This is the third part of a three part look at the First Los Angeles District Attorney Debate of the 2020 election cycle. You can find part 1 of this series here and part 2 of the series here.
On December 19, 2019 USC Law Professor Jody Armour moderated the first Los Angeles DA debate in which candidates George Gascón and Rachel Rossi squared off over a host of criminal justice issues. Conspicuously missing from the event was incumbent Jackie Lacey, who cited a scheduling conflict. In today’s Podcast Special, we examine the responses of George Gascón and Rachel Rossi to questions about police accountability, the death penalty and homelessness.
The fourth speaker of the night was Helen Jones who was tasked with asking a question about police accountability. When Helen took the mic, her words were a visceral force, blazing in determination but soaking in grief.
JONES: MY NAME IS HELEN JONES AND MY SON JOHN HORTON WAS BEAT TO DEATH IN 2009 IN MEN’S CENTRAL JAIL. HE WAS BEAT TO DEATH IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. THEY BUST HIS LIVER, THEY BUST HIS KIDNEY, THEY BUST THE MUSCLE IN HIS BACK. THEY HIT JOHN SO HARD IN THE HEAD WITH A FLASHLIGHT THAT THEY LEFT A PRINT OF THE LINES OF THE FLASHLIGHT ON HIS FOREHEAD, A BLOOD CLOT AND A KNOT. HE WAS HIT TWO TIMES ON THE SIDE OF HIS TEMPLE. HE HAD A BIG GASH ON HIS SHOULDER. THEY MESSED UP PART OF HIS PELVIS AND HIS PANCREAS. AND AFTER HE TOOK THIS BEATING, TEN SHERIFF’S DEPUTIES, THAT’S KNOWN AS THE 3000 BOYS GANG ON THE THIRD FLOOR, AND THAT’S A SHERIFF’S GANG.
HELEN JONES (CONT’D): AFTER THEY BEAT JOHN, THEY THEN TURN AROUND AND SAID HE HUNG HIMSELF. AND NOT ONLY DID THE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT COVER THIS UP, BUT ALSO THE COUNTY CORNER HELPED COVER IT UP TOO. FOR SEVEN LONG MONTHS, I COULDN’T EVEN GET AN AUTOPSY REPORT BECAUSE THEY WAS GIVING ME THE RUN AROUND AND TELLING ME IT WAS GOING TO BE READY HERE. IT WAS GOING TO BE READY THERE. AND IT TOOK ME SEVEN LONG MONTHS WHEN LAWYERS FINALLY GOT INVOLVED FOR THEM TO CHANGE HIS CAUSE OF DEATH FROM SUICIDE TO NOW UNDETERMINED. SUICIDE IS SUICIDE. YOU CAN’T TAKE SUICIDE OFF AND TURN IT TO UNDETERMINED AND THEN DON’T LET NOBODY KNOW THAT Y’ALL CHANGED IT FROM SUICIDE. AND NOW Y’ALL SAYING Y’ALL DON’T KNOW HIS CAUSE OF DEATH. AND THAT’S WHERE HIS DEATH STANDS AT TODAY. AND I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW FROM THE DA’S THAT’S RUNNING TODAY IS: WHEN THIS CASE CAME ACROSS JACKIE LACEY’S DESK, SHE DID NOTHING. IF THIS CASE WOULD HAVE CAME ACROSS YOUR DESK, WHEN IT CAME ACROSS HERS, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE ABOUT IT AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO ABOUT IT TODAY IF YOU BECOME THE DA?
Rachel Rossi was the first to respond to Helen’s question.
ROSSI: LAW ENFORCEMENT ACCOUNTABILITY IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. AND I THINK THE FIRST THING THAT OUR DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE IS GETTING WRONG RIGHT NOW IS THAT WE ARE OPERATING IN A WORLD WHERE THERE IS A CLEAR CONFLICT OF INTEREST. THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY WORKS WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT EVERY DAY. THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY DEPENDS ON LAW ENFORCEMENT IN THE PROSECUTION OF CASES. THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY WORKS WITH LAPD, WITH THE LA COUNTY SHERIFF’S WHO WORK IN THE JAILS AND INDUSTRIES. AND THEN THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY IS CALLED ON TO PROSECUTE THAT SAME LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER THAT HE OR SHE WORKS WITH EVERY DAY. THAT IS A CONFLICT OF INTEREST THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED. SO THE FIRST THING THAT NEEDS TO BE DONE IN OUR DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE IS TO MAKE THAT PROSECUTION FUNCTION INDEPENDENT. AND WE CAN’T HIDE BEHIND THE LAW BECAUSE WE CAN DO THAT TODAY. WE CAN DO THAT TODAY BY APPOINTING INDEPENDENT PROSECUTORS. THAT’S PERMISSIBLE UNDER THE PENAL CODE TODAY.
