Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has recused her office from reviewing the April fatal police shooting of Daniel Hernandez after the California Attorney General said her role presents a likely conflict of interest. It’s the latest turn in a high-profile case involving LAPD officer Toni McBride, daughter of powerful police union member Jamie McBride.
The development comes weeks ahead of the runoff between incumbent district attorney Lacey and her progressive challenger George Gascón. Many see the race as a referendum on police accountability in Los Angeles County, with Lacey’s critics accusing her of being beholden to law enforcement unions. Those unions have contributed at least $3 million to backing her reelection, including a $1 million dollar cash influx from the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents roughly 10,000 rank-and-file officers.
Jamie McBride, the hard-nosed face of the LAPPL who’s called Black Lives Matter a “hate group,” helped orchestrate the union’s contributions to outside committees backing the incumbent DA. Lacey’s potential conflict of interest stems from her role in deciding if Toni McBride should face prosecution for shooting Hernandez.
In a statement, the district attorney’s office said that Lacey “recognized and wanted to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” so she appealed to Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office to review her role on July 20.
“On Aug. 4, 2020, the attorney general’s office agreed to District Attorney Lacey’s request to take jurisdiction over the matter involving Officer McBride,” a spokesperson said. “That decision ended the involvement of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in this case.” A spokesperson for Becerra’s office said the “facts and circumstances of the case present a likely conflict of interest.”
Lacey’s recusal over a month ago is likely a surprise to members of the Los Angeles City Council, who on August 19 approved a resolution calling for the attorney general’s intervention, even though Lacey had already granted Becerra authority. It is also an unusual recusal for a prosecutor who has not shied away from controversial decisions in other police shooting cases, like declining to prosecute the officers who in 2015 shot and killed an unarmed Black man named Brendon Glenn, says Eric Miller, a professor at Loyola Law School.
“Really it’s political pressure that forced Lacey to recuse herself,” Miller says. Gascón, Lacey’s reform-minded opponent can “hammer her with it.”
The shooting took place on April 22, when the 23-year-old McBride shot 38-year-old Hernandez six times in the aftermath of a multi-vehicle crash in South Los Angeles. Prior to shooting the LAPD received a call saying a man, apparently Hernandez, was stabbing himself in his car after causing the crash. In body cam and bystander footage released by the LAPD, Hernandez is seen approaching McBride with what police say is box cutter knife. McBride, with her pistol drawn, tells Hernandez to “drop the knife” multiple times as he drew closer to her, within what appears to be roughly two cars lengths. McBride then shoots at him twice. Hernandez hits the ground, and as he attempts to stand, McBride shoots four more times. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
“Whoever is going to be investigating will see that the LAPD investigation is fair and accurate,” says McBride attorney Larry Hanna, who has previously accused Gascón of politicizing the case. “Whoever investigates will see that officer McBride acted in the interest of the public to preserve and save lives.”
“We know this DA is a walking conflict of interest, at so many different levels,” says Gascón, who previously served as San Francisco’s district attorney. His campaign has been heavily backed by wealthy Bay Area philanthropists seeking criminal justice reform. “She knows there’s a conflict, but she wasn’t willing to admit because she’s trying to look for a way to slip and slide.”
The shooting drew the attention of Black Lives Matter activists, not only because of McBride’s ties to the LAPPL, but because she is a competitive shooter and a gun model with over 90,000 Instagram followers. In the aftermath of the Hernandez shooting, videos of McBride shooting high-powered rifles, schmoozing with Keanu Reeves, and celebrating her LAPD division’s nickname—”Shootin’ Newton”—have drawn significant ire. In recent weeks, she has posted on social media in favor of the Black Lives Matter countermovement, Blue Lives Matter, as well as a clip of herself modeling alongside a massive gatling gun.
The LAPD is conducting a months-long internal investigation into the Hernandez case, after which Chief Michel Moore and the civilian police commissioners will review the incident and make their recommendations. The attorney general will now replace Lacey’s office in reviewing the LAPD investigation and deciding whether charges are merited; the process could take over a year.
Among the factors that the attorney general’s office will likely consider are McBride’s distance from Hernandez when she decided shoot, whether Hernandez posed a “imminent threat,” and the officer’s decision to continue shooting after Hernandez hit the ground.
Arnoldo Casillas, who is representing the Hernandez family in a lawsuit against McBride, the City of Los Angeles, and the LAPD, said Lacey “did the right thing” by recusing herself, but he believes the chances of Becerra bringing charges in a police shooting are “extremely remote.” In March 2019, the California Attorney General’s office declined to charge the Sacramento officers that shot Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man. Clark’s killing spurred a new stricter police use-of-force standard in California that requires law enforcement to only use deadly force when “necessary.”
According to Loyola professor Miller, Lacey’s recusal is an unusual case, but it highlights the larger debate over the influence of police money nationwide. He points to the hundreds of thousands of dollars law enforcement unions contributed to Becerra’s election. “This is not just a local thing,” he says. “This goes all the way up the attorney general.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.