Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles County District Attorney-elect
Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles County District Attorney-elect

Jackie Lacey Steps Out of Steve Cooley's Shadow

Jackie Lacey rode into the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office on the coattails of her boss. In three scandal-free terms, Steve Cooley maintained his image as a tough prosecutor with a streak of moderation. His endorsement assured voters that Lacey, his chief deputy, could be trusted to keep it up.

Lacey clung tightly to Cooley's record during the campaign. At one debate (which, full disclosure, was moderated by this writer), she was asked to describe her biggest disagreement with her boss. She couldn't name one and said that any differences they may have had ought to remain private.

The strategy worked: Lacey coasted to a 10-point win last week. When she is sworn in next month, she will become the county's first nonwhite DA, and its first female one.

Any other changes will be much harder to discern. According to Cooley, so little will change that Lacey won't even bother with the formality of a transition team. "Her transition will be the time it takes her to walk from the chief deputy's office to the DA's office," adds former DA Robert Philibosian. "Five minutes. She's done."

An L.A. native, Lacey, 55, joined the DA's office in 1986. In her early career, she handled the typical range of cases, including one death row prosecution. She got to know Cooley in the '90s, when both worked in the San Fernando branch. When Cooley was elected, he made her a part of the administration.

Lacey has been tied to Cooley for so long — 12 years — that her own personality remains a bit of a mystery. When Cooley leaves the office for the last time, Lacey will finally have to step out from his shadow.

One of her first responsibilities will be to select an executive team. Many prosecutors expect her to promote several women from middle management to the DA's executive suite. Women now make up a majority of the office's frontline prosecutors. But under Cooley, the top deputies tended to be older, white men. (Lacey, who became chief deputy in 2011, was the major exception.) Now, many men in the top management tier have reached retirement age, and several women are well positioned to move up, including Pam Booth, director of the DA's central operations bureau. She's considered a top contender for the job of Lacey's chief deputy.

In an interview, Lacey declined to get into specifics about her leadership team but said she hoped to firm things up soon. Asked whether it was important to her to see more women in the top ranks of the office, she demurred.

"I have a wide variety of choices, among people who are very talented, both men and women," she says.

While any policy changes are likely to be mild and gradual, Lacey is a moderate Democrat, while Cooley is a moderate Republican. Though Cooley has been adamant that the DA's office is above politics, Lacey should be slightly more receptive to entreaties from Democratic interests.

During the campaign, she came out in favor of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants — though she said she would not change how the DA's office prosecutes undocumented drivers. She also said she would reestablish the DA's Environmental Crimes Unit, which Cooley had shut down. That helped win the backing of the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. However, now that she has been elected, setting up the unit does not appear to be a high priority. In the interview, Lacey referred only to "expanding" the unit, which is now responsible for environmental cases.

Another difference is Lacey's leadership style. Her supporters say her style is more "collaborative" than Cooley's. (Her opponent, Deputy DA Alan Jackson, had a harsher word for it: "bureaucratic.")

"She's a real consensus builder," Booth says. "She listens to what people have to say and knows how to balance that with what the needs of the office are."

As chief deputy, Lacey had Cooley's ear, making her the person prosecutors came to when they wanted him to do something. But as DA, she'll be the one who has to say no — both inside the office and out. "The real difference will be the mental shift from giving counsel and advice to being personally responsible for decisions," says former DA Ira Reiner. "When stuff happens, and it does, she's going to be getting the call, not Steve."

The first major item on her desk will be realignment — the state's plan to reduce prison overcrowding by transferring inmates to county custody. Sheriff Lee Baca had been pushing Cooley to agree to broader pretrial release of jail inmates in order to reduce the jail population. Cooley had been pushing back, and Lacey plans to continue to push.

"The pretrial release stuff is problematic," Lacey says. "I've been briefed, and I'm ready to participate intelligently in those discussions."

She will also have to deal with the passage of Proposition 36, which modified the state's three-strikes law so that only those convicted of violent crimes face life in prison. Though Cooley adopted a similar policy in 2000, prisoners sentenced before then are expected to petition the courts for resentencing.

Lacey says she has already issued a policy memo on changes that will need to be made, saying, "I've attended briefings on almost every major case, so I know what's out there."

Many within the Association of Deputy District Attorneys hope that Lacey will have a better relationship with the union than Cooley did. The union members voted to support Lacey, despite her involvement in some of Cooley's battles against the organization.

"There was a lot of revenge, a lot of animosity," says Danette Meyers, a prosecutor who ran for DA in the primary. "If you didn't agree with Steve Cooley, you were arbitrarily transferred around the county. I think it's going to be very different with Jackie. She's going to listen to people. I don't think she's going to be vindictive in any way."

At some point, Lacey will have to figure out what to do with Alan Jackson, her defeated opponent. During the campaign, she said he was among the best prosecutors in the office. For now, he is part of the elite major crimes unit, though it's not clear whether Lacey will keep him there — or bide her time, waiting for an opportune moment for transfer.

Within the office, many prosecutors are closely watching to see how much influence Cooley retains.

"I'll be involved with the transition, putting information together for her," Cooley tells the Weekly. "But after that — after noon on Dec. 3, it's her shop."

Cooley has not said what he plans to do after leaving the office. He may well opt to work for a major law firm, offering insights into how the DA's office might approach certain matters. But those who know him say he won't meddle.

"Steve is not gonna be calling her and asking her what she's doing," Philibosian says. "She knows what she's doing. She doesn't need Cooley to tell her what to do."

With or without his input, Lacey is unlikely to shake things up.

"From my standpoint, the office is in the best shape it's ever been in," Cooley says. "I don't think it's gonna be all that much different. When things are in awful good shape, you don't want it to be different."


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