The argument that the District Attorney has a conflict of interest when prosecuting law enforcement has been the subject of political controversy for years. Many criminal justice advocates argue, like Rossi, that independent prosecutors should be brought in for law enforcement trials, while others suggest that the California Attorney General should take the reigns.
In the past, Jackie Lacey has been adamant that her office is not only capable of prosecuting law enforcement cases, but is also the most qualified, especially when it comes to officer involved shootings. In a 2016 opinion piece published by the Los Angeles Daily News, Lacey wrote: “Some have suggested that the California Attorney General’s Office take over the investigation of officer involved shooting cases. Critics contend that the county prosecutors are too closely tied to their local police agencies to independently review these cases. I take strong exception to the premise underlying this idea. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is the most experienced agency in the nation in evaluating use-of-force cases involving law enforcement officers. We do an extraordinary job of independently evaluating the evidence and applying the law.”
But not all DAs who have held Lacey’s office feel the same. After an investigation found that 375 people were shot by on-duty officers between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2014 and that one in four of those shot were unarmed, former Los Angeles DA Gil Garcetti told KPCC radio: “I now believe that an independent prosecutor, perhaps the Attorney General’s Office, should handle every case where there’s a police officer-involved shooting that results in the wounding or death of a citizen…If you’re working hand in hand, how can you really look at a case objectively and bring a prosecution?”
After making her point about independent prosecutors in law enforcement cases, Rossi turned her attention to the DA’s conviction integrity unit.
ROSSI: THERE ARE WAYS TO ALSO BOLSTER THE ETHICAL DIVIDE OF THE CONVICTION INTEGRITY UNIT THAT’S EXISTING IN THE DA’S OFFICE. THE DA’S OFFICE HAS AN INTEGRITY UNIT THAT IS SUPPOSED TO EVALUATE OFFICER OFFENSES AND DECIDE WHETHER TO PROSECUTE. AND RIGHT NOW THAT OFFICE IS INSIDE THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE AND DA’S MOVE IN AND OUT OF THAT OFFICE REGULARLY. WHAT WE NEED TO DO IS BOLSTER THE ETHICAL DIVIDE, THE GEOGRAPHICAL DIVIDE AND HALF, NO SPILLOVER. WE NEED CIVIL RIGHTS EXPERIENCED ATTORNEYS WHO ARE WORKING TO PROSECUTE LAW ENFORCEMENT BECAUSE WE FINALLY NEED A JUSTICE SYSTEM THAT IS REALLY FOR EVERYONE. YOU ARE A VICTIM AND YOU SHOULD HAVE HAD A DISTRICT ATTORNEY WHO WAS CONSOLING YOU. THAT IS A BASIC CORE TENANT OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S JOB: JUSTICE FOR ALL. NOT FOR SOME.
When George Gascón took the mic, he referenced his work as DA of San Francisco in the creation of the Independent Investigation Bureau. Since May 2019, the IIB, rather than law enforcement agencies, takes the lead on investigations of officer related shootings While the work of the IIB may ease concerns about police or sheriff’s deputies covering their mistakes critics point out that the IIB is still a part of the DA’s office and therefore may still be susceptible to the conflict of interest that occurs between prosecutors and the officers they work with.
The DA’s investigative oversight in officer-related shootings is not a foreign concept, even in Los Angeles. Currently when there is an officer involved shooting, the DA’s office sends the District Attorney Response Team (D.A.R.T.) to the scene immediately. The team consists of an experienced prosecutor and a seasoned investigator. But while the IIB leads investigations of officer related shootings, DART simply observes the proceedings.
