The debate didn’t exactly go as District Attorney Jackie Lacey had planned. Lacey, onstage at the Aratani Theatre in Los Angeles on January 29, struggled to complete a sentence before protesters started yelling again. “Jackie Lacey must go!” they chanted. One 71-year-old man rushed toward the stage after shouting about the more than 500 people who activists say have been killed by law enforcement under Lacey’s tenure. “You were supposed to meet with us six months ago!” he yelled as security dragged him away. A woman with straight black hair rose from her seat demanding justice for her dead son. Security hauled her out of the room, too, along with about a dozen other demonstrators, many of them members of Black Lives Matter.
Lacey, the first African American person and the first woman to become district attorney in Los Angeles, was elected eight years ago with strong backing from communities of color. But since then, she has opposed state reforms to lower the prison population and declined to charge almost all officers accused of fatal shootings. As the LA County district attorney’s primary approaches, tensions have been mounting between her office and Black Lives Matter protesters. To top things off, Lacey faces stiff competition from San Francisco’s former district attorney, George Gascón, as well as reformist darling Rachel Rossi.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, described the election as “the single most important DA race in the country.” Los Angeles has the nation’s biggest prosecutor’s office by far, and its biggest jail, making it a top prize for reformists who have launched campaigns from Chicago to Philadelphia to Brooklyn to put progressive lawyers at the head of traditionally tough-on-crime district attorney’s offices. The race is also important for the future of police accountability: Los Angeles sees more fatal officer-involved shootings than just about anywhere else in America. Prosecutors—led by the district attorney—are the ones who decide whether to press charges against cops who kill.
Police shootings have become a focal point of the race. Nationally, it’s extremely rare for prosecutors to charge police who kill. But incumbent district attorneys with poor track records on this issue have lost elections elsewhere in recent years after high-profile shootings of unarmed black teens like Laquan McDonald and Michael Brown. After she declined to charge hundreds of officers, including one who shot a homeless, unarmed black man, Lacey now faces the same threat. “It could be a real liability for her,” says Rachel Barkow, a law professor at NYU who writes about efforts to reform district attorney’s offices. “Jackie Lacey promised reform but has continued…fueling mass incarceration and destroying black and brown communities in Los Angeles,” Cullors tweeted. Lacey counts Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and the local union that represents police officers among her supporters. But she “has run from us at every turn,” says Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA, which does not endorse candidates but has protested outside Lacey’s office for years.
In an unusual twist for an election that hinges on police reform, Gascón, the progressive candidate viewed as Lacey’s biggest challenger, is a white-haired former Los Angeles police officer. Even so, he has support from the LA County Democratic Party, progressive district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and BLM’s Cullors, along with Sen. Kamala Harris. Lacey’s second challenger, Rossi, is a public defender who is also endorsed by Cullors and has strong backing by grassroots activists, but she lacks the statewide profile and funding of the other two candidates. The top-two finishers in the March 3 primary will go head-to-head in November, unless one of them receives more than half the total vote.
Gascón, who served for decades as an officer and a police chief, is now pitching himself as one of the country’s most liberal prosecutors on matters of police accountability. And people like Abdullah are paying attention. “We are saying almost anybody would be better than Jackie Lacey,” she says—“including a former cop.”
Lacey has childhood roots in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw neighborhood, near plenty of gang violence. Her dad was a sanitation worker, and her mom worked in a garment factory. Lacey grew to understand why her neighbors distrusted the police: She watched the Watts riots on television when she was eight, along with protests led by Martin Luther King Jr., where officers released attack dogs and fire hoses on black demonstrators. But she also developed a respect for law enforcement, especially after her dad was shot in the leg while mowing the lawn. “People in the community knew, ‘Hey, if something’s going on, call the cops,’” Lacey told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. After law school, she joined the Los Angeles district attorney as a line prosecutor in 1986, working her way up the ranks.
Los Angeles voters elected Lacey as district attorney in 2012, just before the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many black activists, including Abdullah and others who would later join BLM, hoped Lacey would bring fresh perspective to a district attorney’s office that had been run by men since 1850. Hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs and basketball star Magic Johnson congratulated her, while R&B singer Macy Gray performed at her election night party.
But Lacey’s reluctance to crack down on officers involved in fatal shootings quickly drew criticism from activists. Her standing with Black Lives Matter took a turn for the worse in 2015. A video emerged of a Highway Patrol officer repeatedly punching a mentally ill black woman on a freeway. Lacey’s office found that he was justified in using force to keep her from stepping into traffic. BLM protesters poured in to protest and shut down another freeway in Los Angeles. That year, an LAPD officer also shot and killed an unarmed, black homeless man near the Venice boardwalk; in a highly unusual move, the department’s police chief recommended that Lacey press charges against the officer, but she later decided not to. She said there was not enough evidence to prove he violated the law, which was weighted heavily in favor of police.
