John Fetterman’s record on crime is more complex than political ads would have you believe
(WESA) - When it comes to criminal justice, the race for Pennsylvania’s seat in the United States Senate could be the most consequential race in the country. With the Senate currently evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, whichever party wins in November will control the confirmation process for federal judges for at least the next two years. And whoever controls the Senate will decide what kinds of crime bills come up for a vote.
Braddock, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh has become a crucial backdrop for that debate in the Senate contest. It’s where the Democrat, John Fetterman, served as mayor for 13 years and he says his work there exemplifies the kind of leader he is. It’s also a community where his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, says crime has exploded.
So it may be fitting that on a recent trip to Braddock, WESA found the current mayor on a TV set, appearing as an extra in a series about the criminal justice system. “The Mayor of Kingston” is a gritty drama about a fictional town where the main employers are large prisons, and where a web of crime syndicates and corrupt police are held together by a former prisoner.
The show sometimes echoes Braddock’s own dynamics. One critic recently expressed discomfort that the show focused so heavily on a white leader in a place where people of color were caught up in the prison-industrial complex. And Fetterman has, at times, been criticized by those who think he casts himself at the center of Braddock’s story.
But current Braddock mayor Delia Lennon-Winstead, who is Black, said she believed Fetterman’s intentions were genuine when he showed up two decades ago in the predominantly black town she has lived in all 67 years of her life.
“Fetterman came to town as a teacher and educator and started educating our children and helping them to get their education and to get jobs,” she said. “And so then he decided to run for Braddock mayor.”
But crime rates in Braddock resist the kind of easy narrative that makes for TV shows or the political ads that appear during commercial breaks. And while Fetterman gets credit from many residents for his hands-on approach to community issues, experts say crime rates are driven by a complicated array of factors that can leave any mayor feeling like a bit player.
Lennon-Winstead acknowledged that while “Fetterman did stop the crime situation when he was first elected for many years,” more recently “our crime has started to come back up a little.”
‘We did whatever it took’
Two weeks after Fetterman took office in 2006, he showed up to the scene of his first homicide. A pizza delivery man had been killed during a robbery – the latest homicide after there had been multiple homicides three out of the previous four years in Braddock, a town with less than 3,000 residents.
“I think it’s time we do something” to make the street safer, Fetterman told reporters at the scene. “You have kids here with nowhere else to go and this happens.”
For Fetterman, doing something meant showing up at crime scenes, hosting gun buyback events, providing youth programs – even tattooing the dates of borough homicides on his forearm.
And while there were multiple killings in Fetterman’s first two years in office, homicides did drop in his first term as mayor. The borough went without one for more than five years between May of 2008 and September of 2013.
“We did whatever it took to fund our police and stop gun deaths for five years,” Fetterman said in a recent ad.
But the homicide rate climbed back up towards the end of Fetterman’s term – a trend Oz says was driven by Fetterman’s disengagement.
“Sadly, he missed more than one-third of the Borough Council monthly meetings, which would’ve been a great place to work with community leaders on solving Braddock’s crime problem,” Oz’s campaign said in a statement.
So what really happened?
Broader crime trends are hard to interpret, because of a lack of solid numbers. Police are supposed to report their crime data to the FBI, but many small departments don’t do a thorough job. FBI statistics show that during Fetterman’s tenure there were only two homicides, for example – even though the county medical examiner’s records show there were 10.
Oz has used the incomplete FBI data to say that the number of serious crimes, such as assault and robberies, increased during Fetterman’s tenure. But the rise in crime was more of a blip, only reaching about a quarter as high as it did in the 1980s and 1990s, and the spike lasted only a year or two. For most of Fetterman’s tenure, major crimes remained at historically low levels.
But the data also undermines one of Fetterman’s core arguments: that he deserves credit for reducing crime. The FBI data shows that crimes like burglaries had already fallen years before he took office, in a period when crime was falling all across the country.
