When Steve Cooley is sworn in today as Los Angeles County's 36th district attorney, he will be in congenial surroundings: on a stage at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex, where he once was honored as alumnus of the year and where his daughter once danced in "The Nutcracker."
After that, he will enter a world both familiar and foreign.
His new 18th-floor office in the downtown Criminal Courts Building is the seat of one of the most demanding and difficult public service jobs in America, one that ultimately conquered his immediate predecessors, Gil Garcetti and Ira Reiner.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 5, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
District attorneys--Steve Cooley is the 37th person to serve as Los Angeles County district attorney. A story in Monday's Times incorrectly said he is the 36th.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 6, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
District attorneys--A correction that appeared in Tuesday's Times incorrectly stated that Steve Cooley is the 37th district attorney of Los Angeles County. In fact, he is the 36th, as reported Monday.
Cooley, a 27-year veteran of the district attorney's office who ousted Garcetti in the November election, has high hopes of changing the place in significant ways.
He has promised to issue a new policy on enforcing the three-strikes law in what he calls a more "proportional, evenhanded" way. He has said he will go after organized crime and political corruption, keep a closer eye on police misconduct, and be a fair and honest boss for his 3,700 employees, who include more than 1,000 lawyers--a restive, ambitious, prickly work force that can bedevil the most well-meaning of leaders.
It won't be easy. Already, Cooley has been reminded that he is moving from the small stage of the Welfare Fraud Unit, where he has been head deputy for the last four years, to the big screen of the top job, where every move he makes--and many he doesn't--will be scrutinized, dissected and commented upon.
"If I had a dollar for every rumor I've heard," Cooley said last week in his transition office, "I could retire my campaign debt--which is substantial."
Most of the rumors have swirled around the appointments Cooley will make to the executive staff of the office--17 positions that are exempt from Civil Service protection.
"He's had to deal with rumors that he doesn't like women lawyers or that he's not friendly with lawyers of a certain racial or ethnic background," said Larry Trapp, a former deputy district attorney who is coordinating the Garcetti-to-Cooley transition. "How these rumors start is a mystery to me, but I guess in an office as big and spread out as this one, it's inevitable."
Framework of Changes Cited
The usually affable Cooley has been tight-lipped about whom he plans to appoint to the top jobs--with one exception. Clearly intending to send a message to those who fear that he will usher in a traditional, white male administration, he has let slip that he will appoint Jacqueline Lacey, a well-regarded African American prosecutor, as director of the Bureau of Central Operations, one of the most important positions in the office.
She will be charged with revamping the Central Trials Division, perhaps best known as the unit that unsuccessfully prosecuted O.J. Simpson.
Cooley has said the division is structured in a way that makes it aloof from the communities it serves, and has called for it to be reconfigured along geographic lines so prosecutors become more familiar with the neighborhoods--and law enforcement agencies--from which cases arise.
The rest of the appointments will be announced Tuesday. Cooley has promised that they will reflect the diversity of Los Angeles County and will include only "a couple" of holdovers from Garcetti's administration.
In a memo last week to his future staff, Cooley acknowledged the anxiety many are feeling and laid out some of the framework of changes he intends to make.
He said, as he has before, that he will split the Special Investigations Division, which prosecutes corruption, into two divisions, one to keep an eye on police misconduct, another to put a new emphasis on public corruption. He also said he will establish a new organized crime division.
Cooley issued a separate, earlier memo to prosecutors and defense lawyers outlining the first significant change he intends to make--one that has landed him in the first political battle of his tenure.
The memo, written on official stationery with Gil Garcetti's name emblazoned across the top, described Cooley's much-anticipated new policy on the three-strikes law.
Cooley has said that the law, which calls for prison terms of 25 years to life for three-time felons, needs "a dose of proportionality" and should not generally be used against defendants whose third crime is relatively minor and nonviolent.
With his memo, he circulated a draft proposal of his new policy, noting that California law allows the district attorney to "strike a strike"--in effect, ignore one of a defendant's prior crimes--"in the interests of justice."
Defense lawyers have complained that, under Garcetti, defendants were being sent to prison for 25 years to life for relatively minor crimes such as drug possession and shoplifting. Since Cooley's victory, many defense attorneys have sought delays in potential three-strikes cases so their clients would be tried under Cooley's rules, not Garcetti's.