A repeat burglar plagued Hollywood in 1980. As a young Los Angeles Police Department officer, George Gascón was deployed to a home owned by an elderly, well-to-do woman to conduct an investigation. As he gathered fingerprints and collected evidence, he noticed the homeowner was closely tailing him.
“It was unusual, so I stopped and asked if there was anything wrong,” he said. “She said that she’d been listening to the news, about how some of us are burglarizing places as we work. She said she didn’t have much left, but she wanted to protect what she had. In a very simple moment, I had this clear revelation that the policing of a few bad apples had a broad impact. It transformed how I looked at corruption; the impact is so much bigger than the individual incident.”
Amidst a heated race for Los Angeles County District Attorney, voters will head to the polls on November 3 to choose between two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey, and Gascón, who served as San Francisco’s D.A. from 2011 until 2019. The New York Times calls it “the most important D.A. race in the U.S.”, and they’re not wrong. L.A. County has a population of 10 million people, and the lead prosecutor will drastically impact how crime and punishment is handled.
Lacey, a Black woman, leans hard into the punishment arena. During her tenure, the Granada Hills resident has sent 22 people to death row, all of them people of color. She has never prosecuted a police officer in a fatal shooting — even disregarding the unprecedented recommendation of former LAPD chief Charlie Beck that she charge an officer for the Venice Beach shooting of a homeless man. Aggressively pursuing gang enhancement sentences, Lacey’s office has sent people to state prison at nearly four times the rate of San Francisco’s.
In contrast, Gascón, the one-time police chief of San Francisco, has been a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, particularly among district attorneys. He’s been called the “godfather of progressive prosecutors,” and in September, launched the Prosecutors Alliance of California, a “first in the nation initiative to advocate for police reform.”
But as the national Black Lives Matter movement picks up speed and protests for police reform rock the nation, is Gascón’s plan for reform progressive enough for our times?
Growing up in LA
Gascón was born in Havana, Cuba to a politically active family. His father initially supported Fidel Castro over his promise of free elections, but when they were never fulfilled, he began to speak openly against Castro’s leadership. Tension rose as revolutionaries protested; Gascón’s uncle, a union organizer, was sent to jail, and the 13-year old Gascon’s family took a freedom flight to the United States. They settled in Cudahy, Calif., which Gascón describes as a “very poor, blue-collar suburb outside of LA.”
“I grew up in this pretty rough and tumble setting,” he says. “My upbringing was not always good when it came to policing. Where I grew up police tended to be very rough with us. I used to get stopped pretty often, sometimes because we were just being profiled. I had a low-rider car and it was a magnet for police.”
When Gascón was 17, he was pulled over by police while on a date with his girlfriend. “As I sat on the curb, they took out the seats and tossed everything onto the sidewalk,” he says. “When they didn’t find anything we were left there to put my car back together. I was nobody to them.”
The integration into American culture was difficult. He had limited English, and dropped out of high school to become a sergeant in the army, serving mostly in a military police outfit in Germany. The martial structure got him back on track; he earned a history degree from Cal State-Long Beach and when a friend joined the LAPD, Gascón hopped on board too.
He moved up the ranks quickly, ultimately rising to deputy chief. But Gascón’s perspective on policing often differed from his colleagues. “A lot of people who go into policing can trace it back to being kids,” he says. “The more I got into it I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to work in neighborhoods like the one where I grew up, and bring a different perspective to the work.’”
Details on Gascón’s legacy during his time as an LAPD officer are slim. Not much has been released to the public, and he loathes the idea of being judged for decisions he made decades earlier. The LA Times reports that he was issued minor disciplinary citations, but many are inaccessible due to privacy laws. He does say that one such citation occurred when he prevented a suspect from seizing his partner’s gun by squeezing the holster, as opposed to drawing his own weapon. LAPD disagreed with his decision not to pull out his gun.
Of his time at LAPD, Gascón does say the system of cycling people in and out of prison quickly wore thin. “As I matured in my own evolution I became less and less comfortable with the status quo in policing,” Gascón says. “I was beginning to understand that we were incarcerating one generation of poor Black and Brown people after the next, and not seeing an end to that.”
The Shift to DA
Dissatisfied with his limited power in the LAPD, Gascón jumped at the chance to become police chief of Mesa, Ariz. During his 2006 to 2009 stint, he repeatedly clashed with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio over Arpaio’s practice of illegally stopping cars driven by Latinos in order to check their immigration status. Arpaio was later charged (and pardoned by Trump) for criminal contempt of court over his anti-immigration policies.