“Most places mirrored this trend, no matter what kind of policing they were doing – good, bad or indifferent,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. For example, he said, former New York City mayor Rudy Guilani claimed his “stop and frisk” approach decreased crime. But Harris says that subsequent studies have not supported that claim.
Crime in Braddock started going up again slowly in 2015. But these small increases didn’t get much attention from the general public until violent crime skyrocketed during the pandemic in 2020. And Braddock’s recent spate of gun violence has been mirrored in neighboring communitieswith high poverty, including Rankin, North Braddock and East Pittsburgh.
‘He almost beat the cops there’
So how much credit – or blame – does Fetterman deserve for changes in Braddock’s crime rate?
Fetterman himself told Newsweek that in 2007 and 2008 local, federal and state officers led a major roundup for drug and weapons charges that helped keep crime down. He also praised District Attorney Stephen Zappala, as well as security cameras that Fetterman helped secure funding for and increased community involvement. Today, his campaign gives credit to then-chief Frank DeBartolo, who had been in place for nearly five years when Fetterman took office.
DeBartolo “was a great police chief and much of the progress that has been made in making Braddock a safer community rests with him,” said Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s communications director. “Day-to-day running of the police force largely rested with the chief of police, while John was responsible for longer-term strategy.”
Fetterman’s impact, his campaign said, included hosting gun buy-back events and working to build trust between the police and community.
Many local residents said they believed Fetterman cared about crime in their community because he showed up. Joe York, who has been doing construction work in Braddock at a local community center, said he still remembers Fetterman taking charge.
“I remember when there was a shooting one time and he jumped in his car and he almost beat the cops there,” he said.
Several experts said that leadership by a town official can matter, even if empirical evidence can’t quantify the impact. Harris, the law professor at Pitt, said leaders can bring attention and energy to the issue. “It has an impact on how police operate and how people perceive public safety and their own place in it,” he said. “He is telegraphing to everybody that every person matters. Every victim matters, that he sees the damage that violence and crime does to his community.” But Fetterman’s official power was limited, and early on in his tenure as mayor, he delegated most of his control to DeBartolo. Chardae Jones, who succeeded Fetterman as mayor in 2019, said that responsibility for oversight of the police didn’t come with a lot of formal powers. While the mayor is charged with overseeing discipline in the department, for example, she said the borough council was able to thwart her efforts to fire an officer who was having discipline issues. And while council also has control over the budget, during the first seven years of Fetterman’s tenure, spending on police increased from about 18% of the borough’s budget to nearly one-quarter of its spending. But police spending later dropped back down to 17% of the borough’s yearly expenses. And Braddock can’t always hire as many as officers it has money budgeted for. The community’s part-time police force has fallen from around 14 officers early in Fetterman’s tenure to half that amount now. The wages for officers in Braddock are very low compared to most departments, said George Dougherty, a University of Pittsburgh professor who has overseen Braddock’s finances for the state since 2016. “They kind of become a training department for other municipalities that can pay more,” he said. “If you can get a job in a better paying department, you go.” That decrease in police funding corresponds with the borough’s increased crime rate. And that may not be a coincidence. John Pfaff, a law professor who studies crime at Fordham University, said many experts believe that increasing the number of police officers is one of the most effective tools to reduce crime. Some studies have shown $1.60 in benefits to crime reduction for every additional dollar spent on policing, he said. But according to Harris, the law professor at Pitt, at least several factors play an important role. Some places saw steep reductions in crime in the 1990s even though they didn’t invest in additional policing, he said. And Harris said that the person leading that force may also make a difference: The increase in crimes like burglary and assault reported in the FBI data also coincides with Chief DeBartolo’s retirement. ‘That’s a real human cost’ Throughout his tenure, Fetterman closely aligned his work to reduce crime with a need he cited at the first crime scene he visited as mayor: to provide young people with alternatives to violence. He spent much of his time working to help youth through his nonprofit Braddock