L.A.’s Controversial DA Jackie Lacey Takes on Her Critics: ‘I Think Prosecutor Is an Honorable Job’

She made history as the county’s first African American DA. Now she’s getting pushback from Black Lives Matter and facing a political challenge from her left

On a mild evening last May, Jackie Lacey, the controversial Los Angeles County district attorney, was a featured guest at a pop-up art show in the Arts District. As she posed for a photo with her sister, she was swarmed by a dozen angry protesters carrying signs with slogans like “Jackie Lacey has blood on her hands.” In the ensuing melee of demonstrators and security guards, Lacey fell to the ground. The image of the black DA being jostled by a crowd of black activists is hardly what her campaign wants to project in a reelection year.

“Nobody pushed me,” Lacey said. “It’s just, I fell.”

Whether she was pushed, or she fell, the scene at the gallery epitomizes the strange trajectory of Lacey’s DA career. Lacey’s 2012 election was historic: She is the county’s first black and first woman DA. Raised in a tough L.A. neighborhood, her victory inspired communities of color after decades of racial discord between the police and black residents.

But her honeymoon was short-lived. Activists were outraged at her handling of police shootings. She drew criticism for being late to prosecute Ed Buck, the West Hollywood Democratic Party operative who was recently charged in the deaths of two black men in his home. Her moderation on criminal justice reform pleased few.

Lacey’s conciliatory tone has made her a target of black activists who see her as an apologist for a fundamentally damaged justice system. For much of her tenure, they have regularly mobilized outside her office at the Hall of Justice and once marched around her home, using a mobile projector to beam “Jackie Lacey Must Go” onto her garage door.

Four years after making history, it’s not only Lacey’s home that is under siege. She has faced increased opposition since announcing her reelection bid last year, with protesters regularly crashing public appearances like the one in the Arts District, often shouting the names of Angelenos who have been killed by police on her watch. Now that their opposition has helped attract a credible opponent to the race, they might get their wish.

As a black woman from a modest background, Lacey faced perhaps unfair expectations that her identity would lead her to pursue a radically progressive agenda. The resolutely moderate, technocratic Lacey has disappointed liberal communities that saw themselves as her natural constituencies. Ironically, they will have an opportunity to strike back against her in March by voting for a Cuban progressive from San Francisco whose campaign is flush with tech money.

jackie lacey barack obama
Jackie Lacey with President Barack Obama in 2012

Courtesy Jackie Lacey office

Issues of identity have always sat awkwardly with certain black politicians in Lacey’s generation, many of whom feel like they have to assimilate in order to be elected. But now that she’s fighting for her political life, Lacey is finally opening up about who she is and where she came from.

Lacey’s coming-of-age story unspools like a Maya Angelou memoir. The native Angeleno was born to blue-collar parents with little formal education who moved to Los Angeles seeking a new start away from the poverty and racism of the South.

Lacey’s mother, Addie Phillips, is the oldest of 14 children from a poor family in rural Georgia. In the early 1950s, Addie’s parents sold the family cow and sent her away to live with distant relatives in Los Angeles. Addie’s father was an alcoholic who frequently beat her mother. One day when Addie was 17, she called the police to the farm. As Lacey tells the story, her grandparents sent her mother more than 2,000 miles away “because my grandfather didn’t want to go to jail.”

Addie worked as a seamstress in a Los Angeles garment factory and later married Louis Phillips, an east Texas native who spent most of his working life clearing weeds from city-owned lots. Jacquelyn, the oldest of the couple’s two daughters, grew up with her younger sister in the Crenshaw District, attended Dorsey High School, was the first in her family to attend college, and earned a law degree from USC.

Lacey remembers watching the Watts Riots on television when she was eight. She grew up listening to complaints about racial profiling and abuse by police. She now reviews the investigations of the same LAPD whose abuses helped spark the violence.

