The Empire Strikes Back

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In his first year as DA, George Gascón enacted the criminal justice reforms that he promised to voters. To his critics, that’s exactly the problem.
Artwork by Evan Solano.

Last December in an eerily empty, peak-Covid courtroom, George Gascón was sworn in as L.A. County’s 43rd district attorney before a video backdrop of the Hall of Justice. Following the ceremony, the former San Francisco DA and one-time LAPD officer articulated his vision of criminal justice reform in a sweeping speech that pledged to end the era of mass incarceration. Delivering on what he’d promised on the campaign trail, Gascón vowed that his office would eliminate sentencing enhancements for all but hate crimes, abandon cash bail, stop prosecuting juveniles as adults and no longer seek the death penalty. Civil rights organizations, leftist politicians and concerned advocates for a more equitable system cautiously championed him as a progressive new leader in the era of Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd protests. 

For those in the streets marching for racial justice during the summer of 2020, Gascón has impressively helped upend the “tough on crime” policies that disproportionately devastated Black and Brown neighborhoods in South L.A. In addition to the policies instituted above, he has moved to prosecute police misconduct in ways previously unseen, convened the office’s first Crime Victims Advisory Board (to advise him on best practices to properly aid victims, including those whose family members were killed by law enforcement) and dismissed roughly 60,000 marijuana convictions dating back to the years before California passed Prop. 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use.

But the full story of Gascón’s first year in office reflects a deep tribalization of the electorate.

He isn’t merely grappling with an entrenched bureaucracy — he’s weathering explicit rebellion in his own department, aided and abetted by a well-orchestrated, right-wing propaganda war. With his 300,000-vote victory over the incumbent Democratic DA Jackie Lacey, Gascón boasted a clear mandate to eradicate the draconian policies that had defined local law enforcement. His victory was one of the most directly tangible results of last spring’s protests, which transformed his candidacy from an underdog bid into one in which many of Lacey’s endorsers withdrew their support in his favor. 

Yet for the revanchists of the ancien régime, multi-millionaire Westside homeowners addicted to the NextDoor app, and Fox News junkies, Gascón has become an avatar of liberal chaos, a scapegoat for everything wrong with L.A. Homeless problem? It’s Gascón’s fault. Rising crime? Obviously, Gascón. Problems with the electrical system in your Tesla? Probably the fault of a mechanic that George Soros paid to support Gascón.

In his first 12 months, Gascón has already survived a recall attempt, vociferously joined by the County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (It was one of several recall campaigns against L.A. elected officials, including councilmembers Nithya Raman and Mike Bonin.) Across L.A. County, more than two dozen cities have passed votes of no-confidence against Gascón. Within his first week in office, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson implied that Gascón is a “half-wit” above a chyron that read: “Crime follows Gascón wherever he goes.” The channel’s mewling Smeagol, Steve Hilton, declared that “no elected official in America more clearly represents the disgusting, pro-criminal, ‘defund the police’ madness than George Gascón.” Meanwhile, Laura Ingraham ghoulishly trumpeted an unsubstantiated July poll that claimed that the district attorney had a 25.1 percent approval rating.

The vitriol against Gascón doesn’t end with Rupert Murdoch’s empire; it’s also coming from inside his own office. A particularly incensed prosecutor, Jonathan Hatami, has become a fixture on Fox News for claiming Gascón is “pro-criminal and anti-victim.” After decades of enjoying a wide latitude to charge defendants with often dubiously ethical special circumstances and enhancement charges, local line prosecutors, through their deputy union, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) has sued Gascón over his refusal to keep those policies intact. More recently, they filed suit to block his hiring of former members of the public defender’s office (Gascón resigned from the state’s DA association when they backed the litigation in question.)

