Two significant news reports within days of each other tossed a dubious glare back on Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
One was the announcement by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon that he might mount an election challenge to her. Gascon would be formidable. He was a one-time ranking Los Angeles police officer and is highly touted as a first-rate criminal justice reformer.
The other news of note was a headline story that Lacey, in the nearly two dozen cases in which she has sought the death penalty, not one of the defendants was white. The two pieces of news about Lacey can’t be separated.
She has ticked off a lot of activists in Los Angeles over the past few years because of her unabashed tough enforcement stance. She has bucked a growing nationwide trend among prosecutors to back off the death penalty except in the most heinous cases and to find more ways to fund and push rehabilitation, treatment and alternative sentencing to prevent packing the jails with drug and petty non-violent crime offenders.
Gascon correctly sniffs political vulnerability with Lacey. He banks that with the right push and the right pitch that effectively fighting crime and reform are not mutually exclusive, he could oust her.
Lacey will get the usual suspects in the L.A. political establishment behind her: the mayor, the county supervisors and some members of Congress. But this time around that may not be enough. And it shouldn’t be.
Because Lacey has been a huge disaster in the one area that above all has been one of the most painful, sensitive and contentious. That’s the issue of police abuse and the overuse of deadly force by officers.
Lacey’s record on this has been abominable. She won’t prosecute police abuse cases.
In an interview with her on my radio talk show, I asked Lacey whether she would back the creation of an independent investigator at the state level to review questionable police shootings. She flatly said no, gave a variety of reasons that boiled down to her office was perfectly capable of making an objective and legally sound determination of whether those shootings merited prosecution without any outside interference.
But the issue is a major point of friction precisely because she doggedly refuses to prosecute cops who kill or commit acts of misconduct no matter how seemingly outrageous. Lacey has been unshakeable on this even when police officials request or indicate they will not oppose a prosecution.
That was the case when former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck recommended the prosecution of the cop who gunned down Brendon Glenn, an unarmed homeless man in Venice. In the beating of Marlene Pinnock by a CHP officer, CHP officials turned over the report on their investigation to Lacey with the apparent indication that they would not oppose a prosecution. No go with Lacey in either case.
Lacey enjoys a cozy relationship with Los Angeles politicians and police brass, rakes in lots of campaign dollars from the police unions, and apparently sees herself as the top legal bulwark against violent crime in L.A. County. The slightest deviation from this play it close to the legal and official vest she apparently regards as fraught with political peril.
What makes Lacey’s unyielding stance even more infuriating is that many district attorneys around the country have shown that they can be tough on crime, yet still hold cops accountable when they break the law. They can at the same time back effective alternative programs to put the brakes on the continued mass incarceration of mostly poor blacks and Hispanics.
Lacey instead has turned her office into a zero-sum game with her hardline stance on crime versus reform. The result: the district attorney’s office has become a virtual war zone, with groups such as Black Lives Matter and other police and criminal justice reform groups practically laying siege to her office.
They denounce her for her refusal to prosecute cops who overuse deadly force. Her refusal has even prompted a call from civil rights groups for a recall campaign against her.
In her 2020 re-election bid, Lacey will be asked these brutal questions. Why has L.A. consistently on her watch locked up far more people proportionally than any other county in the state? Why has she defied even police officials who backed prosecution of officers who used excessive force, and refused?
Why has she fought hard against the release of prisoners convicted of murder who hadn’t actually committed the murder though they were involved in a felony? Why does she still vigorously push the death penalty and why has she demanded it only for blacks and Hispanics?
And of course, why she has repeatedly turned a deaf ear to calls for prosecutions of abusive cops? Lacey must not be allowed to skirt these questions with pithy statements, press releases, a blizzard of legalese or simply the usual duck and dodge.
Many district attorneys have shown that being a tough cop and a tough reformer can go hand in hand. In fact, must go hand in hand if fairness and justice under the law are to be more than empty words in a law class.
Lacey has failed miserably to deliver on either fairness or justice under the law and must answer why?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network at 9 a.m. July 6 will feature an on-air townhall on L.A. County Distrit Attorney Jackie Lacey, streamed at kpfk,org livestreamed at https://www.facebook.com/hutchinsonreport