(CN) — Candidates in the race for Los Angeles County District Attorney offered two different visions of the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office in a virtual debate on Saturday.
Focus on the race has increased in recent months amidst national calls for police reform during the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón has offered his run for the office as an indictment of DA Jackie Lacey’s policies.
During Saturday’s virtual debate, Lacey called Gascón a “political animal” and not a “true prosecutor.”
“Mr. Gascon has never been to court. He’s never been a prosecutor. Never tried a case. Never ever,” said Lacey during the forum moderated by ABC 7 Eyewitness News anchor Marc Brown.
Lacey said during her time in office she helped create a mental health diversion division.
Gascón called the program ineffective, citing a RAND Corporation report published earlier this year that said out of the roughly 5,500 people in LA County Jail mental health population, 61% overall were suitable for diversion or to be transferred out of the jails.
Lacey asked, “The issue is to divert to what? You can’t just release them back out onto the street like they do in San Francisco.”
Throughout the hour-long debate Lacey pointed to Gascón’s record as San Francisco’s top prosecutor. She noted that her campaign has been endorsed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed and City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
The day after the debate, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti endorsed Gascón — a surprise move since he had endorsed Lacey before Gascón announced his run and before the recent Black Lives Matter protests that have heightened the calls for police reform.
Garcetti called Gascón a “leader who I have known and trusted for nearly 20 years who can meet this moment.”
Gascón has been endorsed by California Governor Gavin Newsom and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris along with former LA Police Chief Charlie Beck.
On the recent Black Lives Matter protests in LA, the candidates were asked about restoring trust with police.
Video footage of police striking peaceful protesters earlier this year in Los Angeles County have yet to yield any charges filed by the DA’s office against any officers.
“Yes, there were some laws broken,” Lacey said. “If the laws were broken, we’re definitely going to file those cases. I’m not going to shoot my mouth off, like my opponent.”
She said some protesters took advantage of the peaceful activism to create a “chaotic” situation.
Gascón said any type of reform in the DA’s office will need to include input from law enforcement but also the communities police serve.
“My god, I was a police officer for 30 years,” said Gascon, who was an LAPD officer before he was San Francisco DA. He called the violence against Black and Latino people a “cancer” in law enforcement.
“That cure has to include active participation from within the community,” he said.
On immigration, Lacey said her office does not cooperate with federal agents to arrest and deport people held in custody or when they appear at court.
Gascón said under Lacey’s leadership the DA’s office “over and over again refuses to provide the avenue to give people the resolution to prevent them from being deported” when they are held in custody.
Lacey has received overwhelming support from police unions who call Gascón a reformer only in name. She said she grew up in LA County and thought “everyone had bars on their windows” so she understands what it means to be a victim of crime.
She said that Gascón wants to “experiment” with residents’ safety.
“Most of the victims of real crime look like me,” she said.
“Ms. Lacey says she’s a reformer, look at the facts. Don’t look at what the police unions are saying, or what my supporters are saying, look at our actions,” Gascón said.
The debate was hosted by ABC 7 Eyewitness News, California State University, LA’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs and the LA County and City League of Women Voters.