different cultures. So some of that has to be happening, and I think it happens in every large organization, and I think we’d be thoughtful about how we approach it.

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