Transcript, Web links and Credits below.
The recent arrest of Ed Buck highlights the two very different criminal legal systems at play in Los Angeles under District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Neither of them is keeping Black people safe. Lacey, the county’s first African American District Attorney, prosecutes wealthy white people reluctantly and infrequently and prosecutes people of color excessively and incessantly. Whether they are witnesses, victims, or defendants, DA Lacey treats non-white people as second-class citizens.
Lacey has faced exactly this sort of criticism in the wake of Buck’s recent arrest. Two years ago, Gemmel Moore died of a drug overdose in a West Hollywood apartment owned by Ed Buck, a wealthy, well-connected political donor in Los Angeles. This January, Timothy Dean died in the same location under eerily similar circumstances. Both men were Black, gay, and financially vulnerable.
By the time of Dean’s death, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey was already aware of Buck’s pattern of victimizing. Most, if not all, of Buck’s targets were impoverished gay men of color.
After Moore’s death, other men fortunate enough to survive Buck’s abuse reported their trauma to county investigators. Family members, activists, and local community members implored Lacey to take the victims’ stories seriously. Lacey refused to file charges of any kind or take any action against Buck.
In the years between the deaths of Moore and Dean, she refused to engage with victims, making some feel that they were being treated “like criminals.” Lacey failed to warn their communities and failed to protect the vulnerable.
U.S. Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) accurately summed it up when she said that Lacey’s “inaction in response” to the deaths at Buck’s home “had a message that was loud and clear: Black gay lives obviously didn’t matter.”
Lacey’s apparent indifference to Black and Brown lives is not new. Buck’s case is but one in a long list of stories and policies that have pockmarked her tenure and sent the message that she is not interested in keeping Black communities safe. When Black and Brown people are accused of crimes, Lacey wastes no time bringing the full weight of her office down upon them. She has sought the death penalty exclusively against people of color. She refuses to prosecute law enforcement despite hundreds of police shootings, which have disproportionately involved victims of color. She also has a long, well-documented history of opposing reforms that are aimed at criminal justice issues disproportionately impacting people of color.
Ed Buck’s case is symptomatic. Although Lacey, who is gearing up for an election, publicly claims to support reform when it does not jeopardize public safety, her actions — and inaction — during her tenure have consistently shown otherwise. The handling of Buck’s case fits an old, disturbing pattern of Lacey failing to hold powerful people accountable when they harm Black people.
Let me break it down.
Representative Karen Bass, Representative Maxine Waters, and County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas endorsed Lacey in 2012 when she first ran for Los Angeles District Attorney. It’s noteworthy that none of these leaders has stepped forward in support of her re-election.
Lacey received a $100 donation from Buck in 2012 and didn’t return it until months into the investigation after pressure from the media.
“If white gay men had been dying in a Black man’s house or anybody’s house, rather, this case would have been taken a lot more seriously,” said Jasmyne Cannick, a communications strategist who spearheaded the effort to get justice for Moore. “Ed Buck knew who he was preying on, and he knew that people would not care. Or he thought that people would not care.”
The way she uses the death penalty is exactly the way I don’t believe in the death penalty. Since taking office in 2012, Lacey has sought and won the death penalty against 22 people.
Every single one of these individuals was a person of color. Put another way, under Lacey, only people of color have been sentenced to death. Out of the 22 cases, nine defendants had lawyers who were previously or subsequently disbarred, suspended or charged with misconduct. A tenth defendant had a lawyer who repeatedly fell asleep during his trial.
Now, listen, there also has been NO accountability for police shootings under Lacey. During Lacey’s reign, nearly 500 people have died at the hands of law enforcement. She has prosecuted only one law enforcement officer in connection with these deaths. That individual is a person of color and is the first law enforcement officer in the county to be charged in an on-duty shooting in nearly 20 years.
On August 11, 2014, police shot and killed Ezell Ford in South LA.
On March 1, 2015, police shot and killed Charly Keunang on Skid Row.
On May 5, 2015, police shot and killed Brendon Glenn. In 2018, Lacey announced that the DA’s office would not bring charges against the LAPD officer captured on video shooting Brendon Glenn, an unarmed resident, in the back. This decision was made despite the fact that the LAPD Chief Charlie Beck “issued an unprecedented public call for the officer to be prosecuted.
All three of these men were homeless, suffering from mental illness, and unarmed Black men.
