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Just What Kind of District Attorney Would Steve Cooley Be?

The election: The challenger can't simply watch Garcetti go down the tubes. He has to detail what he would do in office.

May 30, 2000|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership," forthcoming from Middle Passage Press. E-mail:

From all indications, it won't be easy for Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti to get reelected next fall. Like his predecessor, Ira Reiner, Garcetti is facing strong criticism for his handling of certain high-profile cases, not the least of which is the LAPD Rampart scandal. A Times poll in April showed Garcetti trailing his opponent, Steve Cooley, by an almost incredible 37%.

But voters should draw a lesson from the 1992 Garcetti-Reiner race. After Reiner's political stock plunged when the public blamed him for botching the prosecution of the four cops who beat Rodney King, Reiner threw in the towel. Garcetti coasted into office.

But Garcetti, like Cooley, was someone about whom the public had only the haziest notion of who he was or how he would run his office. As it turns out, we should have gotten iron-clad guarantees from Garcetti that his office would be free of the taint of political scandal and that he would seek the most talented prosecutors possible and promote them on merit and performance. We voters should have gotten Garcetti's pledge that he would not tolerate any personal or political interference in the cases before him.

Most important, the public should have extracted a promise from Garcetti that he would fairly and impartially prosecute anyone who broke the law, even if the alleged lawbreaker wore a badge and a uniform.

Unfortunately, we never sought or got these guarantees. The sorry result is that Garcetti is accused of coddling wealthy donors, being vindictive toward subordinates who question his decisions, failing to conduct a rigorous investigation of some cases and, of course, dragging his feet on prosecuting dirty cops in the Rampart Division. While Garcetti created these problems for himself, we voters also must accept responsibility because we didn't demand that Garcetti tell us exactly how he would conduct the affairs of the D.A.'s office.

Now that Garcetti's election looks like a long shot, voters have the chance to demand of Cooley what they didn't demand of Garcetti. Cooley's campaign advisor, John Shallman, in March told The Times: "At the moment, Gil's got the ball and he's running for the wrong end zone. So we're just going to stand on the sidelines and watch him score for our side." That's not good enough.

We don't need to hear about Garcetti's failures; we already know what he didn't do. We don't need for Cooley to tell us he will be tough on crime; that's what we expect of the district attorney.

No, Cooley must tell us what he would do to eliminate personal and political favoritism from the hires and promotions he makes in the D.A.'s office. He must tell us what standards he would use for prosecutions. For example, he must elaborate his views regarding the enforcement of the "three strikes" law.

Cooley must tell us more about how he would use roll-out teams to investigate police shootings. We also need to know what kind of relationship he expects to have with LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks and, in detail, how Cooley plans to handle prosecutions in the Rampart scandal. Most important, we need to know more than that Cooley doesn't think the current way of monitoring police misconduct works. We need to know exactly what steps he would take to do it better.

On a debate with Garcetti on KCRW-FM's "Which Way, L.A.?" Cooley said that if voters wanted to know more about where he stood on certain issues, they could go to his Web site. However, a large percentage of the population, especially in areas like South Central L.A., doesn't have access to the Internet.

Why can't Cooley simply tell the voters where he stands on the critical public policy issues involving the district attorney's office? He will have ample opportunity in public venues between now and the November election. We shouldn't have to go to a Web site to find out what he thinks.

Garcetti got a free ride in 1992, and, ultimately, we paid a steep price for our indifference. We must not make the same mistake with Cooley.

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