LA district attorney race: Jackie Lacey on holding police accountable and receiving donations from police unions

Incumbent LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey has held the office for the past eight years. She’s running for a third term, defending her seat against George Gascón, who used to be San Francisco’s district attorney. Lacey is the first woman and the first African American to hold the position. She calls herself a “reasonable reformer.

KCRW talks to Lacey about homelessness reforms, keeping police accountable, receiving donations from police unions (which could raise a conflict of interest), and whether the LA County Sheriff’s Department is doing a good job.

KCRW: In an era where people are demanding big changes to how policing is done and how officers are held accountable for misconduct, lots of people don't want “reasonable reform.” They want bold changes. Make the case for your more measured response. 

Jackie Lacey: “The choice between myself and my opponent is about how we do reform, as opposed to what reforms we want. So for instance, I really want police shootings to decrease, I want people to live, I want the police to be able to do their job, make lawful arrests. And I don't want racial discrimination or racial profiling or people treated like they're more dangerous because of the color of their skin. 

The difference is, and how we get there is, I am someone who has a lot of experience in the criminal justice system. And I think with regard to these reforms, you have to be able to understand what the language means and how that's going to play out in the community. And make sure that the language and the things that are in law don't end up increasing crime, because no one wants that either.”

What kinds of reforms do you think need to happen?

“I think that in LA County, a big issue is homelessness. And it's often been said that the DA can't solve homelessness, right? Because you look at the DA’s office and what we do. 

But I think the DA can play a role in helping people who are unhoused break the barriers that prevent them from being housed. So for instance, I cleared 900,000 old traffic ticket warrants, old misdemeanor warrants for people so that when they do these homeless clinics, that people can get jobs, they can get housing.

I also think mental health is important. A lot of the people that I come in contact with [through] the justice system have a mental illness that is untreated and results in them just living on the streets. And so if they happen to get arrested, coming to the justice system, I really think there's an opportunity there to link them to housing. And not just any housing, but full supportive housing. So that's why when I formed the Criminal Justice Mental Health Advisory Board and published this report, housing was a key component of it, getting people help. 

So I think it's one thing to say, ‘Oh, let me decriminalize something, let me make it legal.’ But it's another thing to look at okay, what does that mean, what impact does that have on our society? And will it make it safe or unsafe for the rest of us?” 

What about holding police officers accountable? That seems to be the main issue in this race — police misconduct in the wake of the George Floyd killing and all of the protests that have happened this summer. People are really angry with you, they're protesting outside your house, they're calling for your resignation, specifically because they feel like you don't hold officers accountable. And in your entire tenure, you have prosecuted just one officer for killing a suspect. So do they have any right to be angry for your lack of prosecuting police killings? There have been hundreds of them during the last eight years.

“Everyone has a right to be angry and frustrated over this issue. Okay. And because it is one, when you look at policing in the United States as opposed to other countries, it is important to note that in the United States in general, you see more people die at the hands of police. That said, the prosecutor sometimes comes in at the very end of the story. 

… Officer-involved shootings … like 60% of them involve people who have a knife or some kind of stabbing instrument. Or again, the law is such that police officers are able to use deadly force if they feel their life’s in danger or someone else's life is in danger. And that's why you have very few of these prosecutions across the United States. It's not just in LA. San Francisco had zero, at least during my opponent’s time there. The issue is how do we improve it? How do we get the numbers to go down so the DA’s office gets less of those cases?

And what you'll see if you look closely at the numbers of shootings in LA County, is that they are decreasing from 2015. When we started focusing on mental health training and de-escalation techniques, the LA DA’s office trained like more than 2000 first responders. 

And one last point that I think is getting lost is the DA’s office does hold police officers accountable. We've filed over 200 cases on police officers for on and off duty conduct, for murder, for sexual assault, for perjury. The other day, we filed on what's called the field identification card scandal on some officers on that. So we do hold them accountable. 

But I get it. The public and the protesters, if you talk to them, they're going to tell you that ‘well, we want every officer arrested, and we want every officer prosecuted.’ And the law and the circumstances have not enabled me to prosecute as many officers as my critics would have.” 

A new state law does hold officers to a higher standard for using deadly force. You did not support that. Is that correct?

“I didn't support the original version of it because they wanted to hold officers accountable if there was a mistake. Once they changed that, and by the way, I wasn't the only one who had a problem with the initial language. And that's what I'm talking about — a reasonable reformer, right? Because I am a lawyer, because I've been in the courtroom and I tried cases, I can understand the language and how that plays out. But I did write a letter to the governor and to the legislature on behalf of our office and myself, supporting that legislation toward the end once they made the change that I think was the right change and fair.”

