LA DA Jackie Lacey Runs For A 3rd Term As A 'Reasonable Reformer'

DA Jackie Lacey at the Jan. 29 candidates debate. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times ©2020)

L.A District Attorney Jackie Lacey says she's misunderstood.

She says she's not part of the old guard. But she also says she's not a progressive.

So what is she?

"I would describe myself as a reasonable reformer," L.A.'s top prosecutor told me as we sat in a downtown law firm on a recent weekday morning.

From our vantage point on the 40th floor, we stared out the window down on a car-swamped Figueroa Street — just a tiny sliver of L.A. County's 2,000 square miles.

Lacey runs an office of 1,000 prosecutors responsible for that area, which includes dozens of police agencies.

"People often say to me, 'I live in Beverly Hills. Is that still in L.A County? I live in Chatsworth. Is that still in L.A. County?'" Lacey said.

And that's a message Lacey, 62, touts on the 2020 campaign trail as she seeks a third term in the March 3 primary: she's the only one who can manage this sprawling county.

"As DA, your true north is justice," she said. "You have got to be someone who cares about victims and protecting your community ... When people commit crimes, there has to be some accountability."

At the same time, Lacey said, "you've got to balance that with fairness, recognizing that there are people in the justice system who deserve ... a break, a chance to re-enter."

Lacey points to her work establishing a special unit to help people with mental health issues get treatment and avoid jail time. Increasing opportunities for diversion is a cornerstone of Lacey's re-election platform —along with bail reform and combating sexual violence.

NOT A 'HARD CHARGING DA'

While backing reform of the cash bail system, Lacey does not support its outright elimination. She supports the state law that would do away with cash bail in most situations (though that law is currently on hold pending the outcome of a November ballot initiative backed by the bail bonds industry that would kill it), while giving judges the opportunity to impose it in cases involving high-level misdemeanors or low-level felonies using a risk assessment tool.

But her opposition to reforms such as Prop. 47 — which reduced some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors — has drawn criticism from her two challengers in the primary, civil liberties groups and activists who say she's still a traditional tough-on-crime prosecutor.

Lacey has also taken considerable fire for her support of the death penalty and for her handling of officer shootings: Out of hundreds during her tenure as DA, Lacey has only filed criminal charges against one L.A. Sheriff's deputy for an on-duty shooting.

Every Wednesday at 4 p.m., dozens of protestors with Black Lives Matter rally outside her office behind metal barriers.

Everywhere Lacey goes — from public events to her Granada Hills home — she's been met with signs, drums, yelling and the chant, "Jackie Lacey must go."

Lacey's supporters include much of L.A.'s political establishment, the unions representing rank-and-file LAPD officers and Sheriff's deputies, and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA), the union that represents the prosecutors in her office.

"I think there is a perception that she is a hard charging DA who wants everyone locked up, and that's just not the case," said ADDA Vice President Eric Siddall.

He stressed that when discussing the role of race it's important to remember the victims of crime.

"The racial disparity that occurs within victimization — especially within homicide — is astronomical," Siddal said.


Learn about all three candidates for L.A. County DA in our Voter's Guide.


GROWING UP 'ADJACENT TO CRIME'

An L.A. native, Lacey grew up in the Crenshaw district. "It was a nice area, but we were adjacent to crime," she said, adding that gang activity was picking up when she attended Dorsey High School. Burglars once broke into her family home.

Her parents — Addie and Louis Phillips — left the rural south for Southern California during what's known as the Great Migration, when nearly half the southern black population moved away, hoping to leave the region's racism behind.

"They taught my sister and I ... a lot about what it was like for them to grow up in a segregated society, how they wanted better for us," Lacey said. "They wanted a college education, opportunity."

Lacey's father was a sanitation worker, her mother a cook for the L.A. Unified School District. She said they taught her the importance of public service.

Lacey entered the district attorney's office as a line prosecutor in 1986, just a few years after she graduated from USC with a law degree. She was the first person in her family to get a college degree of any kind.

Jackie Lacey holding her son Kareem at her 1982 USC law school graduation. (Courtesy of Jackie Lacey)

Lacey rose through the ranks at the DA's office. She headed the major crimes and major narcotics units and the Central Operations bureau, among other things. In 2011, she rose to Chief Deputy DA — the number two position in the agency.

Following her election to the top seat in 2012, Lacey — surrounded by family wearing shades of purple — was sworn into office as the first woman, and first black person, to serve as the top prosecutor in L.A. County. Celebrities like Magic Johnson showered her with praise.

Local civil rights activist Najee Ali tweeted a photo of himself and Lacey on the big day. "Watching history being made," he wrote.

'LIKE ASKING THE FOX TO WATCH THE HENHOUSE'

Nearly seven years later, Ali stood under a carport amidst balloons and candles at a memorial for 24-year-old Ryan Twyman, an unarmed black father of three who was fatally shot by L.A. Sheriff's deputies in June 2019 while he attempted to reverse out of a parking spot as deputies approached his car.

Ali called for a state probe, saying he had no confidence in the ability of Lacey or the Sheriff's department to conduct a fair investigation.

"That's like asking the fox to watch the henhouse," he said.

'IT'S ABOUT THE EVILNESS...PERPETRATED ON...THE MOST VULNERABLE'

It's an uncomfortable topic to broach for some: the lauded black politician from Crenshaw under fire from civil rights activists who say she's not acting in the interests of people of color.

Critics point out that in the 22 cases in which Lacey has successfully sought the death penalty, 13 defendants were Latino, eight were black and one was Asian.

But when it comes to deciding whether to seek capital punishment, "we're not out there choosing people based on their color," Lacey said. "People are choosing to come on our radar because they commit crimes. And that's the end of the story. People are making some very bad choices."

Lacey said she only pursues the death penalty in extreme cases.

To show me an example, she reached inside her purse and pulled out an iPad. Lacey shuffled through a few photos before landing on one of a middle-aged black woman and a girl eating hot dogs at a cookout.

The woman is Sonya Durfield Harris; the girl is her 9-year-old daughter, Kayla.

In 2008, family friend Cory Lynn King stabbed Sonya more than 50 times. Her three daughters — Kayla, Melinda and Ebony — were also stabbed to death.

"He stabbed [Ebony] over 60 times in her own home," Lacey said.

The DA sought the death penalty against King, who's black.

"Color didn't have anything to do with our decision," Lacey said. "It's about the evilness perpetrated on some of the most vulnerable people in our society."

OLD POT CHARGES, ED BUCK AND HARVEY WEINSTEIN

She pushes back against charges that she isn't doing enough to dismantle racism more generally in the criminal justice system.

Last week, Lacey announced that her office has moved to dismiss 66,000 marjuana convictions in the county dating back to 1961.

She said the move would "bring much-needed relief to communities of color that disproportionately suffered the unjust consequences of our nation's drug laws."

Lacey faced criticism for taking nearly two years to file charges against high-profile Democratic donor Ed Buck for the deaths of two black men from drug overdoses at his home.

The DA's office faced challenges investigating the Buck case, including an "inadmissible search and seizure," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Some questioned the timing of Lacey's announcement of sexual assault charges against disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein on the same day that jury selection began in his New York trial.

The DA said it had been "very challenging to get some [of Weinstein's alleged] victims to open up."

'WE SHOULD BE ANGRY'

Lacey's record on police shootings stirs the strongest passions.

Some of the protestors at her public events are relatives of people shot and killed by police.

Lacey showed up to the Jan. 29 KPCC/Los Angeles Times DA debate with 10 plainclothes security guards and 17 LAPD officers. They surrounded and removed protestors, some of whom loudly heckled Lacey throughout the evening.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah was removed after arguing with security guards. She helps organize the weekly protest outside Lacey's office.

"We should be angry," Adullah said during a recent interview at a cafe at Pico and Crenshaw.

"These are real people. And she's not standing up for the people of the county when police are the perpetrators of the crime."

A May 5, 2017 image from a police body camera shows Brendon Glenn yelling with his arms in the air before being shot by police near the Venice boardwalk. (Los Angeles District Attorney's Office via AP)

One of Lacey's most controversial decisions not to prosecute an LAPD officer involved the fatal 2015 shooting of an unarmed homeless man, Brendon Glenn.

Officer Clifford Proctor shot and killed the 29-year-old Glenn during a struggle just off the Venice boardwalk. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck took the unusual step of calling on prosecutors to file criminal charges against Proctor.

LAPD investigators did not find evidence to support Proctor's claim that Glenn was reaching for his partner's gun, but Lacey said "Proctor may have reasonably believed that Glenn was reaching for his partner's weapon," adding that her office concluded that "we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Proctor did not act within the law."

Lacey defends her record in the Proctor case and in general, saying it's "very, very difficult" to successfully prosecute law enforcement officers for shootings.

"It's not that we are pro-police or anti police," she said. "It's that we're looking at the facts and following the law."

'IT WAS YELLING AND SCREAMING AND BLAMING'

Melina Abdullah at a protest outside the Hall of Justice on May 2, 2018. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Lacey said she has tried to engage with her critics on this issue, adding that her office has met privately with parents of several people killed by police.

"It's painful. It's hard to listen to," she said. "With regard to the protestors, I have made an attempt a couple times to reach out to the leaders of Black Lives Matters and say, Can we just sit down with a small group?"

But Melina Abdullah said Black Lives Matter has repeatedly asked for a public meeting with Lacey, which the DA has refused to do.

In 2016, Lacey walked out of a town hall in South L.A. after protestors took over the microphone.

"She's an elected official," Adbullah said. "She can't say that she doesn't want to meet with her constituents because they disagree with her and they're passionate about where we stand."

Lacey said the crowd at the town hall was "yelling and screaming and blaming, and I don't know if you're ever going to see meaningful change like that."

She said she won't engage with protestors who are behaving like that. "I just feel like there's a better way," she said.

I asked Lacey what it feels like to be a black woman under attack by Black Lives Matter and other civil rights groups - full of people who come from the same background, even the same neighborhood that she does.

"How I feel personally probably isn't really relevant," she said. "I think what I have to do is my job, the best I can — understanding that when you step into this role, you're going to take criticism. Every decision you make is going to make someone displeased.

"But you have to be strong enough to make the decision fairly and according to the law," she continued. And that's really where I come down on it."