Downtown's District Attorney's Debate Gets Chippy

Candidates for the Los Angeles District Attorney job (from left to right): incumbent Jackie Lacey, George Gascon and Rachel Rossi. 

Almost consistent protests and jeers from the audience nearly upended a lively debate between the three individuals vying to head the largest prosecutorial agency in the United States.

Incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey, seeking a third term as Los Angeles district attorney, traded barbs with challengers George Gascon, former district attorney of San Francisco, and Rachel Rossi, a longtime public defender, in between jeers from largely anti-Lacey protestors during a debate organized by KPCC and the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, Jan. 29. It was the first time that the three have met on the same stage.

The nearly 90-minute debate, moderated by L.A. Times editorial writer Robert Greene and KPCC politics reporter Libby Denkmann, saw multiple protestors removed from the audience at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo, underscoring the contention over the district attorney’s office and the heated nature behind a race that many characterize as a clash between traditional law-and-order strategies and more progressive policies championed in areas like Philadelphia.

The first few rounds of questions progressed as expected, with each candidate expressing their stance without little interruption, but around the third question, a man began shouting from the crowd toward Lacey, at one point, approaching the stage, prompting security and other members of the front-row audience to leap from their seats in preparation to protect the candidates.

After a few minutes the crowd did settle down, but the remainder of the debate was marred by regular interruptions, with some groups shouting “Jackie Lacey must go” as the incumbent attempted to answer questions. At multiple times throughout the evening, security was forced to wade through the seats to forcibly remove audible protestors.

The debate touched on some of the most pressing criminal and legal issues facing Los Angeles, such as how to handle homelessness and the mentally ill, prosecution of police-involved shootings, the racial disparities in both the county jail and the district attorney’s office, cash bail, gang enhancements and the death penalty, amonst others.

Voters will have the opportunity to select a candidate during the March 3 primary election.

Homelessnes and Mental Illness

The debate began with a discussion on the prosecution of homeless and mentally ill individuals.

Rossi, who started her legal career as a public defender in Los Angeles County and has positioned herself as a progressive alternative to Lacey, said if she became district attorney she would prioritize scaling back the “criminalization of poverty,” instead focusing on the root causes of homelessness. Rossi said that as district attorney she would develop a task force that is responsible for investigating developers and landlords for illegal practices.

“We need a justice system that works for all people, instead of criminalizing the homeless. Let’s fight homelessness, let’s end homelessness,” Rossi said.

Gascon, who most recently served as San Francisco District Attorney before stepping down in October, agreed to an extent, touching on the impact that being arrested can have on low-income individuals.

“We need to be careful to make sure that we do not use the criminal justice system to criminalize poor people, or to criminalize people because they can’t afford a house,” he said. “They aren’t homeless, they are houseless.”

Lacey also agreed that criminalizing homeless people simply for being homeless is not the way to go, while touting that the DA’s Office already does not prosecute cases such as street sleeping or public urination. She added that she was one of the first district attorney’s in the nation to move forward with a diversion program that reroutes certain criminal offenders to mental health treatment when eligible. Gascon said that he doesn’t feel like the Los Angeles program is doing enough, noting that he has heard from prosecutors in the L.A. District Attorney’s office who say that they are being continuously told not to divert cases.

In response, Lacey said that “Gascon doesn’t know what he is talking about,” and that he speaks “from a position of ignorance.” She added that San Francisco’s diversion program failed to properly cushion individuals once they are diverted.

Rossi said she would like to look at the recommendations made by the district attorney’s office in terms of who receives mental health diversion.

“You talked about ignorance. I have talked to the public defenders in the courtroom whose clients are consistently denied mental health diversion,” Rossi said.

Lacey addressed her detractors who have criticized the incumbent for jailing too many individuals for low-level crimes. She said that she believes that more people need to be diverted from jail, which is why she started the diversion program.

“They have to paint our office as a bad office, they have to do this, because otherwise why are they running?” Lacey said before taking aim at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. “[Gascon’s] property crime rates in that city have been abysmal. Our office does not have the issues, our community does not have the issues. We have true leadership.”

San Francisco by far has the highest property crime rates in California, almost twice per capita of Los Angeles according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Gascon shot back at Lacey, noting that while arrests might have decreased in San Francisco, so did violent crime.

Rossi took aim at the racial disparity amongst Los Angeles’ jail population and said that she supports commissioning an outside audit of jail data.

Lacey said that when it comes to high incarceration rates amongst black and Latino Angelenos, that we must look “further back down the road.”

