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Why progressive prosecutors face resistance from some police departments

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Across the country, many progressive prosecutors have been labeled soft on crime for criminal justice reforms, such as eliminating cash bail and not prosecuting shoplifters. Some have been removed from office. And in St. Louis, the resistance is so fierce that one police officer is refusing to do one of the most important parts of his job. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer collaborated with ProPublica to examine how this situation mirrors a nationwide trend. So, Sacha, tell us about this man.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: So this is a St. Louis homicide detective named Roger Murphey. He is refusing to testify in murder cases in which he was the lead investigator. So far, he's declined to take the stand in at least nine cases. And Murphey thinks his absence hurt prosecutors' chances of getting convictions. And, A, there's another trial coming up soon, and Murphey won't testify in that one either.

A MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Why won't he testify?

PFEIFFER: Because the St. Louis prosecutor's office put Murphey on a list of cops with credibility problems. Murphey landed on it, he believes unfairly, because of some Facebook posts interpreted as being racist. But even though Murphey was on that list, the prosecutor's office still asked him to testify in cases. Murphey says it's hypocritical to question his integrity yet trust him to take the stand. And he says if he does testify, defense lawyers might attack him about why he's on the list, so he's not doing it.

A MARTÍNEZ: All right, so now I'm going to guess that there is a progressive prosecutor at the center of this story.

PFEIFFER: Yes, there is.

A MARTÍNEZ: OK.

PFEIFFER: It's a woman named Kim Gardner. She was the top prosecutor in St. Louis for nearly seven years. She vowed to reduce mass incarceration, hold police accountable. But she clashed with police. They say she failed to prosecute legitimate cases, and Detective Murphey strongly opposes her policies.

ROGER MURPHEY: I don't believe in the progressive system at all, at all. The public has seen me as the enemy, and it's seen our profession as the enemy. But we didn't break the system. We kept arresting people, and she kept letting them out, you know, refusing cases, refusing good cases.

PFEIFFER: And, A, Gardner resigned this spring after huge pushback and a lot of dysfunction in her office. And Murphey is now retired, but he's still refusing to testify in ongoing cases.

A MARTÍNEZ: Now, as we mentioned earlier, I mean, many progressive prosecutors around the country have also faced opposition recently.

PFEIFFER: Right. Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Boston, I think LA, where you are.

A MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: They all have or had progressive prosecutors who were hit with huge resistance, and some were forced out or resigned. In Chicago, the top prosecutor is Kim Foxx. And she's also experienced this, although she hasn't had a Roger Murphey-like situation.

KIM FOXX: A detective deliberately tanking a case? That is horrifying to hear, quite honestly. But I have been faced with, Kim Gardner has been faced with, and others have been faced with an unprecedented level of hate and vitriol from those who were previously partners with others who did this work.

PFEIFFER: Kim Foxx is referring there to police departments and police unions, which she says were rooting for her to fail from the get-go.

FOXX: Before I put my hand on the Bible to take the oath to take this job, there was a widely known police blog going around naming me Crimesha, C-R-I-M-E-S-H-A, which is a play on the word crime and what I believe to be a racist insinuation about me being Black with the name -esha, spelling my name with three X's to insinuate the sexualization of who I am, putting out my address and saying perhaps if people came to my house and assaulted my daughters, then my view on crime would be different.

PFEIFFER: So she thinks police weren't going to accept her no matter how much she tried to work with them.

A MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, police departments and police unions, what are their main complaints about progressive prosecutors?

PFEIFFER: Basically, they view them as enemies of old-fashioned law enforcement. Many police say they're too liberal and they're making cities less safe. I want to play you some police body camera tape from the Burlington, Vt., area, where there's a progressive prosecutor. The officer you're going to hear is speaking to a young couple and saying he can't do much about suspected drug dealers in their neighborhood because of the local prosecutor named Sarah George.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OWEN DUGAN: Unfortunately, this is kind of the product of Sarah George's super progressive soft-on-crime approach, where we arrest the same people daily and they get out the same day.

PFEIFFER: He went on to encourage them to vote for her opponent in an upcoming election. So some progressive prosecutors feel that some police are actively undermining them in the community.

A MARTÍNEZ: Sacha, what do we know about crime rates in places that have progressive prosecutors?

PFEIFFER: Some studies have found that does not cause an increase, but criminologists will be debating for years how much crime rates were affected by COVID versus the economy versus progressive policies. Now, some police believe criminals are emboldened by progressive prosecutors because they think there will be no consequences for illegal behavior. But the counterargument is that desperate or hardened people aren't thinking in advance about whether the local prosecutor is tough on crime or progressive. Here's the president of the St. Louis NAACP, a man named Adolphus Pruitt.

ADOLPHUS PRUITT: A lot of folks who are committing crimes today are not saying, hey, we got this liberal prosecutor in office, let's run out here and commit some crimes. It is not happening that way. You have people who are not afraid to go to jail. It's as simple as that. They're at a point in their lives where, hell, my life ain't worth crap anyway, some of them feel, and then you're trying to tell me that jail is worse? (Laughter) A lot of them don't feel that way.

PFEIFFER: So both prosecutors and police have that to contend with, too.

A MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. Sacha, thanks for bringing this to us.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN DEACON'S "PELICAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.