At around 10 a.m. on Monday morning, George Gascón announced that he had officially thrown his hat into the ring to become Los Angeles County’s next district attorney, thus jump-starting what is already considered by many to be the most-watched DA race in the nation, as Gascon tries to unseat Jackie Lacey.
In the course of his press conference, which was notably held across the street from LA’s massive Twin Towers/Men’s Central Jail complex, 65-year-old Gascón, who recently retired from his position as San Francisco’s District Attorney, drew a series of bright lines delineating what kind of contest he intends this to be.
“The Los Angeles District attorney has lost its ability to distinguish the dangerous from the nuisance,” Gascón told the assembled reporters. “We treat our jails like mental hospitals, choosing to lock away problems rather than adopt proven solutions that work.
“The good news,” he told those assembled, “is there is a better way. A safer, more humane, more effective, and far less expensive criminal justice system.”
During Monday’s seven-plus minute presentation to the press – surrounded by his wife, and two grown daughters, one holding a surprisingly cooperative infant grandchild – Gascón took a hard swing at Jackie Lacey’s tough on crime reputation.
Without actually mentioning Lacey’s name, Gascón pronounced “tough on crime” talk the “easy” route. Plus, he said, it is an approach designed to grab headlines. “The media loves it!” he said.
“But what they don’t tell you is that two-thirds of the time the system fails, leaving in its track broken families, broken communities, and the victims who aren’t any better for it. And what they also fail to tell you is that talking tough has broken the bank … taking money away from creating sustainable communities, from investments in public education, affordable housing, and infrastructure.”
Although there are two other people who have also declared their candidacy, Richard Ceballos, 57, a former defense lawyer who now prosecutes organized crime cases, and Joseph Iniguez, 33, who is a schoolteacher turned prosecutor, thus far the heat is understandably gravitating to the contest between Lacey and Gascón
After all, Jackie Lacey is the first woman, and first African-American, to serve as LA District Attorney since the nation’s largest DA’s office was created in 1850.
Gascón, on the other hand, began his life in Cuba, where he watched human rights trashed with frightening regularity. Then, in 1967, at age 13, he fled with his parents from Cuba to Miami, and a week later, on to South Los Angeles, where he after struggling to adapt, he eventually dropped out of high school, then joined the army, after that, joined the Los Angeles Police Department, where he spent 27 years, while managing to acquire a college degree and a law degree, somewhere in between.
Gascón left the LAPD in 2006 to become the Chief of Police in Mesa, Arizona, then in 2009, went to San Francisco to head its police department, before lateralling over to become San Francisco’s first Latino District Attorney, where he pioneered a list of justice reforms that earned him national prominence among progressives.
Lacey, on the other hand, begins the race with a hefty list of establishment heavyweights backing her, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Congressman Adam Schiff, Congressman Ted Lieu, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and four out of the five members of the LA County Board Supervisors, among others. (Of the supervisors, Mark Ridley-Thomas is reportedly the hold-out.)
Lacey has backed various reforms, most notably diversion for LA’s non-violent mentally ill lawbreakers. She also was part of LA County’s push to stop criminalizing sex-trafficked youth, and instead, go after the traffickers, plus she favors banning private prisons. And Lacey was involved in a new joint effort with the City Attorney’s office, and LAPD Chief, Michel Moore, to eliminate old warrants and fines for minor infractions that ensnare low-income and homeless people in the criminal justice system.
Yet, Lacey, who is 62, came into office as the protege of former DA Steve Cooley who, while popular and personable, was a resolutely tough-on-crime DA, who opposed such issues as the ACLU’s habit of filing lawsuits in an effort to stop the alarming level of abuse of inmates in the county’s jails (although Cooley did support the reform of the 3-strikes law).
Lacey, who often appears far more reform-minded personally than her former boss, oversees an office that, according to an ACLU report released in June, generates more death sentences than any DA’s shop in the country, and has a reputation for going far out of its way not to prosecute police officers or deputies, even in the case in which LAPD Chief Charlie Beck believed criminal charges were called for. And when members of law enforcement are charged, such as former LA County Sheriff’s deputy Giancarlo Scotti, the result has notably been a startlingly defendant-friendly plea deal.
Then there are glaring missteps — such as the failure to charge political donor, Ed Buck, who distributed recklessly large doses of methamphetamine to vulnerable gay men he invited to his house for sex, resulting in the death of two of them — that have caused some DA-watchers to wonder if Lacey, who is personally quite well-liked, is really running her own office.