People who oppose you — and your official opponent on the ballot George Gascón — notes that your campaign is supported by law enforcement unions. You have raised millions from them. And people are skeptical that you can hold police officers accountable when so much of your campaign funds come from their unions.

“Raising as the wrong word. The money that he is talking about did not come directly to my campaign. People who’ve contributed to my campaign come from all walks of life. Different unions have individually donated 1500.  But the money he's talking about goes to what's called an independent expenditure. 

And here's my question. These are hard working men and women — the people who donate to the union. He was a member of the union for 30 years when he was a police officer. And he has never prosecuted an officer-involved shooting, including the case of Mario Woods, which is the case that led to Colin Kaepernick to take a knee. Why are they supporting him? If the answer is ‘hey, we want to support someone who never holds police officers accountable,’ why aren't they supporting him?”

Under your mandate, you are supposed to charge police officers for misconduct. But at the same time, when you receive money, whether it's through individual donations or a PAC, you're still receiving support from police officers. Doesn't that raise the specter of a conflict of interest?

“When we do these, people pretend like the cases are brought in to me directly. I have a unit that is separate from the administration that reviews these cases. It's not that the union is calling in to the lawyers who are looking at these cases. Our lawyers who go into that unit, they’re lawyers with a lot of experience, they are not the elected official. They are people who are trained to do these cases. And they're people who trained to try these cases. … And the decisions that reach my level are the ones where they're high profile, by the time they reach my decisions, it comes in from them as ‘this is what we recommend based on the facts and the law.’ And they do a presentation, and they go through the defenses, and they go through the law, and they go through the evidence. And it's up to me at that point just to say yes or no — 99.9% the time I agree with the civil servant lawyers who look at these cases.”

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has come under fire for a lot of things. LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman released a report this week, saying there is substantial evidence that a secret deputy gang (called the Banditos) has become really problematic in the East LA sheriff's station. There are allegations of assault among other officers. 

Then this report criticizes your office for declining to prosecute three deputies and a sergeant and not scrutinizing the existence of this gang. What is your response to that? And will you look more critically now at this long standing practice? I think there have been sheriff's deputy gangs within the sheriff's department for decades.

“While the inspector general was doing his job in the sense that he's looking at how the sheriff's department is run in terms of gangs, our job in the DA’s office has a little bit narrower focus. If the gangs are committing crimes, and there are allegations that they have, it's our job then to look at the gang, look at the crime, and then make a determination as to whether a crime occurred.  

I read Max Huntsman's statements about this office also. And here's what I disagree with. Max Huntsmen didn't have access to the evidence that our office, our lawyers had, okay. He was not there. He knows that it's one thing to look at reports. But it's another thing to actually look at the witnesses, see how they'll stand up, see if they're going to be cooperative. And my lawyers in that unit are extremely experienced. They've had a lot of trial experience. And I stand by them in terms of their decision. 

Mr. Huntsman hasn't been in our office for a while. And when he was there, he was a great trial lawyer. On the other hand, he of all people know that these cases are difficult and challenging, and especially, especially when you have uncooperative witnesses.

I just want to use this opportunity to speak to any deputy sheriff, any law enforcement officer: If you see your fellow law enforcement committing a crime, do the right thing and speak up, say something, tell the truth.”

Can’t you force uncooperative witnesses to testify? Can't you subpoena them?

“You could subpoena them, and they can sit there and say nothing.”

In general, do you think the sheriff is doing a good job? Or do you think he should resign? There have been calls for him to resign by some members of the Board of Supervisors. 

“I'm reluctant to criticize any public leader publicly. There are things, if I were the sheriff, I would have done differently. Things I would have handled terms of my relationship with the board, because after all, they control your money. There are things that I think he's done well. And I think what the public wants is for us to be adults, and to get along in the sense that if we have criticisms, go there privately. But this public stuff, I just don't agree that this is the right way for the DA’s office, especially when we have to solve so many crimes with the sheriff's department, to go.”

Greater LA: Jackie Lacey v. George Gascon: Do Angelenos want a progressive new district attorney?
Greater LA: Public health is top priority during coronavirus pandemic, LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey says
Press Play: ‘Isn’t just a matter of waving a wand’: Jackie Lacey on weed conviction dismissals

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy