Key Takeaways In LA DA Debate: Challenger George Gascón And Incumbent Jackie Lacey Make Their Cases

Incumbent L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey debates former San Francisco D.A. and Police Chief George Gascón. (LAist / LA Times)

Our news is free on LAist. To make sure you get our coverage: Sign up for our daily newsletters. To support our non-profit public service journalism: Donate Now.

The future of L.A.'s criminal justice system was presented in stark terms Thursday night by the candidates for Los Angeles District Attorney.

Challenger George Gascón promised a much-needed leap in the direction of 21st-Century prosecutorial reforms. Incumbent Jackie Lacey, meanwhile, warned of the dangers of rapid transformation and pledged to continue pursuing reasonable improvements. The candidates met in a debate co-sponsored by KPCC/LAist and the L.A. Times.

"The difference between [D.A.] Lacey and I, is that I continue to learn and evolve," Gascón said during a discussion about gang enhancements

"He wants to leave residents helpless," Lacey countered in an exchange highlighting the central themes of these rival campaigns.

Lacey is a career prosecutor running for her third term as head of the largest D.A.'s office in the country. She points to a mental health diversion program she helped start as an example of her "reasonable reformer" philosophy.

Gascón was the San Francisco D.A. for almost nine years after serving as chief of police there. He was also an assistant chief with the LAPD. He has helped write some major statewide sentencing reform legislation and returned to Los Angeles last fall to run as a progressive challenger to Lacey in what is a non-partisan race.

This has become one of the most-watched local elections nationwide because it's the latest effort by criminal justice reform advocates to get progressive prosecutors elected in big cities. The idea is to get reformers into high-level positions where they can enact change related to charging decisions and diversion efforts.

EXPERIENCE

On Thursday night, Lacey repeatedly suggested Gascón lacks the experience to be "top cop" in Los Angeles.

"There's nothing like trying a case to understand the nuances of the law, of witnesses, how jurors think and what you need in order to prove cases," said Lacey, pointing out that her opponent has never tried a case. "You need to have been in a courtroom. [The D.A.'s office] is a law firm."

Gascón, meanwhile, argued Lacey's thinking was stuck in the past.

"We are not hiring someone who was a trial lawyer in the 1980s and '90s and continues to want to do business like we're in the '80s and '90s," Gascón said.

RACIAL DISPARITIES

When asked about how he would address inherent racism and restore trust in the criminal justice system, Gascón touted his efforts to reduce incarceration in San Francisco, arguing he did so while maintaining public safety.

"Because one of the things that we knew, and I knew personally, was that incarceration in this country usually is primarily visited upon black and brown communities," Gascón said. "My opponent ... has opposed every single reform that has come her way."

Gascón was a co-author of Prop. 47, a statewide ballot measure that re-classified some non-violent felonies as misdemeanors. He argued too many people of color were being locked up in California for low-level offenses under the previous framework. Lacey opposed Prop. 47, and says it has led to a surge in property crime.

(A 2018 PPIC study found "some evidence" that Prop. 47 caused property crime to rise after 2014. A different study by the University of California, Irvine said associations between Prop. 47 and an uptick in property crime "do not withstand more rigorous statistical testing.")

Lacey charged that Gascón's policies in San Francisco undermined public safety. "Businesses are drying up," she said. "People are afraid." She added that Gascón was unwilling to work with her to close loopholes in the law — changes that would have won her support.

But Gascón disagreed, alleging Lacey was unwilling to budge on Prop. 47 because she was "more concerned about white Republican voters in the [San Fernando] valley." Lacey called that suggestion "simply untrue."

Gascón blamed the uptick in San Francisco's property crime on car break-ins, and said greater cooperation between the police department and his office led to a downturn in his final year in office.

Lacey says she's instituted anti-bias training in her office, supports expanded community policing programs and has promoted a diverse executive staff. "You have to bring diverse voices [to] the table," she said. "I understand why people don't trust the system and don't trust police."

GANG ENHANCEMENTS

Lacey defended her use of gang sentencing enhancements, despite revelations that LAPD officers have added inaccurate information to the state database. More recently, Metro officers were caught falsifying the gang status of people they arrested.

Gang enhancements are a necessary tool, Lacey argued, as long as prosecutors confirm information that officers collect in the field by using other evidence. "You trust. You trust, but verify," she said.

"I would not eliminate the gang enhancements," Lacey said, pointing out her opponent had used them as a D.A.

Gascón said he "evolved" on the issue of gang enhancements during his time in San Francisco. He now believes enhancements are "corrupted because of the information that comes in" from law enforcement.

POLICE SHOOTINGS

Lacey has drawn weekly protests from Black Lives Matter-LA and other groups for what they say is her failure to charge police for killing Black and Latino men.

Standing up for her record, Lacey said she has focused on better officer training and argued she has held law enforcement accountable when the case warranted charges.

Lacey has charged one officer, a sheriff's deputy, with a deadly shooting during her time in office. She recently recused herself from another case, the April 22 shooting of 38-year old Daniel Hernandez. The officer who killed Hernandez is the daughter of a director with the powerful union that represents LAPD officers and has raised millions for Lacey's reelection.

Lacey said she follows "the law, the evidence, and the facts," when making charging decisions.

Gascón did not charge any officers in shootings during his tenure as San Francisco District Attorney.

"He's snookering the activists," Lacey said. "He has yet to offer any concrete thing he's going to do with regard to police shootings."

Gascon said there were shootings in San Francisco while he was D.A. that he deemed "unnecessary," though they were within the law. He said he worked with the state legislature to pass AB 392, which limits the circumstances when law enforcement can use deadly force.

"Proportionately, I prosecuted many more cases [than D.A. Lacey] ... for use of force," Gascón added.

An earlier version of this story said Jackie Lacey had charged one police officer with a deadly shooting. That officer was a sheriff's deputy. LAist regrets the error.

More Local Election Coverage

At our Voter Game Plan you can find: