John Fetterman talks crime and punishment
Dave is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Sign up for Americana to get his coverage of the national political scene in your inbox twice a week.
The Nov. 8 midterm elections have revolved increasingly around crime, the subject of a massive Republican advertising campaign that party leaders believe is successfully tapping into voter anxieties. Ground zero for that pitch is Pennsylvania, where the Senate race in Pennsylvania has revolved around two questions for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
First: Whether the 53-year old Democrat, whose ability to process verbal conversations has not fully recovered after a stroke five months ago, is healthy enough to serve. Second: Whether his support for rehabilitating violent felons, and his votes for releasing prisoners on the state’s board of pardons, reveal, in the words of one Republican ad, that he’s “dangerously liberal on crime.”
Fetterman responded quickly to attacks from opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz, putting up TV ads that featured police officers vouching for him and telling the story that made him a national Democratic Party figure—a hulking mayor of a small city who tattooed the dates of gun murders on his forearms, reminders of what he was there to stop.
“It was always absurd to defund the police,” he told Semafor. “From my own experience I’d say, anytime you have fewer police, you're going to have more crime.”
But Republicans have also attacked him from the left, over a 2013 incident where he stopped a Black jogger at gunpoint after hearing shots nearby. No race has as many cross-currents on the issue that Republicans have bet the home stretch of the midterms on.
The candidate talked with Semafor on Friday, a few days after NBC News aired an interview that angered some Democrats, including Fetterman’s wife Gisele, by playing up his use of closed captioning to manage a stroke-related condition that has made it difficult for his brain to process audio. Fetterman declined to join in on criticism of the network (“I’m not judging one side or the other”), but stressed that he’s been open in every interview he’s done about his use of text.
Like those prior interviews Fetterman has participated in since his stroke, the candidate talked with Semafor via Google Meet. My questions immediately turned into captions, which he answered a second or two after I finished talking. We’ve edited the interview for length and clarity, just as we would for any other Q&A.
WEIGEL: When does someone who’s committed a first degree murder deserve clemency?
FETTERMAN: It's really a very simple choice. I believe the perfect metaphor is “The Shawshank Redemption.” That’s a touchstone that virtually everybody has seen, everybody understands. I’ve asked people, would you want Morgan Freeman to die in prison or not? And I've never met anybody that says, “Yeah, he should die in prison. I would have voted to have him die in prison.”
I understood, at the beginning of becoming the board of pardons chair, that this was going to be weaponized. You're talking less than one percent of individuals that are condemned to die in prison. And they come in front of five people, the same as in “Shawshank.” They're usually elderly. They’re most likely be Black. And they are deeply remorseful for what they were involved in, or what they did directly; and they've done 40 years or more, maybe sometimes more than 50 years.
Everyone from the warden, to the Secretary of Corrections, down to the guards – everyone that has known them for decades, I ask everybody the question, “Would you want this person as your neighbor?” And they're like, of course, absolutely, we’d be delighted to have that.
WEIGEL: How do you factor in family members of the person who was murdered? Maybe the murder was 50 years ago, but maybe they haven’t forgiven them, even if the warden or the guards have.
FETTERMAN: I agree that, absolutely, the victims are very much an important part of the conversation. The point is that if somebody has a perfect record, and they have spent, you know, more than half a century in jail, and nobody believes that they were still dangerous or anything – it really just comes to a simple choice of believing in a chance at redemption.
WEIGEL: [City Council president] Darrell Clarke in Philadelphia has said the city needs a “conversation” about a “constitutional” way to revisit stop and frisk. Do you agree? When you endorsed [District Attorney] Larry Krasner last year, you opposed stop and frisk.
FETTERMAN: I just feel that police are always going to be a critical part of the conversation, and they are critical to being successful. They're the most important tool to make the street safer. I think that's at the core of it; having them not be treated in a way that’s antagonistic. That's the way I treated that when I was in charge of a police department for 14 years and creating a good relationship with the community and figuring out what everybody agrees is an appropriate tactic versus one that’s abused.
The most effective recipe is a police department that understands that they have to do what they need to do in terms of making sure things be safer, but not at the expense of the community feeling that they’re over-policed. I think it’s critical in any conversation to really begin to beat back the crime.
WEIGEL: Has Krasner been a success in Philadelphia?
FETTERMAN: There's plenty of things that I agree with him about. One thing about him that I did support is that he's freed, I think it is about two dozen innocently convicted individuals that spent decades in prison. I think that really is justice. It’s not being hard on crime to allow innocent people to to die in prison. But there's other issues that we disagree on.
WEIGEL: Like what?
FETTERMAN: I think we need to be having a better relationship with the police and making the police very much part of this conversation, and making sure that the police feel they feel supported by the DA.
WEIGEL: The Biden administration is calling for funding that would pay for 100,000 cops around the country. Do you support that?
WEIGEL: What do you say to someone who thinks we should be redirecting resources like that to social services, and not funding more police?
FETTERMAN: We should be investing in more police and making sure they have the resources that they need. It doesn't need to be one versus the other. You need to make sure there’s appropriate levels of investments both to have more policing, or better funding, and then it’s like two levers that you can pull at the same time. You can pay for mental health and other kinds of support, but not at the expense of having the appropriate amount of police staffing.
It was always absurd to defund the police. I've never believed that that was ever the case. And anyone that said that – yeah, of course, it’s just wrong. From my own experience I’d say, anytime you have fewer police, you're going to have more crime. I mean, that's just the fact.
WEIGEL: So why has crime increased since 2020, especially in Philadelphia? Krasner’s answer is that civil society shut down that year, and there were consequences to that, along with police not closing enough cases.
FETTERMAN: I think getting the guns off the street is very critical. How can you be serious about addressing crime but not doing anything to pass tighter gun reform laws? I don't understand how anyone can make that kind of argument – very against having stronger gun reform legislation, and also making sure that the police have the appropriate level of support to make sure they need to do their jobs. Pro-police and pro-community are compatible. It can't be antagonistic.
WEIGEL: Republicans are running ads about you chasing down a Black jogger at a crime scene in 2013. We talked about this during the primary; knew that was coming. You’ve talked about it before, but how should someone think about that incident and how you respond to crime?
FETTERMAN: They've been trying to weaponize [that] every time I've run statewide. The voters in Braddock, as you know – we were subsequently elected to Mayor for two more terms. That was vetted and made a part of the conversation for lieutenant governor, and then very, very much part of the conversation in the Democratic primary. And we won all 67 counties. So I believe that a majority of voters all understand that situation. And we all can agree that that was a decision, a split-second decision in the face of gunfire and making sure that the community is protected, safe.
WEIGEL: Because of that incident, do you feel that you can understand a police officer who makes a mistake – acts aggressively, apprehends somebody who didn't commit a crime?
FETTERMAN: Of course. It's not ever been about, you know, being hard on the police. It's just being understood that it was my split-second decision as the chief law enforcement official to act in the defense of public safety.
WEIGEL: Different question, not about crime: I wanted to ask about how you approach interviews now, after what happened with the NBC segment this week. What did you make of how NBC handled it?
FETTERMAN: I've done a lot of interviews, I‘ve talked to people. You want my impression from NBC? I couldn't make it be more transparent than having them right there, and me being right here, and saying, we're going to make sure we have captioning so I fully understand and answer the questions. I know it turned into a bigger issue, but I'm not judging on one side or the other. Yes, I need captioning. We've always been upfront about that. We want to make sure that we're fully understanding what the questions are that are being asked of us.