Protesters say Lacey ran from them or pushed them away after shootings, rather than hearing them out. In 2016, Black Lives Matter collected hundreds of signatures urging Lacey to prosecute the officers who fired 20 rounds into Kisha Michael, 31, and her boyfriend as they appeared to sleep inside a parked Chevy Malibu. But when the activists brought the signatures to Lacey’s office, security officers blocked them from entering, says Abdullah, one of the organizers. (Lacey’s campaign still hasn’t responded to my request for comment about the incident or answered any other questions.)
The relationship continued to sour. At a town hall that October, people shouted at Lacey as she tried to speak to a crowd of activists and victims’ family members in a community center. “You’re a race traitor,” a woman yelled, as reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “You help killer cops!” others chanted. When Lacey said she could understand their anger, a boy screamed, “No, you don’t!” Her voice became quieter. “I’m just one woman who’s trying to follow the law, who’s trying to listen, who’s trying to do the right thing,” she said. But as the boos continued, she folded her arms across her chest, told the audience it was being “patronizing and insulting,” and walked out of the room.
Lacey was reelected the next month without a challenger and survived a recall attempt in 2017. But the protesters did not let up. Some went to her home and used a projector to beam the words “Jackie Lacey Must Go” onto her garage door. (The phrase also became a hashtag on Twitter.) She made plans for another town hall in early 2018, but when the time came, she didn’t show. By the middle of that year, Los Angeles law enforcement officers were involved in their 1,500th shooting since 2000. None of them had ever been prosecuted. “She is dismissing her constituency,” says Akili, the 71-year-old Black Lives Matter activist who rushed to the stage at the January debate and goes by his last name. “If you don’t take no action,” he told me, referring to Lacey, “then the assumption is you can kill us, for whatever reason, and it’s okay.”
Lacey finally took a stand in December 2018. She filed manslaughter charges against a sheriff’s deputy who had approached a car he believed was stolen and fired at the driver pulling away. “We believe the officer’s use of deadly force was unjustified and unreasonable under the circumstances,” she said when she announced charges. But it was not enough for some Black Lives Matter activists, who remembered the hundreds of other cases she dismissed. “We really tried to get her to help us understand what barriers there were” to prosecuting police, Abdullah says. “And then when nothing happened, when we’re getting into hundreds of murders and she’s not prosecuting, then we recognized it’s not just a matter of limitations; it’s a matter of her unwillingness.”
Helen Jones, the woman who was escorted out of the January debate by security, and another Black Lives Matter member, says she has been protesting outside Lacey’s office for over two years now. “She just ignored us.”
At the debate, Lacey’s record on police came up repeatedly. Gascón said he would have at least pressed charges against the Venice boardwalk officer, and described Lacey as a “district attorney that is comfortable looking away.” “It’s simply not true,” Lacey said in response. “People can talk trash, but what they will do when the pressure is on is different.”
Gascón never thought he would become a cop. As a boy living under Fidel Castro’s regime in Havana in the 1960s, he watched as Cuban police beat protesters in the streets and even jailed his own father and uncle. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 13. Speaking only faltering English, he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army, with plans to become a history teacher. Then a childhood friend in the LAPD convinced him to join the department. He patrolled the Hollywood Division while earning a law degree, and eventually rose through the ranks to assistant chief.
A scandal at the LAPD changed how Gascón would come to see the relationship between prosecutors and police. In 1999, Officer Rafael Perez, facing charges for stealing $1 million worth of cocaine from police evidence storage, signed a deal agreeing to help identify other corrupt officers within the department. He went on to implicate 70 officers in the Rampart Division of misconduct, from unprovoked shootings to perjury. Gascón, then a captain, was not accused of wrongdoing, and he joined a team tasked with investigating failures in the department’s management that had allowed the corruption to spread. He realized that prosecutors had seen signs of misconduct and looked the other way, allowing some tainted cops to testify in court. More than a hundred convictions were thrown out.
“It was one of those ‘aha moments’ for me,” he told me via phone call in February. “Nobody questioned [the police] because it’s almost like there’s this theory within law enforcement that you’re fighting evil and therefore you’re justified.”