In the early 1970s the red or blue handkerchiefs that signified sides in L.A.’s most notorious gang feud began appearing on the heads of boys at Dorsey. The family home was burglarized. A boy was shot over a leather jacket. “I recall just walking as a girl back and forth from my house down Coliseum [Street] to school, and gangs of men whistling at me, catcalling,” Lacey said. “I remember being afraid.” Decades later, in the 1990s, she worked in a major division in the DA’s office known as the hard-core gangs unit.

The agencies of law enforcement today are different from the ones she remembers growing up with in the ’60s and ’70s. Crenshaw was 80 percent to 90 percent black and 100 percent minority. As for the police, “very few of them looked like us,” she said.

Today, although the LAPD is much less uniformly white and male, and community relations have improved, the decades-long accumulation of distrust has not fully dissipated.

When Lacey first started prosecuting cases in her late 20s, she was raising two small children with her husband, David Lacey, an accountant whom she had met as a teen singing in the Trinity Baptist Church choir. When she went to court wearing skirted suits and carrying a briefcase, people would ask if she was the court reporter.

Lacey was initially hailed as the changing face of law enforcement in Los Angeles. Today, under Lacey, women for the first time hold a majority of top-level management posts in the DA’s office; 42 percent of the attorneys in the department are nonwhite. The transformation precedes her tenure, but she is in many ways emblematic of the change. The 41 previous DAs, going all the way back to L.A.’s founding in 1850, were white men.

Her life experience as a first-generation black woman prosecutor born to working-class parents in South Los Angeles informs her judgment. “I’ve been that little kid in the community watching the black-and-white pass by,” she said. “And I think it’s important to have that perspective.”

Jackie Lacey graduates from USC in 1982

Jackie Lacy office

In the turbulent span of the last four years, progressives have gone from lauding her to branding her as the embodiment of racial inequity in California’s criminal justice system.

Traditionally, Democratic prosecutors in California walk a tight line between social progressivism and the kind of tough-on-crime stances demanded by law enforcement groups. But that has changed as wealthy liberal donors and criminal justice reformers have begun to support outside-the-box challengers in local elections.

A national effort led by liberal groups has tapped voter unease about systemic racism to unseat incumbent DAs in major U.S. cities. Los Angeles, the largest and busiest district attorney’s office in the nation by an order of magnitude, would be by far their biggest prize. Ironically, the county’s first black DA might be all that stands in the way.

Lacey has not supported wholesale criminal justice reform and did not file charges against police officers involved in controversial shootings. This has made the 62-year-old a protest target for a segment of young activists in the black community. Grassroots organizers from groups like Black Lives Matter L.A. are working to aid Lacey’s well-funded and well-staffed challenger: of all things, an ex-LAPD officer and former San Francisco district attorney. Ready or not, Angeleno voters in 2020 will decide the outcome of the most politically charged election this side of the presidency—and likely the nation’s most expensive race for district attorney.

“I’ve been that little kid in the community watching the black-and-white pass by, And I think it’s important to have that perspective.” – Jackie Lacey

For years Black Lives Matter Los Angeles activists have held weekly demonstrations against Lacey. “We want voters in L.A. County to understand Jackie Lacey doesn’t represent the collective interests of black people,” said BLM L.A. cofounder Melina Abdullah, who organizes the events. Abdullah said the Arts District confrontation was meant to call attention to “folks with mental health challenges that were killed by police that she refused to prosecute.”

Another BLM L.A. cofounder, Patrisse Cullors, is heading an ambitious fundraising effort to defeat Lacey. Cullors, who identifies as an advocate for prison abolition, is the California director of the influential San Francisco-based REAL Justice political action committee. REAL Justice is led by a former adviser to the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and is underwritten by Cari Tuna, the wife of Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz. “My specific role is to push and challenge L.A. voters to know how terrible Jackie Lacey is and her being an outdated DA,” Cullors told Los Angeles.

Lacey’s tenure as district attorney spans the period of national upheaval over the police killings of unarmed black men and women. The politics around police accountability and reform have vastly changed since she was first elected. Abdullah says Black Lives Matter wants to weaken Lacey’s campaign with a steady barrage of negative publicity—even though L.A. has managed to avoid anything like the scale of unrest (or the level of mismanagement) over the police killings of unarmed black men that rocked cities like Chicago and New York. Lacey said that as an African American woman, “I never want to forget where I came from. I never want to forget that there is racism in this world, even though I may not be experiencing it as much as I did in the past. I never want to forget the people that I’m dealing with, and most of them in the L.A. County criminal justice system are people of color—they’re people first—and to understand that people can get their act together and reform.”

She is also aware, though, that “I’m the district attorney for all the people of L.A. County.”

Cullors is teaming up with reform advocates based in the Bay Area who helped convince George Gascón to resign his office as San Francisco district attorney in October and move to L.A. to run against Lacey. They paid for a billboard advertisement on a freeway near downtown that said “Run, George, Run.” Gascón, a white-haired Cuban émigré who dropped out of Bell High School in southeastern L.A. County, rose from Watts beat cop to the rank of assistant chief under former LAPD Chief William Bratton.

He left the department and took the job as police chief of Mesa, Arizona, three years before Charlie Beck was named LAPD chief in 2009. He later became the chief of the San Francisco Police Department and was named DA by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. Gascón became the top prosecutor in San Francisco without ever having prosecuted a case, a point of criticism for some detractors. “If he walked into a courtroom, he wouldn’t know what side to sit on,” said former L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a staunch Lacey supporter and his former boss.

Although there are two other challengers to Lacey in 2020—Deputy DA Richard Ceballos and former Public Defender Rachel Rossi—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. At least one of Gascón’s supporters was involved in the multimillion-dollar fundraising effort headlined by New York billionaire George Soros that failed to unseat the district attorneys of four California counties in 2018.

Former San Francisco DA George Gascón shook up the city’s criminal justice system, with mixed results.

During Gascón’s eight-year tenure as DA, he became known as a champion of criminal justice reform. He was the co-author of Proposition 47, which reduced punishments for certain nonviolent crimes. He also expunged minor marijuana convictions, experimented with technology to address racial bias among prosecutors, and supported a law that mandates the state Department of Justice clear conviction records once an offender’s sentence is completed.

The race for L.A. County district attorney is quickly shaping up as a convoluted Tale of Two Cities. In November, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and longtime City Attorney Dennis Herrera made head-turning political endorsements of Lacey, snubbing Gascón, who had resigned as the Bay Area’s top prosecutor October 18. Breed’s and Herrera’s praise for Lacey seemed like a tacit critique of Gascón’s tenure. Breed said that Lacey “effectively navigated the delicate balance between keeping our communities safe and enacting meaningful reform.”

In October former LAPD Chief Beck publicly endorsed Gascón in the race. Beck praised his former assistant chief’s progressive stance, saying it shows “a commitment to doing the right thing, even when it comes at great personal cost.”

Beck memorably publicly recommended criminal charges against an LAPD officer who killed an unarmed homeless man named Brendon Glenn in Venice in 2015. Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents LAPD officers, was shocked. “I’m going on 37 years in this department, and we’ve never, ever had a chief recommend criminal charges on a police officer in a shooting,” he said. Despite Beck’s recommendation, Lacey declined to file charges. “He’s not the prosecutor,” Lacey told the L.A. Blade.

Lacey notes that Gascón’s tenure in San Francisco has not been without controversy. San Francisco under Gascón had by far the highest property crime rate in California, with more than twice the number of reported thefts per capita than Los Angeles from 2014 to 2016, according to data from the Public Policy Institute of California. (L.A. ranks 25 out of 58 counties in the state in that category.) According to FBI data released in 2018, San Francisco also had the highest per-capita rate of property crimes among the nation’s 20 most populous cities. Breed recently took a jab at Gascón over a rash of car break-ins that had been plaguing the city. Without referring to the former top prosecutor by name, the mayor took aim at what she called “the endless cycle of people getting arrested for dealing drugs or breaking into cars, only to be released back out on the streets.” Lacey took issue with recent comments from Gascón pledging to fix L.A.’s “mess” of a DA’s office. By her estimate, L.A.’s caseload is roughly 20 times larger than San Francisco’s. “It’s somewhat arrogant to think that you can come from such a small jurisdiction and run a bigger office,” she said. “Especially since I really haven’t seen any evidence yet that the San Francisco DA successfully tackled public safety issues in San Francisco.”