From Mesa, Gascón moved to San Francisco, where he led the city’s police department for two years. During that time he implemented a CompStat crime pattern tracking system to help determine when and where officers were most needed. He also took steps to reduce crime that by today’s standards are controversial in SF — conducting “buy and busts” to reduce drug dealing in the Tenderloin, and supporting the use of tasers as “less-lethal” alternatives to guns. He was, however, dedicated to rooting out police misconduct, calling for all fatal police shootings to be investigated by outside parties such as the California state attorney general’s office.
When ex-SF District Attorney Kamala Harris won her Senate seat, former Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Gascón in her place. Finally, he was in a position to legislate change.
Gascón had a tough tenure in San Francisco. The seven years he was in office included nearly a dozen fatal police shootings of Black and Brown people. SFPD was rocked by a racist text messaging scandal. As income inequality metastasized, property crime became rampant.
If you ask any San Franciscan what they remember about Gascón, they’ll most likely mention the lack of charges that his office filed against police officers. It became one of the major issues of his tenure; every Friday for years, relatives and friends of those killed would gather on the steps of the Hall of Justice and demand his removal from office. The protests even extended to his home, and resulted in a restraining order. Several high-profile fatal shootings — Alex Nieto in 2014, Mario Woods and Amilcar Perez-Lopez in 2015, and Luis Gongora Pat and Jessica Williams in 2016 — slipped through the DA’s office without charges. The city was furious. A hunger strike by a group who called themselves the “Frisco Five” lasted for weeks outside Mission Police Station, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr was forced to resign. Activists even showed up at Gascón’s house, hurling fruit at his door, which resulted in him filing a restraining order against one protester.
Gascón’s statement on the cases then is the same as it is now. “I never had a case of an unarmed victim in San Francisco,” he says. “The law really supported the police, even though I think the shootings were really unnecessary. I challenged the legislators to be on the right side of history and change the law.”
In 2019, Gascón successfully campaigned for Assembly Bill 392, to tighten the standards for deadly force. Under the law, authorities are only permitted to use deadly force when “necessary,” as opposed to when “reasonable.” It also prohibited police from firing on people running away from a scene, as long as they don’t pose an immediate danger.
In contrast, he points out, his opponent Lacey has had a number of fatal police shootings pass through her desk where the victim wasn’t armed, and still hasn’t pressed charges.
He insists he’s not above holding police accountable for violent behavior. “We charged over 30 officers during my time. Six for use of force. Proportionately, if we had done this in LA County, that would have come out to 360 officers.”
If he is elected in November, Gascón has pledged to reopen at least four fatal police killings that Lacey refused to investigate. The cases include the deaths of Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, Hector Morejon, Christopher Deandre Mitchell, and the aforementioned victim of the Venice Beach shooting, Brandon Glenn.
A Prolific Tenure as District Attorney
The police shootings may have dominated Gascón’s legacy in San Francisco, but while protesters marched outside his office, he was campaigning for more progressive change from inside of it.
Last November, District Attorney Chesa Boudin was elected as Gascón’s successor in San Francisco. The transition was overwhelming; Boudin says he received dozens of documents to review to get him up to speed. One of those was a list of what Gascón had done during his two terms. It’s 76 pages long. The list is wildly varied, and includes using artificial intelligence to mitigate police and prosecutorial racial bias, the creation of a sentencing planning program to inform prosecutors on the most effective and just sentences, the establishment of neighborhood courts which allows the community to discuss incarceration-free reparations for low-level crimes, and the elimination of “quality of life” fines for homeless people (like loitering or sleeping on sidewalks) as long as they engage in 20 hours of social services.
“I remember reading through it, and thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh. This legacy! Could I have a list this robust and ambitious at the end of my time?’” Boudin said. “I think George was too modest. He didn’t get enough credit for some of the stuff he was doing. I look at the foundation I inherited when I took this office — things like the Make it Right program (a restorative justice program for youth), or neighborhood courts — those are the kinds of things that take years to build.”
In particular, Gascón pursued a major progressive policy shift away from Reagan-era War on Drugs policies, authoring Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot measure that reduced many low-level crimes — including simple drug possession — from felonies to misdemeanors. The impact was massive: millions of dollars have been saved each year, and people who would have formerly ended up in prison were able to enter diversion programs.
When 2016’s Proposition 64 legalized marijuana, Gascón brought in Code for America to create a tool that would automatically expunge qualifying convictions, dating all the way back to 1975. After a long opposition to the lifting of marijuana prohibitions, Lacey only moved to expunge 66,000 convictions this spring, after pressure to move left before the primary against Gascon and public defender Rachel Rossi.
