This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis on important issues and actors in the criminal legal system.
Those who study crime acknowledge it is notoriously difficult to pinpoint its causes. But that hasn’t stopped Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and her surrogates from linking any broken window in San Francisco to its former district attorney George Gascón, who is running a competitive race to unseat her.
The crux of this smear is the false proposition that the number of property crimes rose in San Francisco due to Gascón’s policies. Over the last decade, San Francisco’s urban core experienced a major transformation as tech companies like Twitter, Uber, and Airbnb were lured by tax incentives into an area experiencing extreme poverty, turning the city into a “huge metaphor for economic inequality in America.” During that time, the Bay Area’s increase in property crime was driven in large part by auto burglaries, which peaked in 2017 and have since been in decline. But while the San Francisco Police Department struggled to clear cases, making arrests in just 1 to 2 percent of all reported car break-ins, Gascón’s office obtained convictions against 82 percent of defendants in 2017, according to an internal study conducted by the San Francisco Superior Court. Law enforcement, however, has closed ranks to pin blame on the former district attorney.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) allocated $1 million to a PAC dedicated exclusively to running a smear campaign against Gascón. With weeks to go until the March 3 primary, the LAPPL’s war chest could help Lacey avoid a run-off.
For years, the LAPPL has been equating reforms to the criminal justice system with leniency, which they say jeopardizes public safety. In a 2018 statement, the LAPPL said reform was an “assault on safe streets … perpetrated on us by the voters of California.” The group’s spurious, self-serving attacks have been further embellished by the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys, local prosecutors who endorsed Lacey’s candidacy and work under her supervision.
One of Lacey’s most trusted deputies, Michele Hanisee, serves as the president of the deputy DA association and supports an unapologetically anti-reform agenda that mirrors the LAPPL.
For weeks, Hanisee has been promoting virulent claims about Gascón in conspiratorial right-wing media, including one particularly colorful story that “on streets where the boundary line was between San Francisco County and San Mateo County, thieves would commit car burglaries on the San Francisco side of the border because they would face less punishment.”
This bold claim is completely unsourced and unverified. Data provided by the California Department of Justice flatly contradicts Hanisee’s implied assertion that property crime decreased in San Mateo after Gascón became the San Francisco DA. Furthermore, it’s not possible to compare sentencing between the two counties because there is no evidence that this data exists. The San Mateo County district attorney’s office does not track case outcomes or conviction rates by crime category. And sentencing is highly dependent on the circumstances of each case, making punition variable. Therefore, Hanisee’s story doesn’t make sense—a person intent on committing an auto burglary would not have enough information to make a rational choice to commit the crime on one side of the county line over the other.
Apply the false logic of Hanisee’s story to the Los Angeles district attorney’s office and the absurdity of the attack is obvious. Violent crime in LA County went up under Lacey, according to the California Department of Justice. Does Lacey not deserve blame for that? Similarly, the number of forcible rapes is up significantly under Lacey. If Hanisee didn’t work for Lacey, wouldn’t she accuse her of rolling out the red carpet for rapists? She might as well blame Lacey for the fact that the number of rapes kept going up while she waited years to charge the film mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Willie Horton-style accusations about crime and leniency are not new. But crude demagogic exaggerations about crime in the context of a DA race have dangerous potential because prosecutors are important actors in the legal system.
Allegations that system actors are relinquishing their duty to seek justice have served as dangerous incitements to violence and vigilantism in the past. In parts of the South during Reconstruction, these spurious allegations were said to be a major justification for the existence of the Ku Klux Klan and the call to restore and maintain white supremacist rule. One year after the ratification of the 14th Amendment promised Black people equal protection under law, conservative media spread falsehoods about courts—led, they claimed, by liberal carpetbaggers—setting aside property crime convictions for Black people. They published accounts of “rampant thievery” that were, according to historian Otto Olsen, “suspiciously general rather than specific, while the few specific accusations were usually false but remained uncorrected,” and blamed crime on the abolition of whipping.
Lacey’s own barbs against Gascón have been far more reserved than Hanisee’s and the police unions’. She recently told Los Angeles Magazine she had not “seen any evidence” that Gascón “successfully tackled public safety issues.” Pointing to an absence of information without making a definitive statement might reflect Lacey’s wish to maintain her public image as a moderate and circumspect arbiter of legal evidence. But she doesn’t need to say more when her insinuations are fleshed out by the law enforcement unions. She is clearly misleading voters by suggesting reforms to the criminal legal system would unleash a crime wave.
For some, Lacey’s identity as the first woman and first African American to serve as LA district attorney may be a symbol of racial and feminist progress that can relieve them of their anxieties about both crime victimization and institutional racism. But as long as she and her allies use stereotypes of reform to foment fear of crime, Lacey holds back efforts to meaningfully address the social inequality her policies amplify as a gatekeeper in the criminal legal system.
Because prosecutors have extraordinary discretionary power, justice requires them to act with the highest level of integrity. Lacey’s tacit approval of partisan attacks by civil servants she’s responsible for holding accountable raises questions about her commitment to professionalism, and reflects an urgent need to reform an office that has grown into the largest county-level punishment bureaucracy in the country.
Alex Sherman is a freelance journalist, activist, and attorney in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Interview, Billboard, New York Daily News, and the LA Progressive. He is a member of the Los Angeles Coalition for DA Justice & Accountability. The opinions expressed are his own and not those of the Coalition or its members.