Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, only the second person in Los Angeles County history to be elected to three consecutive terms as District Attorney, will retire on December 3, 2012. Until 2010 when he moved to Palos Verdes to be near his children and grandchildren, Cooley was a 35-year resident of Toluca Lake.
How does one summarize the career of a person who has been one of the most innovative, effective District Attorneys in the history of Los Angeles County? With a list of accomplishments longer than his arm, perhaps the best way is to let him list the three things of which he is most proud.
1. One of Cooley’s first actions upon becoming DA in January 2001 was to establish the Public Integrity Division. There had been a unit called Special Investigations Division that did election law violations and some corruption work but it was a shadow of what is done now. Cooley substantially advanced its work, putting more resources into it, both investigative and prosecutorial, developing new skills and talents and the use of the investigative Grand Jury. Among local prosecutorial agencies in the country Cooley’s office is number one in terms of the ability to pursue public corruption. It has had hundreds of cases with an almost 100% conviction rate.
2. Advancing how law enforcement in the District Attorney’s office utilized forensic sciences, particularly in the arena of DNA. A lot of old, cold serial murder cases have been solved because of how Cooley’s office positioned itself. Cooley asked the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department to establish cold case units, which they did. Cooley created his own forensic sciences section. His office was the primary author of Proposition 69, the all-felon DNA database, which greatly expanded the database from a couple of hundred thousand to approximately 1.5 million. He pressed hard to eliminate the rape kit backlog in the LAPD and Sheriff’s department. Since Cooley became DA, his office has conducted 11 annual DNA awareness seminars bringing together law enforcement, victims groups, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to keep everybody up on advancements in DNA.
3. The Supreme Court of Mexico had ruled that Mexico would not extradite to the United States anyone facing a potential life term. All of our murders are life term cases. When they came down with that ruling, hundreds of individuals who had fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution were essentially given safe haven. It took five years to undo that with Cooley’s office leading the way. Los Angeles County had some very significant cases here, like the killing of Deputy David March by Armando Garcia, who executed deputy March during a traffic stop on April 29, 2001. According to Cooley, Garcia was in Mexico within three or four hours, hiding out. Cooley had people in his office who worked with Congress to pass legislation which provided monetary sanctions against any government that violated extradition treaties. That was like the final straw and Mexico gave up. Cooley and many others in his department went on talk radio and made sure the print media were aware of it. According to Cooley, “Mexico finally realized that it was flat wrong and that it was endangering its own people by allowing murderers from other countries to come there and hide out.”
No matter who succeeds Steve Cooley, his positive impact on Los Angeles County will be felt for years to come. His retirement is akin to the retirements of Babe Ruth from baseball and Michael Jordan from basketball, the end of an incredibly productive era.