Redux. Fetterman started the Braddock Youth Project, which provided jobs for young people, and helped secure funds to renovate a local church into a community center. Robert Grey spent his adolescence in Braddock and credits Fetterman’s youth programs with helping him set his life trajectory. “I've definitely benefited a lot over the years from John's generosity and and his commitment to Braddock,” he said. Grey was raised by a single mom, and says he and several siblings were offered their first jobs at the Braddock Youth Project. Grey later parlayed his gardening experiences into a full-time position with Grow Pittsburgh, a nonprofit urban agriculture program invited to Braddock by Fetterman. Dominique Davis-Sanders, the chair of Braddock’s borough council, said he was inspired to get into politics when Fetterman came to the Braddock Youth Project to speak about the importance of keeping Braddock beautiful. “Other politicians mostly wanted to dress the part and not do the work,” he said. But with Fetterman, “It was the opposite.” Pfaff, the Fordham University criminology expert, said that social programs have often been shown to have a bigger effect reducing crime than even the most effective policing strategies. Some programs have been shown to produce $6 in crime reduction benefits for every $1 spent on preventative measures. There’s some evidence that Fetterman’s focus began to shift away from Braddock as crime rates began to rise. Fetterman already had a spotty record for attending council meetings, where he clashed with council members and where he only had a vote in case of tiebreakers. But one official who regularly attended council meetings only recalls him attending three meetings in the last three years he served as mayor. And even one of Fetterman’s most outward displays of his dedication to tackling crime in Braddock came to an end his last two years in office. Fetterman wrote in a blog post that he still hadn’t gotten a tattoo of the date of the 2018 homicide in Braddock. And in response to WESA questions, his campaign staff said he is also missing the tattoo of another Braddock homicide from 2017. “I never said I could save Braddock,” Fetterman said during his final year as mayor. “It’s not about me. It was never even just about Braddock. ” In fact, while Fetterman still lives in Braddock, his 2018 election as lieutenant governor has allowed him to shape criminal-justice policy on a much broader stage. And the Oz campaign has tried to link his work at the state and local level, trolling Fetterman with a billboard ad posted in Braddock that compares Fetterman’s record on crime with the softness of toilet paper. Oz’s campaign says Fetterman is more concerned with helping people get out of prison early than protecting ordinary people. "Emptying our prisons means more hardened criminals on the streets, hurting our communities," said the narrator in a recent Oz ad. Fetterman has chaired the Board of Pardons as lieutenant governor since 2019, a time in which the state doubled the number of people in prison receiving pardons to more than 400 per year. Fetterman also increased the number of people whose life sentences were commuted by about 40 people. Oz isn’t entirely opposed to releasing prisoners early – his campaign recently said he would favor federal laws that allow prisoners to be released early. But so far Oz has declined to explain how his approach would differ from Fetterman’s, other than to say he would not support the release of someone who “stabbed his girlfriend’s mother to death with scissors.” But while Oz’s campaign is trying to direct attention to the crimes of those Fetterman sought to release early, Pfaff says that line of argument doesn’t make for great criminal-justice policy.
“This idea that if you let one person out, they might commit a crime, that's true,” said Pfaff. “But if we keep you locked up, that's a real human cost also. And just because they committed a crime in the past doesn't reduce the value of their life down to zero.” In any case, Pfaff said, commutations have little impact on the crime rate, since the number of people being freed is small compared to the number committing crimes. And those who are released are generally so old that they’re unlikely to commit serious crimes again. “Older people just don't re-offend that much and, when they do, it's usually for a much more minor kind of stuff than than murder and aggravated assault,” Pfaff said. A recent poll suggested that crime is still a much less important issue to Pennsylvania voters than the economy and abortion. And despite Oz’s billboard, it’s not clear Braddock residents themselves are that concerned about crime. Joan Jordan was one of 10 residents who spoke to WESA and said they feel safe there. Jordan said she’d heard that Fetterman had stopped a lot of gun violence when she moved to the area five years ago. She acknowledged that she does worry when she passes by a nearby nightclub where a homicide took place earlier this year. Still, Jordan said, “That's with any town. In certain areas you just got to be careful.” Copyright 2022 WESA.