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Is this the Latino Ed Lee?

George Gascón jumped ship as San Francisco police chief after only 15 months in town. Why that brief experience (or his Republican background) qualifies him to be elected D.A. on November 8 is what his opponents—and longtime criminal justice observer BENNETT COHEN—want to know. 

Like a certain interim mayor who may not be so interim after all, George Gascón came out of nowhere to take a leading role in San Francisco politics. But unlike Lee, who emerged from city hall’s bureaucratic shadows, Gascón had never lived a day here until he assumed command of the San Francisco Police Department two years ago. The onetime Cuban refugee honed the role of outsider at the scandal-plagued Los Angeles Police Department, where he made a name by touting constitutional rights, and then perfected it as police chief in Mesa, Arizona, where he went mano a mano against immigrant-bashing lawman Joe Arpaio. Now, after his stunning appointment as district attorney as Gavin Newsom was heading out the door, Gascón is waging his first-ever political campaign to win the job outright. Meanwhile, opponents such as well-connected Alameda County prosecutor Sharmin Bock are citing their insiderness as a key selling point.
     Yet to hear Gascón tell it, a relative newcomer is exactly who’s needed for the city’s top elected law enforcer. (So thinks lefty ex-supe and Newsom nemesis Matt Gonzalez, now No. 2 at the public defender’s office, who ranks as one of Gascón’s most surprising supporters.) As budgets shrivel, every aspect of California’s criminal justice system—from cops to courts to prisons—is headed toward a deceptively innocuous-sounding “realignment.” Who better to steer this state-ordered catharsis, Gascón argues, than someone with a different perspective?

Why do you want to be D.A.? I assume it’s not because you’re angling to be head of the FBI, as Sharmin Bock and Congresswoman Jackie Speier have suggested. That’s not the reason. Frankly, it would be very difficult to get through a congressional confirmation with the Republicans looking at my immigrant-rights trajectory in Arizona. No, I’ve been involved with reform of the criminal justice system for 10 years. And it has become obvious to me that the D.A. controls the doors to reform. That’s why I accepted the appointment. You decide who’s going to be prosecuted, how, and what punishment they receive.

There’s been a lot written about a purported conversation between you and Bock. She basically said, “I want to be your No. 2, and if not, I’m going to run against you.” And I said, “Well, maybe you need to follow your heart and run.” And that’s where we left it. She was very blunt—I was very surprised.

The D.A.’s office has experienced a lot of turmoil in recent years. Has the way you were appointed, followed by this campaign, aggravated the tensions? To be fair, you’d have to ask other people. My sense is that people in the office are very happy. Morale is very high. I’ve gotten tremendous support from prosecutors concerning the policy changes I’m doing—for example, a new trial integrity unit to investigate corruption.

One of Bock’s criticisms is that you don’t have any experience as a prosecutor. It’s true: My lawyering experience has been primarily in civil and labor cases. But you’re not electing a D.A. to try cases in a courtroom. You’re hiring someone who can run large organizations and who understands how to move public policy.

Another concern in some quarters is that you were a Republican… Look, if you came from Ireland to Boston or New York, you were a Democrat. If you came from Cuba through Miami, you were a Republican. It was a family tradition, because Republicans were anti-Castro. But that’s changing a lot. I supported Obama, as many Cubans did. I also supported Bill Clinton.
     Frankly, it’s easy to be a progressive—to be pro–LGBT rights or pro–immigration rights—in San Francisco. Now do that in 2006 in Maricopa County, Arizona, as I did. That was one of the most toxic political environments I’ve ever encountered. Everything was run by this incredible hatred for immigrants and brown people. See if you’re willing to take the heat and stand up for what you believe is right.

Then there’s the fact that soon after you became D.A., you were quoted as saying you aren’t opposed to the death penalty. What are the chances that you’d use…? Let me say this very clearly: I’m against the death penalty. I recently endorsed legislation that would put an end to it in California and replace it with life without possibility of parole. But as long as the death penalty is state law, I have the same system that Kamala Harris had, where a group of experienced prosecutors reviews the special-circumstances cases. I’ve reviewed several of these cases and elected not to conduct a death penalty prosecution. And it’s very unlikely that I would.

Even in the case of an officer being killed? Here’s the problem with the death penalty. It’s been proven in all contexts, and for a variety of reasons, not to work. Number one, there is always the potential for executing an innocent person. Two, there is little closure for the victim’s family because the process can go on for decades, with a continual reopening of the wounds. Third, we have seen terribly disparate outcomes in how we use the death penalty—people on death row are overwhelmingly racial minorities. Finally, the economics: The cost of prosecuting the statute has skyrocketed until it’s financially unfeasible, and then you add all the hearings and appellate processes. So, the answer as to whether to pursue it or not becomes very obvious.