“We need to look at income inequality,” Lacey said. “African Americans have been behind the eight ball in terms of distribution of wealth, but by the time it comes to me, people have made bad decisions that require the prosecutor to respond.”

Rossi countered with the statistic that a black or Latino individual is 13 times more likely to be arrested.

“I refuse to believe that if you’re black in L.A. you are 13 times more likely to make bad decisions,” Rossi said.

In a response to a question about what Rossi would do to address some of those racial issues, she called for a robust audit of geographic arrest and prosecution data to see where over-arrests are occuring.

“The district attorney is the gatekeeper,” Rossi said. “The district attorney can sit down and tell law enforcement ‘I’m not filing that case.’ The district attorney can sit down and say ‘I’m only getting cases from these black neighborhoods. Let’s talk about it.’”

Gascon said that as DA in San Francisco, he instituted a program that would mask racial data from prosecutors before they could file a case.

Reform vs. “Reasonable” Reform

When it came to the question of reform, Lacey spent most of the debate on the defensive, rebounding jabs from Rossi and Gascon on her record.

Gascon and Rossi derided Lacey for seeking the death penalty, despite a statewide moratorium on executions issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Lacey said that she only seeks the death penalty in certain “egregious” cases. She mentioned the case of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend. The mother was sentenced to life in prison with the boyfriend receiveing the death penalty. She said she was following state law, not the stance of the governor.

Lacey said that Gascon’s current stance on the death penalty is a byproduct of his run for L.A. District Attorney.

“He is riding the wave of politics,” Lacey said.

Gascon said that during his eight years as San Fransisco DA, he never sought the death penalty.

Gascon was then asked about co-authoring Proposition 47, a ballot measure that declassified some felonies as misdemeanors; almost every law enforcement agency in California opposed the ballot measure.

Gascon said that “reform is always going to be uncomfortable for the status quo.” He said that Prop. 47 was one of the first steps in a more equitable criminal justice system.

Lacey said that she agreed that the drug charges needed to be altered, but took issue with its impact on petty theft. She said that since Prop. 47 has gone into effect, organized theft rings have become more common. She said that Prop. 47 was not thought through.

Lacey said that her experience as a lawyer, “a real working lawyer” as she put it, allowed her to see that Prop. 47 has issues.

“George has never been in the courtroom his entire life,” Lacey said. “He could not be hired as a grade one in my office.”

Rossi disagreed that Prop. 47 was the root cause of the increase, pointing to similar increases in homelessness and evictions state wide.

On the subject of cash bail, Rossi called out both Lacey and Gascon, for not implementing an alternative to cash bail while in office. Lacey also questioned why Gascon did not implement a new bail system during his tenure in San Francisco.

The subject of gang enhancements, which was brought to the forefront after a L.A. Times investigation found that members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Metro Division were falsely labeling individuals as gang members, was also discussed.

Both Rossi and Gascon said that they would do away with gang enhancements. Lacey said she could not discuss the recent LAPD gang enhancement investigation, but said that she was not on board with terminating tougher sentences for gang members due to Los Angeles’ ongoing gang issue.

Police Shootings

The issue that seemed to draw the heaviest response from audience members was the subject of police shootings. Lacey drew the ire of both challengers, as well as several audience members.

Lacey defended her track record, stating that she must prosecute police officers “for the right reasons.”

Gascon mentioned LAPD Officer Clifford Proctor, who shot and killed Brandon Glenn near the Venice boardwalk in 2016. Gascon said that there was evidence that could have resulted in charges. Lacey said that former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck leaked a letter to her office recommending prosecution to the press. Gascon also recieved a little heat from the audience, with a woman calling out Gascon for his track record prosecuting officers in San Francisco.

Lacey characterized her challenges as unqualified for the position, noting that Rossi has never been a prosecutor and that Gascon, prior to becoming district attorney, has never tried a case in court.

Rossi said that her lack of experience as a prosecutor is exactly why she is running.

As of press time, Lacey has earned the support of a number of power players in Los Angeles. The first black person and woman elected to the post, Mayor Eric Garcetti and four members of the Board of Supervisors have already placed their support behind the incumbent, alongside a number of unions that represented local law enforcement agencies. London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, also put her weight behind Lacey shortly after Gascon resigned in October.

Lacey’s track record when it comes to police prosecutions has earned Gascon a number of endorsements as well, including the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. The Los Angeles County Democratic Party has also issued endorsements for Gascon.

Rossi served in the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office, the Federal Public Defender’s Office and counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

sthomas@timespublications.com.