From the ADDA’s perspective, Gascón’s orders to dismiss previously filed special enhancement charges and avoid implementing California’s controversial Three Strikes sentencing law are illegal. In February, a judge granted a preliminary injunction in the union’s favor, stopping Gascón’s office from eliminating previous felony strikes in ongoing Three Strikes cases, which carry longer sentencing timelines (the judge ruled that Gascón’s office was allowed to pursue its own directives in new cases).

“It’s a dereliction of duty to follow a man rather than the law. He has a misconception that we owe loyalty to him. We do not. We follow the penal code,” says Eric Siddall, the vice-president of ADDA. “He’s an elected official with limited power, not part of some oligarchy. He himself has to follow the law. There’s no mutiny going on, we just want to follow our obligations to the state and federal constitution.”

Many other legal scholars — which include Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Berkeley’s law school and an advisor on Gascón’s transition committee — hold that the California Supreme Court has already ruled that district attorneys have “complete authority” to enforce state laws within their bailiwick.

Gascón himself downplays the internal discord: “I’m proud of the fact that we’ve gotten to the point where we’re seeing critical mass within the office,” Gascón says in an interview. “Many people are seeing the type of work that we’re trying to do is actually good for our community and we’re increasingly seeing more compliance in this area.”

Gascón cites his administration’s adoption of a more humane policy that diverts those suffering from mental and substance abuse issues towards county programs aimed at curbing recidivism. After generations of county criminal justice policies that amounted to little more than “lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” Gascón maintains that long-term dividends can come from assessing violence as something that can’t be treated by mere arrest and prosecution. He touts a community violence reduction program, COVER, that his office has developed in partnership with the LAPD.

Under the program, DAs are embedded in three LAPD divisions in South L.A.: 77th , Foothill and Newton. From these locations, the prosecutors work closely with police officers, community-based organizations and clergy members doing violence interruption work in neighborhoods with high crime rates. In some respects, this is a continuation of the Community Law Enforcement and Recovery program (CLEAR) that began in 1997. With the goal of reducing gang crime in targeted communities, it featured cross-agency cooperation from the LAPD, the L.A. County probation department, the L.A. City Attorney, the DA’s office and the California Department of Corrections.

“There’s a lot of scientific work that supports what we’re doing, and I think you’ll begin to see a noticeable shift within two years. Soon, we’ll begin to have a new mark for how community health can really be achieved.”

George Gascón

Gascón’s program notably diverges from its predecessor by seeking to partner with members of the actual communities themselves, in order to offer enhanced credibility and a more ground-level approach. The goal is to reach the 17-year old whose brother has been murdered, before he retaliates and perpetuates a cycle which has plagued the city for a half-century. Or ideally, be a part of a broader solution that mitigates gang violence in the first place.

If anything, Gascón’s approach injects more nuance and complexity into the notion of what criminal justice means in L.A. It’s a philosophy informed by his own deep memory of being both a beat cop and a member of the LAPD brass when the battering ram was ubiquitous. Gascón witnessed the effects of the 1988 LAPD destruction of two apartment buildings on 39th Street and Dalton Ave., a largely fruitless search for drugs that left ten adults and 12 minors homeless, along with causing property damage so great that the Red Cross had to intervene. In the wake of the rampage, officers left behind graffiti that read “LAPD Rules” and “Rollin’ 30s Die.”

In the same way that only a soldier can truly understand the scope and horror of war, Gascón brings an awareness about how common “officer-involved shootings” really are, and how easily they’ve been concealed in the past by pliable DAs. But beyond the sins of the last century, the LAPD remains embroiled in scandals involving falsifying gang data, racial profiling, and the use of brutal force to suppress protests. The Sheriff’s Department is under state investigation for containing nearly as many different gang factions as the Bloods and Crips; Sheriff Alex Villanueva has brazenly flouted subpoenas from the county’s inspector general and remains immersed in recriminations with Gascón and the Board of Supervisors.

