George Gascón appears to be the winner of the Los Angeles County district attorney race, a victory for the coalition of activists who have organized for years to oust the current top prosecutor, Jackie Lacey, who conceded Friday morning.
At the time of her concession, Lacey trailed Gascón by more than 7%, too large of a gap to close.
“Los Angeles County has voted decisively for a new vision for our criminal justice system, and I am incredibly honored to have earned the support of so many to be your next District Attorney,” Gascón said in a statement on Friday declaring victory. “Many viewed this campaign and this movement for reform to be a long shot in the largest county in the nation, and I could not be happier that we proved them wrong.”
Despite being a local election, the race drew national attention this year as the country erupted this summer in nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the criminal justice system. During Lacey’s eight years in office, on duty law enforcement officials in LA County have killed hundreds of people, but the district attorney’s office has prosecuted only one case. LA County is home to the biggest jail population in the country, with Black residents incarcerated at disproportionate rates. Although California has led the country in criminal justice reform, Lacey has opposed most reform measures that have come up during her time in office.
Gascón, a former police chief and San Francisco district attorney, promised “top to bottom reevaluation of the practices of the [LA DA’s] office, reducing incarceration, increasing community safety.” Running as a reformer, he received endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — who withdrew his original endorsement of Lacey about a month before the election. Meanwhile, police unions and law enforcement associations threw their support — and money — behind Lacey.
The LA DA’s office is the largest local prosecutorial agency in the country and its prosecutors have wide discretion over how aggressively to pursue certain crimes. Gascón argued that prosecutors can make communities safer by locking up fewer people and expanding access to mental health treatment, drug treatment and housing.
The data suggests Gascón is right: Earlier this year, Huffpost found that Los Angeles incarcerates people at four times the rate that San Francisco does, but during the time that both Lacey and Gascón were in office, violent crime rates slightly increased in LA and slightly decreased in San Francisco. Part of the problem is self-perpetuating: Being incarcerated, even for a short period of time, can cost people their job, home and support network — making it more likely they will get in trouble after completing their sentence.
Black Lives Matter Los Angeles does not endorse candidates, but members of the group have been organizing for years to oust Lacey. Nearly every Wednesday for the past three years, BLM LA has hosted a protest outside of Lacey’s downtown office, chanting, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Jackie Lacey’s got to go!”
When Lacey was elected in 2012, reform advocates were cautiously optimistic. She was the first Black woman to hold the job and she grew up in the then-mostly Black neighborhood of Crenshaw, where she heard residents criticize cops for racial profiling and abusing members of the community. But when she talks about her personal background, she often references her father, who was shot in the leg while mowing the front lawn. The experience made her family “much more fearful” and influenced her views on victims’ rights, she told The Guardian.
Over the past eight years, Lacey has often taken positions that were out of step with her progressive constituency. She continued to seek death sentences — almost always against people of color — even as a majority of LA voters supported ballot measures in 2012 and 2016 to repeal the death penalty. (Gascón has pledged to never seek the death penalty.) As states began legalizing marijuana — an effort welcomed by criminal justice reform advocates because of the racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws — Lacey argued that the drug should remain illegal. When California legalized marijuana, Lacey, whose office had prosecuted more people for violating marijuana laws than any other prosecutor’s office in the state, lagged behind Gascón in San Francisco in moving to throw out marijuana-related convictions.
But it was Lacey’s failure to prosecute cops who kill that sparked an organized movement to replace her. She walked out of a 2016 town hall where attendees accused her of protecting killer cops, and for years she has refused to meet with Black Lives Matter. In March, the day before the district attorney primary, Lacey’s husband pointed a gun at Black Lives Matter LA co-founder Melina Abdullah when she and other activists showed up at Lacey’s house early in the morning to request a community meeting. Lacey’s husband, David Lacey, was charged with misdemeanor assault by the California attorney general’s office and is facing a civil lawsuit brought by Abdullah and two other activists.
Gascón, too, faced protests and strong criticism for refusing to prosecute police shootings while he was San Francisco’s top prosecutor. But unlike Lacey, he pushed for changes to state law that created a stricter standard for use of force by the police. He also pledged that, if elected, he would reopen four police shooting cases that Lacey declined to prosecute.
Gascón’s victory will be a major test of the progressive prosecutor movement’s ability to effect change within a system that is deeply entrenched in the mindset of seeking convictions whenever possible. Gascón will oversee nearly 1,000 attorneys in the DA’s office, many of whom will be resistant to change.
The day after the election, BLM LA held its weekly protest in front of the Hall of Justice — the first one under the prospect of a new prosecutor. “We are claiming a victory!” the group wrote on Instagram. “When We Fight! We Win!”