Nevertheless, Lacey, already has the support of a long list of law enforcement organizations and unions, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), which is the LAPD union, the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA), which is the union for the LASD supervisors, and the Association of Probation Supervisors of Los Angeles County — among others.
Gascon, of course, has been a police officer for far longer than he’s been a liberal prosecutor.
“I’m deeply proud of my work in San Francisco for the past 10 years,” he said on Monday. “I’m also very proud of the nearly three decades that I worked in public safety in LA. And the work that we did to restore community trust after the Rampart scandal.”
Gascón the Cop
Although some LA County voters, if they know George Gascón’s name at all yet, know him solely for the position he held for the past eight years, namely his job as the District Attorney of San Francisco.
As SF’s DA, Gascón positioned himself right away as a reformer with such programs and actions as his co-authoring of Prop. 47, his push for the creation of a first-of-its-kind collaborative court diversionary program for “transition-age youth” between the ages of 18 and 25, and the use of open-source software aimed at removing implicit racial bias from charging decisions. And, this June, he became the first DA’s office in California to open up prosecutorial data and metrics to the public.
He was also the nation’s first prosecutor to call for the end to money bail.
Yet, according to Gascón, his perspective on justice reform was in many ways shaped by the nearly 30 years he spent in law enforcement, prior to being tapped by then San Francisco Mayor, Gavin Newsom to take over as SF DA, when then DA, Kamala Harris was elected to serve as the state’s Attorney General, then getting elected on his own twice after that.
We’ll look more deeply into Gascon’s history as a cop—and as a DA — as the race goes on, but here are a few bullet points.
The last position Gascón held in the Los Angeles Police Department, which made him 2nd in command of the department under Bill Bratton, was the post of Assistant Chief in charge of the department’s operations, which meant he oversaw the majority of the LAPD’s then approximately 9300 sworn officers, working in its four regional “bureaus,” Central Bureau, West Bureau, Valley Bureau, and South Bureau.
During his time as Assistant Chief, Bratton gave 2nd-in-command Gascón credit for the drop in violent crime that followed.
“He is a crime fighter. He thrives on it. In some respects, he’s my Patton,” Bratton said to Richard Winton of the LA Times about Gascón, referring to World War II Gen. George S. Patton.
Yet, in the years immediately prior to Bratton’s arrival, Gascón was the head of the LAPD’s Training Division during the period when the department was still shell-shocked and reeling from the Rampart scandal. While at Training, he worked to find a “dynamic” way to weave an innovative form of ethics discussions through the fabric of police training, “so we understand why we should be protectors of civil rights, not the violators of civil rights,” he said at the time.
When Bratton was nearing the end of his first five-year term, and it looked like he’d be staying on for a full second term (although that turned out not to be the case), the city of Mesa, Arizona tapped Gascón to be the chief of their troubled department.
Gascón accepted the job, thinking he’d like the challenge of reforming the police department in a city of 439,000, which the local press, along with many worried city officials, depicted as “defined by a culture of corruption.”
In accepting one challenge, he wound up also facing a far different one, in the form of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who figured he would teach the Cuban-born LA guy a lesson or two by challenging the new chief’s authority with middle-of-the-night crime sweeps within the Mesa city limits, that were actually questionably legal immigration sweeps. The challenge failed.
Ray Stern of the Phoenix New Times describes how Gascón famously stared Arpaoio down, metaphorically speaking. The result: Arpaio blinked.
“I saw firsthand the number of constitutional violations that were being committed by Joe almost on a daily basis,” Gascón told WitnessLA when we interviewed him a few years ago.
Interestingly, during Gascón’s tenure in Mesa, both violent crime and property crime went down substantially in the city. But, during that same time, in the unincorporated area of Maricopa County, were policed by Joe Arpaio’s sheriff’s department, crime went up.
Gascón assured the gathering on Monday, that energetic justice reform and public safety are not at odds.
“For more than three decades I’ve dedicated my career to making sure that all communities receive equal justice under the law—while keeping neighborhoods safe,”
Gascón also talked about his desire to “heal the rift between law enforcement and many of the communities it serves, making it safer for our communities – and also for our police officers.”
He wanted to “bring reform to my home town,” Gascón said finally.
It should be noted that both of the other two challengers, Richard Ceballos, Joseph Iniguez, also position themselves as strong reformers