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What It Was Like To Moderate That Raucous DA Debate

Security staff removes an unidentified heckler at the DA debate Wednesday night. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)
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The crowd at the DA debate on Wednesday night was … challenging. Multiple protests erupted in the audience at the Aratani Theatre in downtown L.A. and security officials escorted some audience members from the venue.

The debate was cosponsored by our newsroom and the L.A. Times and moderated by KPCC/LAist's politics reporter Libby Denkmann and the L.A. Times editorial writer Robert Greene.

We talked to Libby about what it was like to moderate the conversation on stage between incumbent DA Jackie Lacey, former San Francisco DA George Gascon and former federal public defender Rachel Rossi amid all the emotion.

This Q&A is part what we hope will be a regular spotlight on how journalists do their jobs.

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Libby Denkmann and Robert Greene address the audience before the debate got underway Wednesday night. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Q: Things got very heated Wednesday night. You had to stop the debate multiple times because of protests from some in the crowd at the Aratani Theater. What did it feel like in the room?

A: Emotions were very high. Some people showed up to protest DA Lacey and disrupt the event. Some were from Black Lives Matter or other community groups, and there were also family members of people who had been killed or injured by police.

I recognized they were expressing years of pent-up anger about the way black and brown people are treated by our justice system -- but I also tried to keep things on track by focusing on the issues that our audience and the Los Angeles Times readers asked us to address: how to treat homeless people in the criminal justice system, bail reform, racial disparities in charging and sentencing, community safety, how to calibrate punishment for low-level non-violent crimes, the death penalty, and shootings by police.

So what were some of those issues you drilled down on?

You know, everyone in this race is claiming to be in favor of criminal justice reform. So we were trying to find the fault lines between their positions.

The candidates clashed over the death penalty. Lacey still pursues it in what she says are the most egregious cases, while Gascon and Rossi say they would never ask for capital punishment.

One of the largest problems for a DA to address is the issue of racial disparities in the criminal justice system -- people of color getting arrested, charged and locked up at a much higher rate than white people.

DA Jackie Lacey says she's a reformer who has pioneered the use of mental health diversion to get people treatment instead of jail time. But she believes reforms have to be done carefully to preserve community safety.

George Gascon and Rachel Rossi say Lacey has stood in the way of change, and they point out she has opposed reforms like Proposition 47, which reduced some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors.

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