In 1995, after a year of clerking for a federal judge and three years of private practice at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in Los Angeles, Eileen Decker decided she wanted to become a federal prosecutor.
She liked the idea of arguing cases in a courtroom, but she knew what she didn't have.
“I’d frequently pick a trial partner who had a little more of the natural theatrics in them," Decker said in an interview. "I knew that would not be my strong suit."
Last month, Decker took over as the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, supervising 25o federal prosecutors from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, south to Orange County and east to Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The office has more that it's share of high-profile cases, including political corruption, multi-million dollar Medicare fraud, and foreign nationals who sell restricted technology to China and other countries. One big decision ahead of her: whether former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca should be indicted as part of the federal government’s wide-ranging investigation into abuses at county jails.
Former colleagues and bosses said she remains the same, thoughtful - and reserved - lawyer, a big change from the U.S. Attorney she replaces, the charismatic Andrew Birotte, who is now a federal judge.
Decker, 55, may be unassuming, but it took some political skill to land this job.
President Obama appointed her to the post, at the recommendation of Senator Diane Feinstein.
An approach forged from LA's streets
Until a few weeks ago, Decker served as L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s deputy for homeland security and public safety. In an interview one recent Sunday as she packed up her City hall office, Decker preferred to talk about her work.
She is definitive about her six years as deputy mayor: the job changed her. Despite years of prosecuting federal crimes, the position took her into tough neighborhoods for the first time and showed her locking people was not the only option.
“I don’t know that prior to becoming deputy mayor I really saw the benefit, firsthand, of the prevention model," Decker said. The experience has prompted her to ask more questions when considering whether someone should be charged with a crime, she said.
“How involved was somebody, and does that warrant a federal indictment," she said. "I do think I have evolved.”
That could be important. Human Rights Watch has accused federal prosecutors of too often seeking long prison terms for relatively low level drug dealers.
Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa first appointed her to the deputy mayor job. In fact, she was a rare holdover by Garcetti, who described her as an invaluable adviser. He recalled the day a TSA officer was fatally shot at LAX. Decker helped coordinate the response.
“A lot of people in public safety look at political offices and say ‘Oh that’s just the mayor's person. We are the true experts,'" Garcetti said. "But Eileen was treated that day not just as an equal but as someone to follow.
In her years at the U.S. Attorneys office in Los Angeles from 1995 until 2009, Decker said she prosecuted a variety of criminals, from gang members to a man who sank boats to collect insurance money.
Then came the 9/11 terrorists attacks.
Focusing on fighting terrorism
Decker, who grew up in New York and graduated from New York University Law School, said the attack felt personal. She decided to join the newly formed national security section at the office, and soon became its leader.
“That really was a crossroads in my career,” she said.
Decker found herself coordinating intelligence gatherings among local and federal agencies and plotting strategy with top anti-terrorism experts.
That experience changed her, too. She now says national security must now be a top priority for federal prosecutors around the country.
That's not necessarily a popular position.
“There is enormous tension between the priorities of federal prosecutors and the priorities of local officials," said Chapman Law School Professor and former federal prosecutor Lawrence Rosenthal.
Often, local law enforcement officials see guns, drugs, and gangs as bigger threats that terrorism, he said.
“Since September 11th, I think the problem has gotten much worse,” said Rosenthal. "In fact, they are doing less than they used to in terms of trying to help local governments safe from what are statistically far more serious threats.”
Decker's response: "It's a criticism I have heard."
She promised to review the priorities of the office.
Birotte, her predecessor, said politics is just part of the job.
“You’ve got chiefs, sheriffs from all of the seven counties that have issues and concerns," he said. "That is what makes it most exciting - but at the same time challenging.”
Birotte, who started in the office at the same time as Decker and knows her personally, said she’ll likely take a low-key approach to the job.
"She’s not out there banging on the drums telling people look at me, look at me," he said.
Decker said she is prepared for the pressure of that and other decisions.
“I thrive on that," she said. "It makes the job interesting, challenging and rewarding.”