The old district attorney was a Democrat and a black woman, Jackie Lacey. As it turned out, identity wasn’t good enough to re-elect her, even as the same people demand that important government officials meet their demographic criteria rather than possess the ability to do the job well. So much for the assumption that being a woman of color is the defining characteristic for a position of power and authority. Lacey was defeated by one of the new breed of progressive prosecutors.
George Gascón, the former top prosecutor in San Francisco, seized the momentum swirling in the streets and honed his promises to reduce incarceration, tackle racial bias and reopen old police shooting cases that the incumbent had declined to prosecute. At his swearing-in ceremony on Monday, Mr. Gascón immediately put his plans in motion, announcing an end to seeking cash bail and other sweeping policy changes.
And the changes he announced were, indeed, sweeping. But it’s not as if he was some outsider to either law enforcement or prosecution. He had been the District Attorney of Frisco beforehand, filling Kamala Harris’ old chair. Before that, he was Frisco’s police chief. Mesa, Arizona’s chief and an assistant chief under Bill Bratten in LA. He started as a beat cop in LA, and got his law degree along the way. He paid his dues.
Mr. Gascón, a Cuban émigré who began his law enforcement career patrolling the streets of Los Angeles as a police officer, was always a viable candidate — he earned enough votes in the March primary to force a runoff with Ms. Lacey, a fellow Democrat. He pushed back on the notion that the activism around Mr. Floyd’s death was decisive in his election, but acknowledged that it “altered the dynamics of this race.”
During his tenure in San Francisco, a city that some would question as a model for others, he was not without his critics.
Herein lies one of the most basic flaws with George Gascon being the chief prosecutor in San Francisco — the gross misconception that being the head of an office of prosecutors is little more than a management position. For those of you who have been in the trenches, who know what it’s like to do battle in the courtroom, who know that our role is to do what’s right, you know that your elected District Attorney is your leader, not a manager. When the head of your office hasn’t spent a day in your shoes (and never cared to understand what a courtroom prosecutor does), as a line prosecutor, you don’t get what you need to succeed and it’s demoralizing.
The office has been plagued with understaffing on attorney and support levels for many years. Gascon also failed to provide leadership in very basic ways, such as pushing back on the Public Defender’s Office for gamesmanship that occurred in the courtroom. There’s a reason why San Francisco Superior Court tries misdemeanors at a rate 19 times higher than any other county in the state and why there are more homicides older than four years still waiting for trial than any other county in the Bay Area. It’s because of a weak District Attorney’s Office without true courtroom leadership.
If that strikes you as a disconnect between the job line prosecutors do and the policy shifts of a progressive prosecutor, perhaps it’s because it is. Gascón joins a list of people who have been elected prosecutor for the purpose of assuming greater power than prosecutors before them, but to use it for decarceral purposes. Their call is to not prosecute, not seek bail, not seek prison, and to undo the excesses of their predecessors by emptying rather than filling prisons.
Will it work? Will these progressive changes in policy, where crimes as enacted by legislatures are no longer deemed appropriate for prosecution, where the individuals who commit crimes are the victims rather than the people they from whom they steal?
One can’t fault George Gascón’s resume when it comes to being a solid choice for Los Angeles District Attorney. He’s got the experience. He’s walked the streets, even if he’s never been down to a trial or arraignment court. He ought to know how the system works when in balance, when the competing concerns for safety and fairness, for the pain of a crime victim and the needless harshness on a defendant, can both be accommodated.
Having been a street cop, and having climbed to the brass ranks of chief, one would hope that Gascón brings with him a working understanding that his new city wants justice, but justice for all, not just the pop side that benefits from the pendulum swing of the moment. The people of LA tend to be fairly woke when it comes to appreciating the subhuman treatment of black and Hispanic residents, and might be very supportive of his efforts not to push needlessly harsh punishments, to afford defendants their constitutional rights and the opportunity to survive an encounter with police unharmed and unmolested.
But will they be as generous should the streets of LA look like the streets of San Francisco, littered with human feces and needles? Granted, many in Frisco feel it’s not an issue to step over the bodies of their homeless as they walk to their Teslas, but nobody likes being hit over the head and robbed of their Birkin.
“Whether you are a protester, a police officer or a prosecutor, I ask you to walk with me,” he said after being sworn in, adding, “We can break the multigenerational cycles of violence, trauma and arrest and recidivism that has led America to incarcerate more people than any other nation.”
Much as I have significant doubts about whether this is the prosecutor’s job, and whether this can be done without undermining the limited role, the constitutional limits, of a prosecutor, I wish George Gascón the best in his new position, much as I do with the other progressive prosecutors who’ve been elected to office over the past couple years. But I fear that this opportunity for reform is unsustainable. For LA’s sake, I hope I’m wrong.