Sheriff Villanueva and many other Gascón detractors claim that criminals have been emboldened by the embattled DA, consistently citing the escalating homicide rates of the last two years. By Oct. 18, the city had seen 320 murders, putting it on pace to eclipse the 355 killings of 2020, a decade high (In the ‘80s and ‘90s, at the height of the hyper-aggressive anti-gang CRASH Unit and the notoriously brutal Daryl Gates-era force, L.A. regularly topped 1,000 murders a year.) The skyrocketing rates, however, aren’t unique to L.A. Homicides rose nationally last year, representing the largest one-year increase ever recorded. It’s a trend that almost universally affected both major and medium-sized cities, regardless of the political affiliations or punitive zeal of the county’s top cops.

Many of the loudest voices on the right and center have attributed the violent crime wave to the progressive prosecutor ethos and the “defund the police” movement. But this argument doesn’t hold up: The LAPD saw miniscule cuts, which were almost immediately restored — and the cops billed an extra $47 million in overtime to the city’s “credit card.” The most dramatic spike in murders, in fact, happened last year under Lacey’s watch. Watching conservative cable news or perusing the social media feeds of Gascón’s most rabid critics could leave you convinced that L.A. has lapsed into a dystopian Escape from L.A. meets Blade Runner sinkhole. The so-called “godfather of progressive prosecutors” has been blamed for everything from the homelessness crisis to petty shoplifters, to the slim chance that Robert F. Kennedy killer Sirhan Sirhan will be granted parole.

Several high-profile incidents have helped fuel this narrative. Over the last year, Melrose Avenue has been hit with a string of armed robberies. Two other robberies and subsequent shootings in the luxury shopping districts of Beverly Hills have contributed to increased fear and anxiety among merchants and their wealthy patrons. But these high-profile, headline-grabbing crime sprees don’t paint the whole picture: Overall, crime is down 1.4 percent in the city through September — though violent crime is up 6 percent. According to the LAPD, robbery remains flat compared to this time last year, and Gascón’s office says that sexual assaults and rapes are down.

But there’s another factor contributing to rising homicides that has nothing to do with Gascón: the widespread proliferation of “ghost guns,” which are relatively cheap, easily assembled at home with 3-D printers, and untraceable. In an October report by the LAPD, ghost guns were said to have contributed to more than 100 violent crimes this year alone. During the first six months of 2020, the LAPD confiscated 863 ghost guns, a 300 percent increase from the same period last year. Like most things, this isn’t merely an L.A. problem. In May, the Justice Department responded to President Biden’s desire for tighter gun control by announcing a plan to require retailers to do background checks before selling ghost gun kits, as well as forcing manufacturers to start including serial numbers to aid law enforcement’s ability to trace the weapons.

Even in midnight blue Los Angeles County, where Biden received nearly triple the votes of Donald Trump, a bitter partisanship has taken hold. Like Governor Gavin Newsom and City Council members Raman and Bonin, Gascón, too, has been forced to fend off a recall attempt. In Gascón’s case, it began before any of his policies even had a chance to succeed or be invalidated.

“Their goal was always to undermine and subvert him,” says Adewale Oduye, a former L.A. County Deputy DA, who in a series of Medium posts in 2020, under the pen name Spooky Brown Esq., exposed the corruption, sexual harassment and prosecutorial misconduct in Lacey’s regime.

Sure enough, barely two months after Gascón’s swearing-in ceremony, victim’s rights advocates, prosecutors, ex-law enforcement officials and conservative local politicians launched a bid to unseat him, marking the first DA recall attempt in the 171-year history of the county.

“Their goal was always to undermine and subvert him … the mood in the office leading up to Gascón’s election was one of absolute fear and panic.”

Adewale Oduye

“The mood in the office leading up to Gascón’s election was one of absolute fear and panic,” Oduye says. The son of Nigerian immigrants and a graduate of Northwestern University’s law school, Oduye worked in the L.A. County DA’s office from 2008 until last year — a period encompassing the tenure of Lacey and her predecessor, Steve Cooley, a Republican who loudly endorsed Gascón’s recall. 

