BY FRANK STOLTZE
Originally published on November 6, 2020
George Gascón overcame a wall of law enforcement opposition to unseat two-term incumbent Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Tuesday’s election, marking the latest and perhaps most significant victory for the growing criminal justice reform movement in the U.S.
Although there are hundreds of thousands of votes left to count, Lacey conceded to Gascon Friday, with the challenger in the lead by 53.7% to 46.3%.
While he spent more than half his career in policing, Gascón, 66, says he now believes the justice system is deeply flawed. In the year of the George Floyd killing and the subsequent mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism, that message resonated with voters, even against a D.A. who was the first Black person and the first woman to hold the job.
Reform advocates around the country, including George Soros, heavily backed Gascón, a one-time LAPD assistant chief and former San Francisco D.A.
‘AN IMPORTANT WIN’
“This is an important win to show that people can and will hold even the most powerful DA in the country accountable,” Black Lives Matter member and BLD PWR founder Kendrick Sampson said in a statement. Long before Lacey was seen as vulnerable, Black Lives Matter launched weekly protests outside the D.A.’s downtown L.A. office in 2016, charging her with failing to prosecute police who used deadly force.
During the campaign, Lacey billed herself as a “reasonable reformer” and pointed to her creation of a special division to divert inmates with mental health problems from jail. She won the support of every law enforcement union — including those that represent LAPD officers, L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies and state prison guards, as well as the nearly 1,000 rank-and-file prosecutors in the DA’s office — all of which also strongly opposed Gascón.
But in the end, voters turned to the challenger. Gascón promised to not seek the death penalty for defendants no matter what the crime, lock up fewer people with mental health problems, and be tougher on police officers who use deadly force.
That last priority relates to one of Gascón’s toughest challenges: building trust with the men and women with whom he must work closely as the county’s chief prosecutor.
Many prosecutors’ opposition to Gascón is rooted in his role in the passage of Proposition 47, the landmark 2014 measure that rolled back criminal penalties. While D.A. in San Francisco, Gascón co-authored it and other measures designed to reduce the number of people behind bars. He openly talks about the need to address deep racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
REFORMERS HAVE HIGH HOPES
It’s that attitude that won Gascón widespread support from criminal justice reform advocates, including the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors. Gascón was also endorsed by the L.A. County Democratic Party, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris (Gascón’s predecessor as San Francisco D.A.) and former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who once worked alongside Gascón.
Reformers have high hopes for a Gascón administration. Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, said Gascón needs to change the culture in the D.A.’s office, noting that “the prosecutor controls who comes in and what those charges look like and how broad a net the justice system is going to cast in terms of what it criminalizes and when it criminalizes.”
She expressed hope that Gascón will follow the policies he pursued in San Francisco, in terms of “showing more restraint” when it comes to prosecuting people struggling with substance abuse, mental health issues or poverty.
Also critical for Gascón will be how he “starts to revisit and revamp police accountability,” Krinsky said.
She added that Gascón can start to rebuild trust with communities “by showing that the office is more willing to look at [police] who have abused the power that they have, that they’re no longer going to be used as witnesses in cases … and that they’re going to be held accountable to the criminal process when they cross the line.”
Earlier this week, Black Lives Matter-LA held what co-founder Melina Abdullah said could be the last of its weekly protests outside Lacey’s office. Regarding Gascón, she cautioned: “We know that the incoming district attorney will also need to be held accountable. We’ve called for an immediate public meeting, so he can roll out his plans for us. And we can also set expectations for him.”
‘WE HAVE TO HACK OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM’
The new D.A. will lead an office that prosecutes more than 180,000 criminal defendants a year.
No California county has thrown more people behind bars than Los Angeles. In 2017, L.A. under Lacey sent 608 per 100,000 people to prison, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. When Gascón was D.A. in San Francisco, the ratio was 126 per 100,000. The state average was 487.
The former cop has said that has to change.