In contrast to her opponent, Lacey is known as a collaborative, somewhat cautious leader, wary of grand promises and sweeping changes. Her signature reformist accomplishment as DA has been creating a pathway for nonviolent offenders to get treated for mental illness. As founder and chair of the Criminal Justice Mental Health Project for Los Angeles County, she secured $150 million in emergency mental health funding from the county. The LAPD and Sheriff’s Department already had special programs training officers in how to de-escalate aggressive encounters with people experiencing a mental health crisis. But Lacey launched similar programs for 45 other police agencies under the DA’s jurisdiction, and her office has trained more than 2,000 cops in de-escalation techniques. She also made unconscious racial bias training obligatory for attorneys and investigators in her office and created the conviction review unit, which has revisited 1,300 cases and released three men from prison, two of whom were serving life sentences.

Posing in front of the downtown headquarters of the DA’s office

None of that has assuaged critics who rap her for her hesitancy to prosecute police involved in shootings. The L.A. County district attorney’s office has reviewed more than 500 officer-involved shootings during Lacey’s seven years in office. Thirty-eight men and women were killed by LAPD officers from 2015 to 2016, the most of any U.S. city police force during that time, according to data compiled by The Guardian. Since L.A. has a larger population than most of the cities on the list, it did not have the most police shootings per capita, though it did rank above other large cities like New York and Chicago. Nationwide, police shootings have been steadily decreasing, from 89 in 2017 to 63 in 2018. 
With a population of 10.1 million, L.A. County is nearly twice the size of any other local prosecutor’s jurisdiction in the country. (Chicago’s Cook County is the second most populous county at 5.2 million.) Lacey’s office has filed criminal charges against police in two cases: In 2015 off-duty LAPD Officer Henry Solis was charged with murder after he shot a man after a fight outside a Pomona bar, and in May, sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu was charged with manslaughter after he shot a fleeing motorist.

During Lacey’s tenure, her office has filed cases against 79 cops for crimes that range from wage theft and obstruction of justice to assault with a deadly weapon. “She will prosecute bad cops and that’s what she’s done,” says Brian Moriguchi, former president of the L.A. County Professional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents sergeants and lieutenants in the county Sheriff’s Department, which endorsed Lacey for reelection. (She also has the support of most of L.A.’s Democratic establishment, including Dianne Feinstein, Eric Garcetti, and Adam Schiff,)

Gascón’s campaign is blaming the police for San Francisco’s street crime, telling the Los Angeles Times that police made arrests in less than 1.6 percent of reported vehicle break-ins, while he prosecuted about 85 percent of the auto theft cases presented to his office. Lacey says shifting blame onto the police is not going to solve a crime spree. “The solution is getting in there and work with them,” she says. “You don’t point fingers and blame.”

DA races in Los Angeles tend to have the elements of Borgia family political intrigue, says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown of an L.A. County DA, but not usually for the reasons going on now.” As crime rates in the city have remained at historic lows, he said, progressives have spotted an opportunity to undertake systemic reform. “Even cities with a history of being very liberal are often not so liberal with regard to criminal justice, and L.A. is not an exception,” Sonenshein said. “Criminal justice reform was stuck in neutral for a long time, but it has really started moving, and it has scrambled the district attorney politics in cities.” Candidates with unorthodox legal backgrounds have ousted incumbent district attorneys in often hotly contested races in cities like Philadelphia; Boston, Brooklyn; Houston; and Durham, N.C.

In some respects, Lacey finds herself caught in the political dilemma that hindered the presidential ambitions of California Senator Kamala Harris. Both women were elected to office at a time when being a public prosecutor as a Democrat and African American in the state meant having to reassure law enforcement (and fend off conservative rivals) by talking tough on crime. Both are moderate reformers who maintained historically low crime rates.

