Candidates for L.A. County district attorney trade punches in lively debate
Jackie Lacey, seeking a third term as Los Angeles County’s district attorney, sparred with her challengers Wednesday night in a debate characterized by biting exchanges between the candidates and raucous protests from the audience — emotion that underscored the stakes of a race that will decide the direction of the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office.
Lacey, in her eighth year as the county’s top prosecutor, is fending off challenges from Rachel Rossi, a former public defender hoping to take control of the office she once opposed in court, and George Gascón, a former Los Angeles police official who most recently served as San Francisco’s district attorney.
The 90-minute debate, held in downtown Los Angeles, encompassed some of the most pressing and divisive issues in criminal justice, including how lawbreaking is prosecuted and punished, how to address crimes committed by homeless people and those with mental illness, racial disparities in the county jails, peace officers who kill civilians in the line of duty, cash bail, sentence enhancements for gang members and the death penalty.
The election is seen by many as a test of whether a wave of victories for reform candidates, who unseated the top prosecutors in major cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, will extend to Los Angeles — which, despite its left-leaning electorate, has historically embraced a more conservative view of law and order.
From the moment she took the microphone, Lacey was shouted down by members of the audience, some of whom said they were relatives of people killed by local law enforcement officers. Security guards hauled out about half a dozen protesters. In one particularly tense moment, a man rushed toward the stage, shouting at Lacey, before being restrained and removed from the building.
Onstage, the candidates wasted no time throwing jabs. Gascón was a political flip-flop who wouldn’t know his way around a courtroom and Rossi seemed to be more interested in being a “spokesperson” than prosecutor, Lacey said. Gascón countered that Lacey presides over an office in disarray, hamstrung by a “rampant” leadership crisis and her aversion “to every single reform that has come to her desk.” Rossi said the incumbent has spent so many years in the district attorney’s office — 34 — that racial disparities in how the county prosecutes and jails lawbreakers seem normal to her.
Lacey, 62, said she was among the first district attorneys in the country to champion a diversion program that routes certain offenders to mental health treatment rather than criminal prosecution. Gascón, 65, disputed her willingness to treat, rather than prosecute, mentally ill people, claiming several attorneys within her office “are telling me they want to divert cases and are being told they cannot.”
Lacey said Gascón was speaking “from a position of ignorance,” adding that the diversion program he oversaw as San Francisco’s top prosecutor merely shunted people out of the court system and into a vacuum of social services. Many of them ended up on the street, she said.
Rossi, 37, said that as district attorney, she would “stand up” to law enforcement agencies that prosecutors rely on to build their cases, and challenge them to show who they are labeling as gang members and which communities are most affected by the prosecution of certain crimes.
“The district attorney is the gatekeeper,” she said. “The district attorney can say, ‘I’m not filing this case.’ ”
In San Francisco, Gascón said, his office initiated a program that hid the race of a defendant until he or she was charged, to guard against bias when deciding whether to file charges.
Gascón and Rossi assailed Lacey for continuing to seek the death penalty in certain cases, even after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide moratorium on executions.
Lacey said she seeks the death penalty only in egregious cases, pointing to 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez, whose mother was sentenced to life in prison and her boyfriend to death in his torture murder, as an example. She called herself a “constitutional officer” who follows the laws of the state, not the words of the governor.
Lacey caught heat from her challengers onstage and members of the audience for failing to prosecute several peace officers who fatally shot civilians in the line of duty. Gascón said there was “clear evidence” her office could have filed charges against LAPD Officer Clifford Proctor, who fatally shot Brendon Glenn near the Venice boardwalk in 2016. Lacey defended her choice, saying that despite an “extraordinary move” by former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck — who she said leaked to the press a letter recommending the officer’s prosecution — she reviewed the evidence and witness statements before coming to “a reasonable belief that the officer had to use force.”
Lacey vowed to prosecute peace officers “for the right reasons” rather than bowing to political pressure. Rossi said she would support appointing independent prosecutors in cases involving deadly use of force, arguing that a conflict of interest exists when prosecutors are asked to charge peace officers they depend on to build cases.
Rossi and Gascón promised to forgo gang enhancements, which can increase defendants’ sentences if a jury finds they committed a crime as a member, or to the benefit of, a street gang.
Rossi said such enhancements “ratchet up the penalties for black and brown people.” Gascón called them “the product of discriminatory police work,” pointing to a recent conroversy in the Los Angeles Police Department over the alleged falsification of field interview cards that law enforcement officials use to identify gang members and associates.
Lacey said she couldn’t discuss whether LAPD officers falsely labeled people as gang members, because the matter is being reviewed by her office. She did, however, say gang affiliations are “tested vigorously” in court. Los Angeles still faces a serious gang problem, she said, and doing away with stiffer sentences for gang members would send the wrong message to communities they terrorize.
Lacey and Gascón branded each other as political chameleons and profiteers, saying their election-season views are belied by their records in office. Lacey formed a sex-crimes task force, focused on the entertainment industry, only after she “felt the heat,” Gascón said.
Gascón said he has spoken with accusers of Harvey Weinstein, the film producer charged with a host of sex crimes on both coasts, as well as Ed Buck, a Democratic donor accused of administering the drugs that led to the fatal overdoses of two men in his West Hollywood home, and James Heaps, a former UCLA gynecologist charged with sex crimes.
“You know what they all have in common?” he asked. “This office has not only ignored them — it’s treated them with no respect.”
Gascón blasted Lacey for using body attachments — court orders that allow prosecutors to detain uncooperative witnesses — to jail victims of sexual assault unwilling to testify against their abusers.
“That rarely happens,” Lacey said, defending the court orders as a tool used mostly to prosecute domestic abusers who terrify their victims.
Lacey pointed to a number of reforms Gascón has championed — doing away with cash bail, eschewing sentencing enhancements for gang members — and the fact he didn’t implement them in San Francisco.
Gascón, for his part, offered this: “Being a human being is evolving and learning from one another.”
Lacey, who joined the district attorney’s office in 1986, said her opponents seemed less concerned about the victims of crimes than the people incarcerated for committing them. She questioned why Rossi was running to become district attorney when she has never worked as a line prosecutor. Gascón, she said, “has never been in a courtroom in his entire life.”
“This is a job for a real lawyer,” she said.
Lacey has the backing of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and four members of the county’s Board of Supervisors, along with the unions that represent deputy district attorneys and rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies. The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, has also supported Lacey over her city’s former top prosecutor.
Gascón, who resigned his San Francisco post in October and moved back to Los Angeles, won the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. He also has the support of activists from Black Lives Matter and other progressive groups who have blasted Lacey for her reluctance to prosecute peace officers who shoot civilians.
Rossi previously worked on criminal justice issues in Washington in both the House and Senate.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.