“There was this big fear that if Gascón got elected, the prosecutors would have to buy a gun to protect their daughters because there would be people on the streets raping and looting. It’s a fear rooted in racism and classism,” Oduye continues. “It was never about trying to do better. It was about sticking to their guns — doing what they’ve always been doing and [as they would put it] ‘protecting people from these animals and criminals.’”

In September, five weeks before its Oct. 26 deadline, the Recall George Gascón campaign acknowledged that it would fall far short of the 580,000 signatures required to trigger a recall election — they’d barely broken the 200,000 mark. But in a statement, Recall George Gascón spokesperson Tim Lineberger recast the failure as a temporary “reset,” indicating their plans to launch a forever war campaign to unseat the DA.

“This reset will put all [our] work to great use, and it is invaluable to the recall effort moving forward,” Lineberger’s statement read. “Make no mistake, this is not a white flag — it is a double down on our efforts.”

While the recall campaign failed to garner donations from the law enforcement unions who funded Jackie Lacey’s 2020 bid, it did receive six-figure checks from perennial candidate for worst Angeleno, the Trump-supporting developer Geoffrey Palmer, as well as Hyatt heir Anthony Pritzker and septuagenarian Republican oil scion Robert Day. But the campaign’s most visceral surrogate was Desiree Andrade, who regularly guested on Fox News all summer.

Andrade’s son Julian was slain in 2018, allegedly by five suspects who believed that he had stolen their weed. Upon taking office, Gascón dismissed special circumstances charges against the alleged killers that would have required a sentence of life without parole. Under Gascón’s policy, each, if convicted, would face 25 years to life instead.

“He needs to look at each case on a case-by-case basis. There shouldn’t be a blanket policy; every case is different and warrants different punishment,” says Andrade, a Democrat who was raised in Eagle Rock and now resides in Whittier. “My son’s killers planned it out and brutally murdered him. Three separate times, they kept beating my son to try to kill him. I would love Gascón to sit with me and say why he feels they don’t deserve life without parole. Why was he sentenced to death and not them? I don’t want to hear his beliefs about science; that means nothing to someone whose child was murdered.”

In conversations with Gascón and the allies in his office, they bristle most at the accusation that they are pro-crime and anti-victim. They point out that Andrade’s alleged killers may still serve life in prison. Sentencing decisions are ultimately made by judges, and early release can only be granted by a parole board. The playbook used to attack Gascón bears the recurring echo of the same ones used to tar Democrats from the ‘70s up until Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Crime Bill, which found both parties uniting behind the premise that the only way to avoid looking “soft on crime” was tougher sentencing and more police; as a result, their policies created an era of mass incarceration that lawmakers including Clinton himself have only begun to disavow.

In late October, former L.A. DAs Gil Garcetti and Ira Reiner teamed up to pen an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times calling the law-and-order policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s a “reactionary and disastrous social experiment.” The article claimed that “​​proponents of “tough-on-crime” policies continue to sell the public a false promise that more punishment means more safety. But their math doesn’t add up… there is no evidence that the recent increase in certain serious crimes — and in particular homicide — is associated with criminal justice reforms.” Additionally, they noted that Gascón’s policies could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in incarceration costs that could otherwise be directed to public health, housing, education and violence prevention. The article’s conclusion stressed that those obstructing these criminal justice reforms are actually making us “all less safe.” 

“We didn’t have much faith that a DA could usher in progressive justice reform, but he’s been a pleasant surprise — especially in how he’s begun to charge corrupt officers.”

Melina Abdullah

In a political landscape where elected officials obsess over poll numbers and the immediacy of the next election, Gascón emphasizes the long-term vision of his approach, one that he says will yield a positive impact in decades to come. 

“In a few years, we’re going to see the impact on community health out in the streets, and I think it will progress from there; it’s taken decades for us to get to where we are,” Gascón says. “The right wing never talks about the past. All the work that we did —– three strikes and everything —– none of that was based on data; it was all based on fear mongering. There’s a lot of scientific work that supports what we’re doing, and I think you’ll begin to see a noticeable shift within two years. Soon, we’ll begin to have a new mark for how community health can really be achieved.”

