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Criminal justice reformer unseats Los Angeles district attorney

The contest for top prosecutor was seen by many as an extension of the social unrest set off after the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Image: George Gascon
Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón in Los Angeles on Oct. 1.Damian Dovarganes / AP file

After a bitter race to lead the largest district attorney's office in the nation, reform candidate and former San Francisco D.A. George Gascón unseated Los Angeles County's first Black chief prosecutor.

With nearly 800,000 ballots still to be counted in Tuesday's election, Jackie Lacey conceded to Gascón on Friday in an emotional address attended by her staff and supporters.

"My consultants tell me that while I may close the gap between the two of us, I will not be able to make up enough based on the trending of the ballots to win this election," Lacey said. “I am so thankful to God for giving me this incredible opportunity to serve the people of Los Angeles County.”

The contest was regarded by many, and even Lacey herself, as an extension of the social unrest that spread across the country after George Floyd died in May while in Minneapolis police custody.

Lacey, who was also the county’s first female district attorney, acknowledged that “what happened in my election may one day be listed as a consequence of that” movement.

“It may be said that one day the results of this election is a result of our season of discontent and a demand to see a tsunami of change,” she said.

Gascón, a former Los Angeles police officer who oversaw reforms in the department following the Rampart corruption scandal of the 1990s, will lead an office with 1,000 lawyers and 300 investigators, and has billed himself as a steward for change.

He helped create the state’s first independent bureau to bring more transparency to investigations involving alleged police brutality, and he promised on Friday to reshape the prosecutor's office and hold law enforcement accountable for unjustified killings.

“Angelenos spoke loud and clear,” he said. “We need to start moving away from political rhetoric, and I think that we need to join hands.”

Lacey received mounting pressure from reform advocates in recent years, becoming the target of weekly protests led by Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles that largely focused on her cozy relationship with law enforcement and an unwillingness to prosecute police officers shown to have used excessive force.

Tensions between Lacey and BLM-L.A. escalated earlier this year when her husband pulled a gun on the organization’s co-founder Melina Adbullah. David Allan Lacey was charged in August by the California attorney general’s office with three counts of assault with a firearm, and he pleaded not guilty in October.

Abdullah previously told NBC that BLM-L.A. “had tried everything” to form a better relationship with Lacey, but the prosecutor repeatedly refused to meet with Adbullah in person or with the families of people who have been killed by law enforcement officers.

Gascón, on the other hand, has already reached out to Black Lives Matter-L.A. and promised to meet with victims’ families as early as next week, Abdullah said. While Abdullah credits Gascón for being willing to work with criminal justice reform advocates, the Black Lives Matter movement is not prepared to give him a free pass, she said.

“We are holding him accountable,” Abdullah said. “It doesn’t mean he’s going to be doing everything right, but we’re already seeing a corner be turned in the way we’re going to be interacting with him.”

Gascón, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Cuba as a teenager, was a longtime member of the Los Angeles Police Department before becoming chief of police in Mesa, Arizona in 2006. Then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom named him police chief of his city in 2009, and two years later Gascón filled the San Francisco district attorney's seat vacated by U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris when she became California Attorney General.

Lacey heavily criticized Gascón for not prosecuting police officers involved in killings during his eight-year tenure in San Francisco. He defended his decisions by saying all the victims were armed and the law strongly favored police.

Gascón also pushed back by citing Lacey’s own record of prosecuting only one manslaughter case against a law enforcement officer out of 340 fatal shootings during her two terms in office. He pointed to the $7 million Lacey’s campaign received from police unions in her bid for re-election.

Gascón, meanwhile, pulled in $12 million, mainly from wealthy donors bent on criminal justice reform, The Associated Press reported. Billionaire George Soros gave $2.25 million, and philanthropist Patty Quillin, who’s married to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, gave $1.6 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. Hastings gave $500,000.