“I would say we have to hack our justice system,” he said. “And the first hack is that we have to turn our court system upside down.”
Gascón has the opportunity to exert enormous influence over criminal justice policy here and in Sacramento. When the L.A. District Attorney speaks, California politicians usually listen.
L.A. now joins the list of localities that have elected progressive prosecutors in recent years, including Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
In addition to Gascón’s victory, reformers cheered other developments in the Nov. 3 election. Voters rejected a statewide proposition that would have made more crimes felonies and made it harder for some felons to get early parole. They approved a measure that gives California felons the right to vote while they’re still on parole. And in L.A. County, a measure that requires the county to spend at least 10% of its general fund every year on alternatives to incarceration like youth and job programs is well ahead in early returns.
It was not a clean sweep for reformers, however. Voters rejected a statewide proposition that would have largely done away with the cash bail system.
WHO IS GEORGE GASCÓN?
Long before Gascón became a darling of the criminal justice reform movement in California, he was an LAPD beat cop in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.
“I was a warrior,”Gascón said in an interview last year. “I viewed myself as a police officer on the thin blue line, that I had to make as many arrests as I could.”
Gascón was born in Havana, Cuba. He knows persecution firsthand.
His father lost his job for allegedly speaking out against Fidel Castro and his uncle was imprisoned for being a union organizer. In 1967, his family fled to Los Angeles on a “Freedom Flight” for political refugees paid for by the U.S. government.
But the harassment had taken its toll.
“My parents were terrified of even seeing a police car,” Gascón told UCLA’s Blueprint last year. “My mom would start shaking if there was a police car behind us, and she would ask my dad to pull over.”
Gascón was 13 when he settled in Cudahy with his parents, arriving with “a change of clothes in a cardboard box,” according to a biography he submitted to Smart Voter during his 2011 campaign for San Francisco D.A.
Speaking only Spanish, he struggled in school and eventually dropped out of Bell High School.
“School was just not fun,” Gascón told SFGate.com in a 2010 interview, “and I felt I was going to make it some other way.”
He joined the U.S. Army and became a sergeant. In 1978, he signed up with the LAPD.
But three years later, in the first of a series of unorthodox career moves, he decided to leave the department.
A STINT AS A CAR SALESMAN
Gascón had taken a part time job selling cars at a Ford dealership. He liked the money, so he took a full-time job as sales manager.
In fact, he was quoted in a 1986 Los Angeles Times article about low interest rates offered by automakers. Customers were complaining car prices didn’t seem any lower. Gascón sounded sympathetic.
“I don’t believe the low interest rates have affected sales prices one way or another,” he said.
Later that year, he returned to the LAPD, where he had remained a reserve officer.
“After about four years of working at the dealership, I went back to my wife and said, ‘I’m not really happy. We’re making a great living, but I really want to go back to policing,’ “Gascón told SFGate.
The LAPD was entering what might be called its darkest hour.
There were widespread allegations of brutality, illegal arrests and harassment of African Americans and Latinos. There was the 1991 Rodney King beating caught on videotape and the largest civil unrest in modern American history when an all-white jury acquitted the officers who beat King.
Controversy would continue to swirl around the department throughout the 1990s, culminating in the Rampart scandal that involved officers planting evidence on suspects and beating them up.
DISPENSING ‘FATHERLY ADVICE’ TO THE RANK-AND-FILE
Gascón rose through the ranks, in part because he was well-liked and respected by other officers, according to a former partner.
As a captain at the Harbor Station, Gascón once made it a point to personally address every officer, including those on the overnight shift, about a new policy involving Miranda rights, said retired Sergeant Tim Smith. “He came in after midnight and sat down with the guys and explained it,” he said. “It was unusual for a captain to do that.”
Smith, who calls Gascón a friend, described it as “fatherly advice” from a superior who “cared about his officers.”
