Los Angeles District Attorney Cooley reflects as he hands over the reigns to Lacey

Steve Cooley served for three terms as Los Angeles County District Attorney.  Monday, he leaves office and his successor Jackie Lacey will become the first woman and first African American L.A. County D.A.
Steve Cooley served for three terms as Los Angeles County District Attorney. Monday, he leaves office and his successor Jackie Lacey will become the first woman and first African American L.A. County D.A. Republican candidate for Attorney General

It’s an unusual moment for Steve Cooley. He speaks haltingly and takes a long pause. He is recalling a case he once prosecuted in Lancaster.

Like a lot of prosecutors, certain cases stick with him. For Cooley, it’s a manslaughter case that involved an armed man in a mobile home park.

“He was drunk and he went out and in an act of braggadocio or whatever, started shooting at a dog house, with a baby in it,” Cooley said.

He holds back tears.

“He didn’t know the baby was in there,” Cooley sad. “That one killed me.”

The hard-bitten, ruddy-faced prosecutor quickly regains his composure during an interview a few days before he leaves office. Monday, he steps aside for Jackie Lacey, who will become L.A. County’s first female and first African-American D.A.

Cooley, 65, was unique among district attorneys.

You have to go back to the 1930s to find the only other D.A. to serve three terms in Los Angeles County history. For a dozen years, he has led the nation’s largest local prosecutors office with blunt talk and a no-nonsense demeanor. 

“The crime rates are going to rise significantly,” he declares. “They’re going to spike.”

That’s his prediction as California shifts tens of thousands of the state’s less serious offenders from prison to local jails to serve shorter sentences. Cooley’s long been a critic of what’s known as prison realignment and its promise to rehabilitate more prisoners.

Cooley enjoyed delivering catchy lines. Asked to name his own favorite, he recounted one he delivered in private: “If it’s not written down, it’s not worth the paper it’s not written on.”

The outgoing D.A. said that to a police chief who balked at a written policy that would outline when chiefs should report possible criminal behavior by police officers to the D.A.’s office.

“This chief of police says: ‘Oh Steve, all we did in the good ole days was call each other up and talk about these things,’” Cooley recalled.

During his tenure, he was an early adopter of DNA technology and created a unit to prosecute public corruption. Cooley also backed alternative sentencing courts, and angered many fellow D.A.’s around the state when he fought for a ballot initiative that relaxed the Three Strikes law. 

But he was hardly a liberal. Though the office is non-partisan, Cooley is a Republican. He regularly clashed with the labor union representing prosecutors. He derided the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuits over inmate abuse at L.A. County jails.

“They file lawsuits trying to suck money out of the county,” he said.

(It’s worth noting that an independent commission also found a “persistent pattern of unreasonable force” at the jails.)

Cooley faced criticism from some women’s rights groups at one point. They said he was unsympathetic to battered women who killed their husbands.

Cooley cites as one of his greatest accomplishments persuading the Mexican government to change its extradition policies to win the return of a man who murdered an L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy.

As a popular and powerful incumbent D.A., he helped orchestrate the election of his successor, promoting Jackie Lacey up the ranks to his number two and blunting the skepticism some in law enforcement held about a black, female, Democratic D.A.  Cooley said Lacey will face many challenges – among them the increasing use of digital evidence, including surveillance video and smart phones.

“We have to better train our first responders to gather the digital evidence in a constitutional, lawful way, when they respond to a crime,” Cooley said.

Born and raised in L.A., Cooley was a reserve LAPD cop before he graduated from USC law school and joined the D.A.’s office in 1973. His father, a former FBI agent, inspired his interest in law enforcement. 

Two years ago, Cooley ran for state attorney general, losing narrowly to Kamala Harris. Throughout his career, he mostly steered clear of commenting on the celebrity cases that moved through his office, and he enjoyed generally good relations with the press.

“The biggest problem with the press is there’s not enough of them,” Cooley said.  “They are a diminishing force within our Democratic system because of economics and other reasons, maybe the Internet. There’s not enough news coverage as far as I’m concerned.”

Cooley sounded ready for retirement, with plans to spend time with family and his three dogs.

“We have all Welsh Springer Spaniels – the two boys we have are both grand champions,” he said proudly. “We’ve got those three dogs which we love to spend time with – and three grandchildren.”

Cooley said he also plans to offer himself as a problem solver to law enforcement.

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