GASCÓN: GIVEN THE CURRENT SITUATION IN LA COUNTY, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I WOULD DO IS CREATE A CIVIL RIGHTS DIVISION WITHIN THE DA’S OFFICE. I KNOW THAT’S A VERY UNUSUAL CONCEPT FOR DISTRICT ATTORNEYS, BUT IT GOES BEYOND USE OF FORCE. THERE ARE A LOT OF OTHER ISSUES THAT DISTRICT ATTORNEYS HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO ENSURE THE QUALITY AND THE ETHICAL BEHAVIOR WITHIN THE OFFICE AND I THINK IT’S ABOUT TIME THAT WE CREATE A CIVIL RIGHTS DIVISION. THE OTHER THING IS THAT WE HAVE TO ALSO LOOK VERY CRITICALLY AT HOW INVESTIGATIONS ARE CONDUCTED IN SAN FRANCISCO. WE CREATED THE FIRST AND ONLY, SO FAR, INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION BUREAU… WE CREATED A SEPARATE UNIT. IT WAS HOUSED IN ANOTHER LOCATION AND THEY HAVE BECOME THE PEOPLE THAT INVESTIGATE THE POLICE.
Gascón then addressed how the law itself can hamstring a prosecutor’s ability to file charges against law enforcement. In his answer he lamented the shelved Assembly Bill 931, known as the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act, which was put forth by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber. If passed, the act would have only allowed California police officers to use deadly force after implementing all other intervention methods, including de-escalation tactics. When the bill failed to pass, Weber co-authored the California Act to Save Lives, or Assembly Bill 392, which was a less radical version of the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act. Governor Newsom signed this new bill into law in August, 2019. It changes the standard for use of deadly force from one based on reasonable belief that the officer or another person is in immediate danger to one that requires police to use deadly force only when necessary.
GASCÓN: FINALLY, WE CANNOT WALK AWAY FROM THE FACT THAT WE HAVE TO CHANGE THE LAW. I AGREE WITH RACHEL THAT, IDEALLY, THERE WILL BE A SEPARATE INDEPENDENT OFFICE THAT LOOKS AT THIS WORK. BUT IN LIGHT OF THE LAW, WE STILL NEED TO LOOK FOR WAYS TO CHANGE THE LAW. I WAS THE ONLY DISTRICT ATTORNEY, THE ONLY LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIAL THAT SUPPORTED ASSEMBLYWOMAN WEBER TWO YEARS AGO TO BRING THE THRESHOLD OF USE OF FORCE TO MINIMUM UNNECESSARY. THAT EFFORT FAILED AND NEW LEGISLATION IS PASSED AS A COMPROMISE THAT QUITE FRANKLY, I HAVE GREAT DOUBTS AS TO WHETHER THIS IS GOING TO WORK, BUT WE MUST DO TWO THINGS. NUMBER ONE, WE HAVE TO INVESTIGATE THESE THINGS THOROUGHLY AND INDEPENDENTLY, BUT SECONDLY, WE HAVE TO MAKE SURE THAT WE HAVE THE LAW THAT IS GOING TO ALLOW US TO TAKE IT TO A DIFFERENT PLACE. WE CAN NO LONGER CONTINUE TO SHOOT UNARMED PEOPLE AND HARM PEOPLE LIKE YOUR SON WITHOUT ANY ACCOUNTABILITY.
The fifth question posed to the candidates was about the death penalty. In March, 2019 Governor Newsom signed an order putting an executive moratorium on California’s death penalty, thus ordering a reprieve for the 737 individuals on death row. The order suspends any further executions for the duration of Newsom’s term as governor. Only California voters can repeal the death penalty entirely, something they narrowly rejected three years ago when Proposition 62 was on the ballot. Despite the state-wide rejection, Los Angeles County had a majority in favor of passing the proposed legislation.
The speaker chosen to address the candidates regarding the death penalty was Herman Lindsey, who was sent to Florida’s death row in 2006 for a murder that he did not commit. In 2009 the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously that there wasn’t enough evidence to find Lindsey guilty of any crimes and he was released. Lindsey spoke to the candidates about the emotional toll of being innocent while presumed guilty and the importance of abolishing the death penalty. While acknowledging the moratorium, Lindsey commented on the racial disparities of LA County’s death row and asked the candidates to explain their stance on the death penalty.
LINDSEY: LA COUNTY HAS THE LARGEST DEATH ROW POPULATION OF ANY COUNTY IN THE COUNTRY AND EVERY ONE OF THE 22 PEOPLE TO RECEIVE THE DEATH SENTENCE IN THE PAST SEVEN YEARS HAS BEEN A PERSON OF COLOR. DO YOU SUPPORT THE DEATH PENALTY OR NOT? AND IF YOU WIN THE SEAT, WILL YOU COMMIT TO EXAMINE PREVIOUSLY IMPOSED DEATH SENTENCE WITHIN LA COUNTY AND SEEK NEGOTIATED RESOLUTIONS FOR SENTENCES LESS THAN DEATH.