Gascón also helped Latinos in the LAPD advance in their careers, said Anthony Chapa, executive director of the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association and former head of the Secret Service in L.A.
“He was considered a mentor,” Chapa told KPCC/LAist.
Along the way, high school dropout Gascón earned a B.A. in history from Cal State Long Beach and a law degree from tiny Western State College of Law in Irvine.
He rejected the LAPD’s paramilitary, arrest-heavy approach to policing and was promoted in 2002 to assistant chief by then-chief Bill Bratton, who’d been hired to implement a federal consent decree mandating a wide array of reforms.
“I like people who are creative, who are risk takers, who are assertive and who are not afraid to advance ideas,” Bratton said of Gascón at the time in an interview with the L.A. Times.
CLASHES WITH ‘SHERIFF JOE’ IN ARIZONA
But Gascón wanted the top job and he left in 2006 to serve as police chief in Mesa, Arizona. At the time, Joe Arpaio was sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Mesa.
The two clashed. At one point, Arpaio sent his deputies on a midnight raid of Mesa City Hall in search of unauthorized immigrants. Gascón was outraged.
“You know, we would prefer it that we didn’t have to play these kinds of games,” he told reporters.
Arpaio shot back: “Bottom line, he is doing everything he can to keep me from coming into that city and locking up illegals.”
Three years later, in 2009, Gascón was back in California. This time, in San Francisco, where then-mayor Gavin Newsom appointed him police chief.
Gascón would hold the position for just 17 months.
He convinced Newsom to appoint him district attorney to replace another rising star, Kamala Harris, who had been elected state attorney general.
THE WAR ON DRUGS IS ‘IMMORAL’ AND ‘UNETHICAL’
With his new platform, the one-time LAPD warrior became one of the state’s loudest critics of the war on drugs. “It is unconscionable, it is immoral, it is unethical,” Gascón boomed in a TedX talk.
For a lot of old-school cops, Gascón is a turncoat, more interested in coddling criminals than catching them.
One strong critic is Steve Gordon, a board member of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers. “If you’re going to leave, leave,” he said of his one-time fellow LAPD officer. “Don’t come back with a different agenda.”
Gordon slammed Gascón for supporting Proposition 47, which lowered certain drug and theft felonies to misdemeanors. He called the measure “a disaster for California.”
Gordon argues conditions deteriorated in San Francisco on Gascón watch, “with the feces all over the street, the needles all over the street, the open-air drug markets.”
While that description is over the top, San Francisco did experience an epidemic of car break-ins during Gascón’s tenure. But it’s unfair to blame the D.A. for everything, said U.C. Berkeley criminologist Frank Zimring.
“Would it be easier to point your finger at police failures there? I think yes,” Zimring told LAist.com.
For his part, Gascón touts his efforts to keep non-violent offenders out of jail during his tenure as San Francisco’s D.A.
He also took on the police. Gascón assembled a blue-ribbon panel to examine racial bias in the San Francisco Police Department. And he opposed a ballot measure backed by the police union that would have allowed more liberal use of Tasers.
‘A REMARKABLE OUTLIER AS A PROSECUTOR’
Zimring says in the end what stands out the most about Gascón is that he is a cop who became a D.A. and an outspoken critic of the nation’s justice system.
He calls Gascón “a remarkable outlier as a prosecutor.”
Gascón is a breath of fresh air to the criminal justice system, said Father Greg Boyle, who created Homeboy Industries and has worked for decades to get young men out of gangs. Gascón once patrolled the streets of Hollenbeck Division in Boyle Heights when Boyle worked at Dolores Mission.
“Cubanos are not typical here in Los Angeles,” Boyle told KPCC/LAist. That made Gascón — whom he calls a friend — an outsider, even among Latinos, Boyle said.
As a result, Gascón had more “reverence” than most cops, he said. “It is reverence for the complexity of things,” Boyle said. “He didn’t presume to know stuff, and consequently, he’s an open guy.”
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.