LOS ANGELES (AP) — For nearly three years, Melina Abdullah has led dozens of demonstrators once a week outside the Hall of Justice to call for the ouster of Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey for failing to prosecute killings by police officers.
Thousands more joined Abdullah after George Floyd's death.
Chants of "Jackie Lacey must go!" echoed between the courthouses downtown several days this month. Demonstrators hoisted signs saying, "Prosecute Killer Cops" and "Bye Jackie!" and read the names of some of the more than 340 people killed by LA County law enforcement officers during the eight years Lacey has been DA.
In every case but one, Lacey has found a shooting justified or decided not to bring charges because she concluded the officer could win an acquittal at trial.
"Everybody is utterly shocked when they think about the number of people who have been killed by police or while in custody since Lacey took office," said Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-LA. She criticized Lacey's substantial financial support from law enforcement organizations for appearing to be "a quid pro quo."
Lacey is the first Black person and woman to serve as Los Angeles district attorney. She is seeking a third term in November and has taken note of the recent crowds, saying "the weight of them and the number of people is substantial, to say the least."
However, she is less concerned about the impact of demonstrations than about being misunderstood.
"I don't want people thinking I'm biased or racist or afraid, or any of these very unflattering things that are said," Lacey told the Associated Press. "We shouldn't assume that everyone who says 'Black lives matter' isn't concerned also about public safety. That's a false choice that those are mutually exclusive."
Lacey fell just shy of getting the majority of votes needed to get re-elected in a March primary against two contenders running to the left of her on platforms to reform the criminal justice system. She faces a runoff against George Gascon, the former San Francisco district attorney and longtime Los Angeles police commander, who was a distant second.
The death of Floyd, a Black man who cried out that he couldn't breathe as a white Minneapolis officer pressed a knee to his neck for more than eight minutes, has ignited protests across LA for more than three weeks. Protesters want reforms to the criminal justice system, and that demand could shape the DA's campaign.
Lacey, who grew up in South Los Angeles and worked her way up through the ranks in the nation's largest local prosecutor's office, is seen as the institutional law-and-order candidate. Gascon, who immigrated to LA from Cuba as a teen, has billed himself as a progressive reformer.
Gascon has not joined the protests, but quickly condemned the death of Floyd and police abuses. He has tweeted and issued news releases supporting rights of protesters and denouncing their arrests for curfew violations while calling on Lacey to continue not seeking bail in low-level, nonviolent criminal cases after a statewide order imposed during the coronavirus pandemic was rescinded.
Lacey didn't issue a statement until six days after Floyd was killed and has been a step behind Gascon in announcing she won't prosecute curfew violators and will continue to not seek bail for less serious offenses.
"She is so obviously reacting to the political pressure of the election," Gascon said. "But the motivation behind that is not driven by her concerns and her desire to be thoughtful and humane but they're really motivated by campaign politics which tells me that if she were to be re-elected she would go back very quickly to being who she's always been."
Gascon's campaign, which was largely funded in the primary by outside contributions from a pair of wealthy Northern California donors, has seen a spike of interest since the protests started. He's got 200 new volunteers and raised more than $160,000, mostly in donations averaging $20, according to his campaign.
Lacey, who got most of her primary support indirectly from police unions, has criticized Gascon for not prosecuting police for shootings during his time as San Francisco DA, though his spokesman, Max Szabo, said none of those cases involved unarmed suspects.