California at Crossroads Over District Attorney Role: Traditional vs. Progressive

Jackie Lacey and George Gascón. Illustration by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters; Creative Commons

Beyond the criminal justice propositions on California’s November ballot, the upcoming election will also serve as a barometer for the role Californians think district attorneys should play in the aftermath of historic protests against police brutality.

The main litmus test is taking in place in Los Angeles County, with incumbent Jackie Lacey, a Democrat with a more traditional law-and-order approach, facing off against Democrat George Gascón, the former district attorney of San Francisco often described as a “progressive prosecutor.” In the wake of George Floyd’s death, prominent California politicians — including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff — shifted their endorsement from Lacey to Gascón.

District attorneys, with the power to investigate and prosecute police killings, have come under renewed scrutiny for being too cozy with law enforcement. In August, a group of prosecutors — including Gascón — asked the state bar to ban district attorneys from accepting law enforcement money.

The political landscape also appears to be shifting in Alameda County, where District Attorney Nancy O’Malley recently announced she was reopening an investigation into a BART officer’s 2009 killing of Oscar Grant. The news came a few weeks after the Democrat became the second district attorney in the state to charge an officer for homicide under a new law restricting police use of deadly force.

Critics say O’Malley, long seen as a police ally, is attempting to head off a progressive challenger when she faces reelection in two years. 

  • O’Malley“No matter what you do, someone’s going to criticize. So, for me, I have to do what’s right.” 

Someone considering a run against her: Assemblymember Rob Bonta. Last week, the Oakland Democrat unveiled plans to introduce a bill that would require district attorneys who have accepted law enforcement money to recuse themselves from investigations into officer misconduct. 

  • Bonta“We must cure the conflict of interest that gives … the appearance that police officers are not being held accountable due to police unions’ direct campaign contributions to district attorneys.” is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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