Now, let’s talk about her record on reform. In Los Angeles county, African Americans are incarcerated at thirteen times the rate of white residents. Lacey is actively thwarting reform efforts that would railroad fewer people, save money, and make communities safer.
First, let’s look at her record with children.
At a time when LA County juvenile halls are so chaotic that officers are afraid to go to work, Lacey fights vigorously to send more children into that violence. Some of these children are 11 years old and younger. SB 439 prevents the prosecution or incarceration of children younger than 12 years old. Lacey sent a letter opposing SB 439 on June 7, 2018. In her letter, she writes that “We realize the juvenile system is imperfect.” This is a gross understatement. Lacey also notes a number of juveniles who were successfully rehabilitated temporarily in juvenile halls; she cites to no evidence that these juveniles were rehabilitated after their time in detention.
Lacey still opposes SB 439 and her office is actively fighting against SB 1391, a common-sense law adopted last year that keeps 14- and 15-year-old children out of the adult criminal justice system, thereby reducing prison spending and giving youth more opportunities for rehabilitation so they are less likely to commit new crimes.
Look, there are some great reforms out there. Great policies that you and I would celebrate. But you never hear about them, because politicians like Lacey just won’t pass them. Let me tell you about a simple reform. It’s just common sense. And Lacey just won’t pass it.
Lacey vehemently opposed SB 1437, which limits who can be prosecuted for felony murder to those who commit or intend to commit a killing, excluding people who were not “major participants” in the felony and who did not act with “reckless indifference to human life.” Charging accomplices who did not kill — nor intend to kill — was disproportionately used against young people of color and women. A study showed that 72 percent of women who were incarcerated under the felony murder rule were not the actual perpetrator of the homicide.
Yet, Lacey portrayed SB 1437, a modest reform to a rule the California Supreme Court long ago called “barbaric,” as something that would have “gang members” flooding the streets of LA. Lacey spoke out against SB 1437, declaring “[she] wouldn’t be surprised if half of [the 3,300 inmates facing resentencing] are part of a violent street gang and who will be back out.” She cited no evidence to support her provocative speculation. Since then, Lacey has continued to oppose requests for release pursuant to SB 1437.
And now let me tell you about her record on mental health.
Despite Lacey’s claims that mental health is a top priority, there are 3,000 people in jail right now with mental health issues who could safely be released. This is the DA’s doing: every person who remains in jail is there because the DA has decided to prosecute them. While she recently announced the creation of a new mental health division in her office, there is no indication that she has taken any steps to release more people with mental health issues from jail.
Lacey refuses to create a “Do Not Call” list for officers with a history of misconduct, dishonesty, racism, or bias. This is despite more than 20 community groups calling on Lacey to do so.
Lacey opposed Proposition 47, which reclassified some theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and let people convicted of these offenses petition the court for reduced sentences and reclassification of the offense. “I can’t say I agree with Proposition 47. It should have mandated treatment,” Lacey said.
In her first six years as county prosecutor, Lacey has not filed charges against a single police officer involved in a shooting, despite 422 residents of LA County having been killed by police or dying in custody during her tenure. This includes one case where then-Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck called on Lacey to prosecute one of his own officers following a shooting in Venice.
Lacey opposed Proposition 64, which legalized possession and growth of specified quantities of marijuana for adults over the age of 21. The law also authorizes resentencing and destruction of records for prior marijuana convictions. Lacey argued that Proposition 64 could increase robberies of marijuana distribution centers and make valid DUI convictions more difficult to obtain.
Lacey opposed Proposition 57, which provides greater access to parole for non-violent offenders and inmates who display good conduct while in correctional facilities. “That’s what concerns me,” Lacey said about the proposition, “is that people are getting out when they may not have learned their lesson.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Criminal laws are not like laws of nature. One set we discover scientifically and we recognize as inevitable; the other is mutable and depend entirely on how and upon whom we choose to enforce them. Lacey has enormous, unequaled power and discretion as the gatekeeper of the criminal legal system in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is the largest county in the US and should be a trendsetter, not regressive.
Lacey’s two-tiered system feeds the nation’s largest jail system using Black and Brown bodies, while sparing wealthy and white Angelenos from its terrors. It is time for LA’s top law enforcement official to join wave of reform-minded, progressive DAs elected across the country: Krasner, Rollins, Creuzot, declination, ending cash bail.
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