GASCÓN: YES. UM, FIRST OF ALL, THE ANSWER TO WOULD I STOP THE USE OF THE DEATH PENALTY IS ABSOLUTELY YES. AS IN SAN FRANCISCO, I NEVER FOUGHT A DEATH PENALTY IN ALMOST NINE YEARS AND I HAVE MADE A PLEDGE THAT I WOULD NOT SEEK THE DEATH PENALTY. FURTHERMORE, MY OPPOSITION TO THE DEATH PENALTY HAS A LONG HISTORY. I WAS ACTUALLY ONE OF THE ONES THAT CAMPAIGNED FOR PROP 34 IN 2012 WHICH WAS AN ATTEMPT TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY. I THINK THE DEATH PENALTY IS IMMORAL IN ADDITION TO BEING NOT A DETERRENT IN ADDITION TO IMPACTING PEOPLE OF COLOR DISPROPORTIONALLY AND BEING EXTREMELY COSTLY …I DON’T THINK THERE IS A PLACE FOR THE DEATH PENALTY IN OUR SOCIETY TODAY AND FOR THAT REASON I WILL GUARANTEE YOU THAT IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN UNDER MY WATCH. FURTHERMORE, PENDING CASES AND PAST CASES WILL BE REVIEWED TO SEE WHAT KIND OF RESOLUTIONS WE CAN BRING TO MAKE SURE THAT WE END THE EXISTENCE OF DEATH ROWS IN THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA.
Rossi picked up the conversation, agreeing with Gascón and criticizing Jackie Lacey’s history of pursuing the death penalty. According to a 2019 ACLU report, during Lacey’s seven year tenure as District Attorney, she has sent 22 people to death row. All 22 individuals were people of color and there were serious concerns about the quality of the lawyers who represented the defendants who could not afford counsel.
ROSSI: YES, I WOULD NOT SEEK THE DEATH PENALTY AND YES I WOULD SEEK TO REVIEW DEATH PENALTY SENTENCES IN LA COUNTY AND I THINK WHAT THE DEATH PENALTY SHOWS US IS THAT WE HAVE AN INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITY AS VOTERS TO MAKE A DECISION TO GET SOMEONE OUT OF AN OFFICE THAT IS NO LONGER REFLECTING OUR VALUES. OUR DISTRICT ATTORNEY, OUR DISTRICT ATTORNEY HAS CONSISTENTLY STOOD STRONG FOR THE DEATH PENALTY AND SHE AND HER ARGUMENTS FOR THE DEATH PENALTY HAVE BEEN, WELL THE VOTERS WANTED, NOT LA COUNTY VOTERS. IF YOU CARE ABOUT YOUR VOTERS, IF YOU CARE ABOUT YOUR CONSTITUENTS. LA COUNTY HAS CONSISTENTLY VOTED AGAINST THE DEATH PENALTY. UM, SO WE NEED TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY AND THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY IN LA FOR TOO LONG HAS SAT SILENTLY WITH HER HANDS IN HER LAP AND NOT BEEN A PART OF THIS CONVERSATION. WE SHOULD BE LEADING THIS CONVERSATION.
The final speaker of the evening was moderator Jody Armour. He espoused concerns about homelessness, including the fact that 75% of Skid Row residents are African American. Armour challenged the perspective that poverty is due to broken people having insufficient initiative and called for officials to look at the macro-economic and macro-social factors that create an environment that impoverishes our communities. With the 2028 Olympics looming in the future accompanied by concerns about how to clean up the city, Armour teed up a question for the candidates about how they would tackle the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.
ARMOUR: WE’RE RUNNING UP ON THE 2028 OLYMPICS NOW AND THERE’S A LOT OF CONCERN ABOUT MAKING LA LOOK PRISTINE FOR THAT WORLD EVENT. AND SO MAYBE EVEN CRACKING DOWN MORE ON THE DOWN AND OUT, YOU KNOW, USING THE PUNITIVE HAMMER OF LAW ENFORCEMENT TO TRY TO SOLVE ALL OUR SOCIAL PROBLEMS RATHER THAN PROVIDE JOBS AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING AND HEALTHCARE AND THE LIKE. WILL YOU CONTINUE THAT PATH TO ADDRESSING HOMELESSNESS OR WILL YOU TAKE A FRESH PATH? AND I’D LIKE TO START WITH MS. ROSSI.