One of the most common criticisms of Gascón is that he’s more of a public defender than a DA. The perception has been amplified by several hires from the other side of the aisle, including Tiffiny Blacknell, an executive staff member of Gascón’s team, who grew up in Inglewood and served 18 years as an L.A. County public defender. While Gascón’s naysayers indict this as a fundamental flaw in his approach, it’s difficult to imagine anyone as well-suited as Blacknell is to understand the excesses of the DA’s office.

“In the Cooley administration, they prosecuted 13 and 14-year-old girls for prostitution,” Blacknell says. “These were children clearly being sex trafficked, with a trafficker’s name tattooed on their face or their body. These were traumatized children being kept in custody. It was a dark period; there was rampant prosecution of low-level drug possession charges that sent people to prison for eight or even ten years. We were simply begging people to see the humanity in people addicted to drugs or who were being exploited.”

For the most part, Lacey continued Cooley’s policies. Those with knowledge of the office politics repeatedly described Lacey as a weak and out-of-touch leader presiding over an agency overrun by strong prosecutors with carte blanche to pursue their own interpretations of justice. You didn’t have to dig deep to hear complaints about how prosecutors accused of sexual misconduct wouldn’t be fired, but instead moved to different courtrooms in distant parts of the county. 

“Would you rather have a deputy DA who makes $90,000 a year prosecuting traffic offenses or sex trafficking?” Blacknell continues. “Having personally lost someone to gun violence, I know that nothing done in the courtroom heals that wound. Nothing we do after someone is dead will bring them back. So that’s why we’re putting our resources into supporting folks and preventative work so that the next mother’s son doesn’t die. Before this administration, nothing was being done. They were waiting for the bodies to drop, then go in and prosecute, seek the highest sentence, and move on to the next body.”

To understand the L.A criminal justice system is to understand its incestuous nature. Attorneys familiar with that world say that cops frequently marry prosecutors. For ambitious lawyers, a deputy DA position is seen as a necessary stepping stone to becoming a judge. And the most generous donors to Lacey’s re-election campaign were law enforcement unions. It created an environment where Lacey was reluctant to prosecute any type of police misconduct.

The actual number of police killings during Lacey’s tenure remains under dispute; Melina Abdullah, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, says that there were over 640 fatal officer-involved shootings from 2012 until 2020; law enforcement officials estimate the number to be in the mid-300s. Regardless, Lacey only prosecuted a single case against one of those officers – even when former LAPD chief Charlie Beck recommended otherwise. By contrast, one of Gascón’s first actions was to hire former federal prosecutor Lawrence Middleton to probe allegations of police wrongdoing, beginning with four shootings in which Lacey failed to press charges.

“We didn’t have much faith that a DA could usher in progressive justice reform, but he’s been a pleasant surprise — especially in how he’s begun to charge corrupt officers,” Abdullah says.

“He’s facing organizations and institutions clinging to an old form of policing that was abusive, murderous and hugely problematic. Gascón is laying out a different approach to criminal justice. He’s a prosecutor who actually represents the people and engages in restorative justice. He gives us hope that we can actually work together and alongside people who are part of a system that needs to be fundamentally transformed.”

What’s most obvious is the difficulty of rehabilitating a broken system. Lasting change requires patience, but the social media age demands instant gratification. It’s delusional to believe that by virtue of implementing several much-needed reforms, Gascón could instantly reduce the crime rate, mend internecine gang wars, rid the streets of lethal untraceable weapons and heal generations of inherited trauma. But to begin to improve upon the injustices of the past requires someone willing to risk withering attacks from all corners — whether from those with good intentions and real worries about their safety or from those poisonously cynical and obsessed with preserving their vested power, personal interests and prejudicial hierarchies. It’s a start.

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