Candidates to be the next top prosecutor in Los Angeles clashed over criminal justice issues on Wednesday during a lively debate in Little Tokyo.
Just days before early voting begins in the March 3 primary election, District Attorney Jackie Lacey and her two challengers—former San Francisco DA George Gascón and former public defender Rachel Rossi—squared off for nearly two hours on a debate stage at the Aratani Theatre.
KPCC senior politics reporter Libby Denkmann and L.A. Times editorial writer Robert Greene moderated the event.
A raucous live audience in the hundreds disregarded admonitions from Denkmann against cheering and catcalling. Audience members also interrupted the debate several times, and a number of them were removed from the event by security.
The candidates traded jabs on a range of issues from the death penalty and bail reform to police accountability and alternatives to prison for the mentally ill.
Gascón and Rossi argued that Lacey is a DA out of step with the times. Lacey countered that Gascón became DA of San Francisco without having ever tried a case. She also said that Rossi’s background as a public defender means “she is not qualified to run the largest [prosecutor’s] office in the nation.”
Gascón and Rossi are vying to position themselves as more progressive alternatives to Lacey, who is running for a third consecutive term as DA for the largest and busiest prosecutor’s office in the country. But Lacey, a career prosecutor who has opposed many criminal justice reforms, appeared unwilling to concede progressive territory without a challenge.
Gascón is perhaps best known in law enforcement circles as a co-author of Prop 47, which reduced punishments for certain nonviolent crimes. When Lacey touted her signature reformist accomplishment as DA, creating a pathway for nonviolent offenders to get treated for mental illness, Gascon accused her office of putting on a show for the public while instructing prosecutors to “oppose every diversion.” Lacey responded, “George Gascón doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Lacey and Gascón sparred throughout the debate. He called her a “lock-em-up prosecutor” who only managed to strike a progressive tone “when the heat turned up.” She attacked him as a political opportunist who adopted his progressive views out a sense of political self-interest. If Gascón attacked Lacey as an impediment to reforming the status quo, she countered that he was hypocrite.
So it was during a heated exchange in which Gascón attacked Lacey for continuing to seek the death penalty in some cases despite a sweeping order signed by Governor Gavin Newsom suspending any further executions in California as long as he is governor. Gascón said as L.A. district attorney he would never seek the death penalty.
“This is his recent evolution,” Lacey said.
“Eight years is recent?” he replied.
“It is recent. You were 50-something years old when you said you were in favor of the death penalty.”
Lacey said her office has sought the death penalty in 2 to 3 percent of eligible cases. She referred to one defendant sentenced to death after he was convicted of torturing and killing an 8-year-old boy.
Under Gascón, San Francisco had the highest property crime rate in California, a situation Lacey described in the debate as “abysmal.” He fired back, blaming the spike on a rash of car break-ins, less than 2 percent of which resulted in arrest, and pointing out that the property crime rate decreased by 20 percent in the past two years.
Although Rossi’s views were often compatible with Gascón’s, she made an effort to paint he and Lacey with the same brush. When endorsing the abolition of cash bail, for instance, Rossi referred to her opponents collectively, saying “Both of the prosecutors on this stage had eight years to abolish cash bail in their offices and did not.” She also pledged to get rid of sentencing enhancements for gang affiliation and argued that “long felony sentences do not deter crime.”
The issue of “gang enhancements” is a sensitive one at the moment in L.A., with a scandal rocking the LAPD over allegations that members of the department’s elite Metro Division falsely portrayed people as gang members. Gascón previously charged suspects with gang enhancements. (A spokesman for Gascón has said this only happened in the most serious of circumstances.) He said that if elected DA of Los Angeles he would not charge them.
Lacey acknowledged that gang enhancements have been abused, but said if used fairly they are an important tool.
“In L.A. County we do have an issue with gang violence,” she said. “Fifty-three percent of the homicides committed in L.A. involved gangs.”
At one point, Lacey questioned if her challengers’ advocacy for the incarcerated took precedence over protecting victims of crime. Rossi fired back that the L.A. DA’s office has a practice of locking up victims to coerce them to testify.” Lacey called Rossi’s criticism a “misconception” and said of the practice: “That rarely happens.”
Election observers predict that Gascón, with his statewide high profile and well-oiled campaign machine, will monopolize limited reserves of campaign dollars and media attention. He appeared congenial toward the 36-year-old Rossi throughout the debate.
Lacey was not so generous. During one lively exchange on criminal justice reform, Rossi said, “When Ms. Lacey says that she thinks we should be more thoughtful about reform. Well, join the conversation. Don’t oppose it. Join the conversation.” To which Lacey replied, “I just heard about Miss Rossi a few months ago when she moved here to run for office. She has not been involved in the discussions that we’ve had here locally.”
Moderators saved perhaps the most controversial question for last.
Lacey has taken a lot of heat for only prosecuting one law enforcement officer for an on-duty shooting. In one unusual case, the shooting of a homeless man named Brendon Glenn in Venice Beach, she overrode the recommendation of former L.A. Chief of Police Charlie Beck, who said the officer who fired on Glenn should be prosecuted for the fatal shooting. Gascón criticized Lacey for not prosecuting the officer for the Glenn shooting and that she was “comfortable looking the other way.” He implied that the L.A. Police Union’s recent $1 million contribution to an anti-George Gascón PAC was incentive not to prosecute future officers.
Rossi endorsed the use of independent prosecutors “whenever law enforcement use of force results in death.” She cited what she called a “conflict of interest” because law enforcement and the district attorney work closely together. She and Gascón voiced concern that Lacey’s efforts to tweak the wording on a new state law restricting police use of force may render the new rules a distinction without a difference.
Lacey disputed Gascón’s assertion and called him hypocritical for criticizing her record of not prosecuting more officers. Gascón has faced similar protests in San Francisco over officer-involved shootings. Lacey raised one case in particular, the shooting of Mario Woods, in which Gascón declined to prosecute the police involved. “Colin Kaepernick took a knee over that case,” she said.
Addressing the chorus of catcalls that arose from the audience, Lacey said, “We need a prosecutor who believes in victims, who protects the community, and who does the right thing even when people are yelling and screaming at them.”
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