ROSSI: IN OUR LA COUNTY JAILS, THERE’S BEEN A 41% RISE OF HOMELESS PEOPLE INCARCERATED. FOR TOO LONG WE’VE BEEN CRIMINALIZING POVERTY AND WE’VE BEEN INCARCERATING OUR HOMELESS NEIGHBORS AND THAT HAS TO END. THAT HAS TO END. AND THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE HAS BEEN, AGAIN, TURNING A BLIND EYE TO THIS DATA. AND TO THESE FACTS. AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY, I WOULD DO TWO THINGS. FIRST, STOP PROSECUTING THE HOMELESS. SECOND, START PROSECUTING PEOPLE WHO ARE CAUSING HOMELESSNESS. I WOULD, I WOULD ESTABLISH A HOMELESSNESS FRAUD TASK FORCE THAT WOULD INVESTIGATE BIG DEVELOPERS, CORPORATE LANDLORDS, PEOPLE WHO ARE RAISING THE RENT COSTS IN LOS ANGELES AND WHO ARE THE CULPRITS OF HOMELESSNESS IN OUR COUNTY.
The decriminalization of homelessness is a hot button issue not just in our county but in the nation. According to the LA Times, there are nearly 60,000 homeless individuals in Los Angeles County but not nearly enough shelter beds to accommodate that population. The laws regarding homelessness are opaque and labyrinthine. Even as a journalist it’s difficult to discern where one might find a shelter or a place to safely sleep outdoors. The process is undoubtedly far more taxing for an individual who lacks resources and Internet access because their life has been relegated to the streets.
Municipal Code 41.18 makes it illegal for homeless individuals to sit, sleep, or lie on public sidewalks, but that law has faced many legal challenges and currently is only sporadically enforced. For now the County relies primarily upon a 2007 court agreement known as the Jones Settlement that allows people to sleep on the streets when there is not enough shelter or housing for all of LA’s homeless. In 2018 a federal court also ruled that as long as there is no option to sleep in a shelter or housing, “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property.” However, the federal court made room for a litany of exceptions, stating “even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible.” Now some city council members are backing legislation that would use that loophole to severely restrict places for homeless to reside and rest.
Gascón echoed Rossi’s sentiments about the decriminalization of homelessness and also called for a redistribution of resources to meet community needs.
GASCÓN: THE ANSWER IS THAT WE MUST STOP CRIMINALIZING THE POOR, NUMBER ONE. NUMBER TWO, WE HAVE TO LOWER THE FOOTPRINT OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM SO THAT WE MOVE RESOURCES AWAY FROM JAILS, POLICING AND PROSECUTIONS AND GET IT INTO MENTAL HEALTH, EDUCATION AND HOUSING. WE HAVE BECOME ADDICTED TO USING OUR JAIL AS ALTERNATIVE HOUSING, NOT ONLY IN LA, BUT UNFORTUNATELY THROUGHOUT THIS NATION. THAT CAN NO LONGER CONTINUE TO BE THE CASE. AS A DISTRICT ATTORNEY, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I WOULD DO IS IMMEDIATELY PUSH TO START MOVING AWAY FROM BUILDING ANOTHER JAIL AND I HAVE BEEN WORKING WITH REFORM LA JAILS FOR OVER A YEAR NOW BECAUSE WE CAN NOT CONTINUE TO BUILD JAILS. WE HAVE TO MAKE SURE THAT HOUSING, MEDICAL SERVICES AND EDUCATION ARE A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT AND WE SHOULD NOT BE CRIMINALIZING PEOPLE THAT FOR UNFORTUNATE SITUATIONS CANNOT HAVE THOSE SERVICES. THOSE ARE NOT BENEFITS. THAT IS A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT. AS A DISTRICT ATTORNEY, NOT ONLY WOULD I NOT PROSECUTE PEOPLE BECAUSE THEY’RE HOUSELESS, BUT I WILL MAKE SURE THAT WE START CREATING OFF RAMPS FOR PEOPLE TO BE ABLE TO GET THE SERVICES THEY NEED IN ORDER TO LIVE A BETTER LIFE.
In its entirety, the first DA debate illustrated more similarities than differences between the two candidates. The echoed sentiments revealed a strong undercurrent of progressive ideology in Los Angeles politics, while the cheers from the audience represented a constituency ready for radical change. This progressive tide is certain to find more resistance in future debates when poised against incumbent DA Jackie Lacey, who is viewed as a moderate and endorsed by establishment Democrats.
The next DA debate is on January 29, 2020 at the Aratani Theatre. The event will be hosted by KPCC and the LA Times and will bring together DA Jackie Lacey, George Gascón and Rachel Rossi.