Props. 47 and 64 were revolutionary, but Gascón has continued to look farther afield for inspiration. Right before he left office in San Francisco he flew to Portugal to explore drug decriminalization.
“I want to get to the point where we’re actually having serious conversations about decriminalizing drug use in this country, and put in the context of a public health matter,” he said in an interview for SF Weekly in 2019. “We’re not going to get anywhere by criminalizing people for this.”
The data speaks to his success. In 2019, the year that Gascón stepped down from his position as district attorney, San Francisco saw its lowest violent crime rate in 56 years.
A Return to LA and The Rise of a New Campaign
When asked about his legacy in San Francisco, Gascón says he considers the moves he made there to be the floor for new progressive policies, not the ceiling. He’s well aware of the difference between the two counties, and it’s clear which one he considers home.
“This is where I grew up, and where I spent most of my life,” he says. “I know the county well. We want to begin the process now of bringing the community into the district attorney’s office to inform policies and procedures. We need to have an honest, two-way conversation that is sensitive to the diversity of the county. “
There are a number of contentious issues at stake. As Lacey and Gascón’s campaigns offer promises to voters and attack each other’s policies, incarceration rates come up time and again. Gascón believes Lacey is too tough on crime, that she doesn’t divert enough people to rehabilitative programs, and that she is perpetuating the cycle of criminalization.
On the other hand, Lacey has stated that Gascón’s “leniency” will result in rampant property crime, drug addiction, and homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles. The issue lends itself well to the left/right divide we see nationwide when it comes to criminal justice reform.
It’s an issue that could have an impact on thousands of lives. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in 2017, Lacey’s office in L.A. sent 608 people per 10,000 to state prison. That same year, Gascón’s office in SF sent 126 per 100,000.
“Every time you do a tour in a jail or a prison you get a little more traumatized, and your criminogenic factors go up, and you’re more likely to engage in criminal behaviors,” Gascón says, when describing the roots of his policy. “A criminal record can prevent you from getting employment and housing. Incarcerating people can lock the doors of opportunity and force them back into criminality, addiction, or poor mental health. I want to be very aggressive about pushing back on that.”
Gascón’s messages are resonating. His endorsement list includes Governor Gavin Newsom and Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris, along with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Many who initially endorsed Lacey — such as Rep. Adam Schiff and Assemblymember Laura Friedman withdrew those endorsements over the summer. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has yet to endorse Gascón, but is distancing himself from Lacey. In response to one BLM-LA protest at Lacey’s house, the district attorney’s husband waved a gun at BLM L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah and other activists gathered on the front lawn (he currently faces three charges for misdemeanor assault with a firearm). While BLM does not endorse candidates, Abdullah has declared, “it’s impossible to be worse than Lacey.”
Beyond investing in community-based programs, rehabilitation, and other diversion programs, Gascón also wants to modernize the District Attorney’s office using technology. He sponsored Assembly Bill 1076, which would use big data to crunch the numbers on the tens of thousands of people incarcerated in the county. “Five percent of offenders are responsible for 55% of all crimes,” he says. “If you can get those folks you can have an outsize impact.”
Boudin, who has endorsed Gascón in the race, is watching how it unfolds closely. “Elected DAs have for decades been resisting criminal justice reform, even when it’s data driven, even when it’s shown to promote public safety,” Boudin says. “[Gascon] is not perfect, none of us are. But the impact that he will have, with his experience as a leader of a movement that has taken hold across the country, and as someone with his experience and compassion and gravitas… he could help move the nation’s largest criminal justice jurisdiction into the 21st century.”
Gascón doesn’t shy away from his legacies, though he’s also not one to brag. And although he is generally soft-spoken (many joke he sounds like Kermit the frog), he is unwavering in his belief that district attorneys are the key to changing our criminal justice system.
“In this country, elected prosecutors hold a tremendous amount of power,” Gascón says.. “Arguably, they have been responsible for mass incarceration in this country to a great extent. They’ve had so much impact on our community over the past three decades. When I became a DA I was really focused on showing you can strike a balance, you can create safety and reduce violent crime, and you can reduce incarceration. We went out and proved that.”
Nuala Bishari is an award-winning freelance reporter based in San Francisco, where she writes about public health, the criminal justice system, and homelessness. Previously, she spent three years as news editor for SF Weekly. Her work has appeared in SF Public Press, SF Examiner, and In These Times.
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