When Gascón replaced Kamala Harris as district attorney in San Francisco in 2011, after two stints as a police chief there and in Arizona, he pushed for key reforms to lower California’s ballooning prison populations. That year, the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s prisons were so overcrowded they were essentially a form of cruel and unusual punishment. One of Gascón’s biggest accomplishments was co-authoring a statewide ballot measure that reduced punishments for certain drug crimes, allowing more people to stay out of prison. (Lacey opposed the measure, called Proposition 47.) He also won praise from progressives for expunging minor marijuana convictions and using technology to address racial bias among his prosecutors.
But police accountability remained a major challenge. By the numbers, Gascón’s record on charging officers for fatal shootings is no better than Lacey’s. He didn’t charge any of them, including when five officers fired 20 bullets into 26-year-old Mario Woods—a killing that sparked protests across the Bay Area. Gascón said California law also prevented him from prosecuting the officers who killed Luis Góngora Pat, an immigrant in a homeless encampment. But in an unusual move for a district attorney, Gascón announced to the public that he believed these killings were wrong and unnecessary. “To the Woods family and the Góngora family, there are not enough words that I can say that are going to bring their loved ones back,” Gascón said in 2018. “I’m very sorry they lost a son, they lost a brother, a friend, because I don’t believe that was necessary.”
Then, in 2019, a state lawmaker, Shirley Weber, introduced a bill that would make it much harder for law enforcement to get away with fatal shootings. Previously, California officers, like officers in most states, could use deadly force if they “reasonably” feared for their safety, regardless of whether they were actually in danger. Under the new bill, they could be prosecuted if they used deadly force that wasn’t “necessary” to protect against an imminent threat of serious injury. “Necessary” was defined as the absence of a “reasonable alternative.”
The measure would give California the nation’s toughest restrictions on police use-of-force. Gascón was the only district attorney to publicly support it. “It’s pretty rare for DAs around the country to support legislation that would allow greater charges to be brought against law enforcement officers,” says Barkow, the NYU professor, noting that prosecutors rely on law enforcement to help them gather evidence for other cases on their docket.
Police unions, predictably, opposed the bill and convinced lawmakers to water it down. The amended version still allowed officers to use force only when “necessary,” but no longer defined that term, leading some Black Lives Matter activists to describe it as toothless. Lacey supported the watered-down version, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law.
Both Gascón and Rossi, the public defender candidate, believe a stronger law is needed. In Los Angeles, Gascón proposes a county-wide standard that would go further than the state law by allowing officers to use lethal force only as a last resort. “We need a prosecutor who’s gonna argue for an expansive definition of what ‘necessary’ means,” Rossi said during the January debate. In a sign of law enforcement’s unease with Gascón, the union representing the LAPD has contributed $1 million toward an anti-Gascón super-PAC. Lacey, meanwhile, is benefiting from police donations: Almost all of the $2.2 million in contributions to outside committees supporting her have come from law enforcement unions.
Gascón and Rossi both believe officer-involved shootings should not be investigated by prosecutors who work with the police on other cases, since that creates a conflict of interest; Gascón created an independent unit within the district attorney’s office in San Francisco to conduct these investigations. And both have pledged not to use the testimony of officers with a history of certain misconduct. They say they would create a “do not call” list of disreputable officers, something Black Lives Matter has pressured Lacey to do, unsuccessfully. Activists have also lambasted Lacey’s record of sending 22 people to death row, all of them people of color; Gascón and Rossi have pledged not to use the death penalty.
As the primary nears, Gascón has tried to show how far he’s come since his early days as a beat cop. “He actually became pretty emotional talking about his role advancing the war on drugs, and how he understands things differently now,” says Abdullah, who attended a meeting he had with Black Lives Matter members. “I don’t know how much of that is campaign and how much of that is real, but I believed him.”
During her campaign, Lacey has not met publicly with Black Lives Matter members or families reeling from the fallout of officer-involved shootings. She also missed other debates with her challengers. Every Wednesday, Black Lives Matter protesters continue to demonstrate outside her office. Helen Jones shows up to lament the death of her son. He died in sheriff’s custody in 2009, after he was found hanging in his jail cell; Jones alleges officers staged a suicide to cover up a fatal beating. The county paid her a $2 million settlement but admitted no wrongdoing. She still wants the officers prosecuted, something Lacey declined to do. “They brutally beat my son to death and are getting away with it,” Jones says.
To Jones, standing up during the debate was the only way she could get Lacey’s attention. “We can’t catch Jackie Lacey,” Jones told me after she was pulled out of the room. “This is a public official, you working for us, and we can’t catch you.”
A few weeks ahead of the primary, Jones was still deciding whether to vote for Rossi or Gascón. “I just hope that he really does what he says, if he makes it into office. Because now you no longer a police,” she says of Gascón. “You make it to DA—you a district attorney now for the people.”