Lacey, who received Harris’s endorsement for DA in 2012, was shocked at the flak the first woman of color elected as California attorney general received from some quarters on the left. “I’m talking about how people are portraying her enforcing the law as being a bad guy,” Lacey said. “Harris was probably one of the most innovative prosecutors I ever met. I’m shocked actually, because, first of all, I think a prosecutor is an honorable job. I am disheartened that the work is not being portrayed the way it should be.”

Lacey’s opponents criticize her for opposing many criminal justice reforms. She said she agrees with lessening the punishment for nonviolent drug crimes and supports an overhaul of the cash bail system, if not doing away with the latter practice. (Lacey opposed legislation designed to make California the first state to end the use of cash bail for all detained suspects awaiting trials.) Her concern with other reforms, she said, is that if there aren’t systems in place to address harm that could occur, “there’s a potential for backlash.”

An ACLU lawyer in Washington, D.C., referring to Lacey’s record of putting 22 people of color on death row, called her “the human embodiment of structural racism at the core of the death penalty.” Lacey countered that only seven of the decisions listed in the report were made during her term, and that she only recommends the death penalty in the most egregious of cases—serial killers, those who murder infants, or murder their own rape victims. “Most of the victims in these cases are people of color, and they deserve justice, too,” she said.

“I think a prosecutor is an honorable job. I am disheartened that the work is not being portrayed the way it should be.” -Jackie Lacey

Unlike her friend Harris, she does not intend to soft-pedal her record as a prosecutor in the coming election. “I’m not running for president,” she said with a smile.

When she began her career in the San Fernando courthouse, Lacey was known as a hard-driving prosecutor of serious felonies. She tried 11 murder cases, and the jury returned a guilty verdict in all of them, including the state’s first hate-crime convictions in the case of three Nazi Low Riders who used a tire iron to beat a man to death. She also put a double murderer on California’s Death Row.

“As a trial lawyer she was very good,” said Cooley, the former county district attorney who in the 1990s was Lacey’s supervisor in the San Fernando court. “Judges really respected and liked her, and jurors where she tried cases admired her. I got more complimentary notes about her from jurors than I got about any other deputy DA in my career.”

The election of Cooley in 2000 brought an end to the tumultuous eight-year tenure of Gil Garcetti as DA. Cooley, a Republican, won by hammering Garcetti for the embarrassing loss in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and inattention to appalling levels of LAPD misconduct in the Rampart Division scandal. When Cooley won, the first person he promoted to his management team was Lacey.

Lacey would advance from line prosecutor to overseeing almost every significant specialized prosecution unit in the department, including major narcotics and major crimes. Cooley elevated her to director of the Central Operations bureau and then moved her to director the branch and area operations bureau. He later named her an assistant district attorney, one of the department’s top-ranking posts, and finally moved her up to chief deputy, the DA’s second-in-command. Lacey reviewed almost every significant case involving public corruption, police misconduct, organized crime, developing an in-house reputation as a pragmatic problem solver.

She was also the only woman of color to enter the almost exclusively white and male uppermost echelons of the department. But early into Cooley’s third and final term, when he proposed that Lacey succeed him, she thought he was kidding. “I just, I never saw myself as being able to be a political figure,” she says.

That was before the first African American was elected president of the United States. Lacey was an early supporter of Barack Obama, even volunteering for him at a phone bank. When he was elected, she said that she asked herself: “Why am I thinking I’m too old to do this? Maybe there’s a lot more I can give.”

When Lacey was first hired as a public prosecutor for Santa Monica in the 1980s, the city attorney asked her, “How are you going to tell your community that you’re a prosecutor?” At first, Lacey said, she didn’t know what he was talking about. “There were no prosecutors in my community, and I didn’t know any, and so I didn’t quite understand,” she said.

“Now I do, right? Now I do.”

RELATED: Meet George Gascón, the Progressive Ex-Cop Challenging Jackie Lacey for D.A.

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