That’s not the usual line of someone who spent most of his adult life as a police officer. Talk about your background a little. I was born and raised in Havana. We left in ’67 on the Freedom Flights [allowed by Fidel Castro from 1965 to 1972] when I was 13. We came to L.A. because that’s where my grandmother and aunts were living. My parents were factory workers—very humble people. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college.

You didn’t speak any English? I was in junior high for five or six weeks before anyone realized it. One day a science teacher came to me, very irate, speaking very loud, and a girl from Mexico translated for me, “He thinks you’re on LSD.” Because my homework was gobbledygook. I said, “Would you explain to him that I don’t speak English?” I didn’t even know what LSD was.
     I was transferred to a NES [non–English speaking] program and did better, but where I went to high school, there was no NES program. I started falling behind and eventually dropped out. I went into the army, became a citizen, went back to school, and then, much later, went to law school.

How did you become a police officer? I had been an army MP in Germany, yet I was gearing up to become a history teacher. I was fascinated with the ancient Greeks, the Constitution, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. But I had a friend who was joining the Los Angeles Police Department, and he kept talking about the chance to help people while having an exciting career, where you never knew what would happen next. Before I knew it, I’d joined the force, though the pay was so low—around $24,000 a year—that I worked part-time for an auto dealership to make ends meet.

Eventually you rose to assistant chief under Chief William Bratton, who took over the LAPD after serving as New York City’s police superintendent. I took over police training right on the cusp of the Rampart [corruption] scandal in the 1990s. That’s when I became convinced that we needed to integrate constitutional thinking into an officer’s training. I posted the Bill of Rights around the police academy.

You’ve also had to deal with scandals here, from the public’s mistrust of cops after Fajitagate, to stolen drug evidence by an SFPD lab worker that forced the dismissal of hundreds of cases, to the recent release of videos apparently showing officers stealing from suspects. Frankly, I was hired because there were a lot of problems in the way the SFPD was functioning. For example, though I don’t think anybody anticipated the lab problem, I don’t think anyone was surprised. The internal discipline system was completely broken. When I was hired, I was told, “If you didn’t go to SI [St. Ignatius College Prep], you’re never going to be accepted.” It doesn’t always make for a healthy work environment if you’ve all grown up together and your families have always worked together. I watched Bill Bratton go through something similar at the LAPD. But I got accepted very, very quickly. If you come with a strong background in policing and reform, being an outsider is an advantage.

Is fixing the internal discipline system something that you actually accomplished? No, though I do think we have come a long way. When I arrived, there were cases that were five or six years old. Those are no longer there.

But then, after a long search and much fanfare, you were chief a mere 15 months. Was there any anger because of the way you suddenly left? Some people were upset. Some were glad. I think a lot of people—and I feel very honored—wanted me to stay a long time. That was my intention. Having said that, once people understood why I did what I did, I got support.

There’s been friction between the SFPD, where the rank and file are relatively conservative, and the D.A.’s office, where leaders like Terence Hallinan and Kamala Harris have been quite liberal. Is the relationship between cops and prosecutors worse here than it is in other cities? You have this tension everywhere between two parallel worlds that need to work well together but don’t always succeed. For example, probable cause for an officer to make an arrest is 50 percent plus one scintilla, but for a prosecutor, “beyond a reasonable doubt” means 99.9999 percent. That’s a big spread. Another difference is that whereas police feel a tremendous pressure to solve cases, prosecutors feel the pressure around their conviction rates, even though those have very little to do with public safety. Those factors are the same everywhere.
     Where San Francisco is somewhat unique is that it’s a municipality and a county at the same time. If [Los Angeles D.A.] Steve Cooley has a problem with the LAPD, there are still 43 other police agencies in that county he can deal with. Here, the D.A.’s dealings are mainly with the SFPD, and that closeness accentuates the things that work well and the things that do not. Here, when the D.A. and police have a bad relationship, it can have a very negative impact on public safety. That’s why it’s so important that the chief of police and the D.A. have a good working relationship, which I did with Kamala Harris.

And now the tables are turned. What is your relationship with the new SFPD chief, Greg Suhr? He’s been something of a lightning rod over the years, having been one of those named in Fajitagate. My relationship with Chief Suhr is a good one. When I was hired, I actually put Greg back in operations [after he’d been exiled by ex-chief Heather Fong], heading up a station in Bayview. And Greg was entirely absolved in that [Fajitagate] process. He’s the right guy for the time.

Even though he’s old-school Anglo in a city that is increasingly minority…? Yeah, and I’ll tell you why. When I moved Greg up to be captain of the Bayview district, I told him I wanted him to get closer to community groups there. Greg did that well because of his style—he’s a believer in community policing—and because he understands the city. I don’t believe that you have to be a racial minority to effectively police a minority community. It’s more important what’s in your heart and how you approach your job.

Given the history here, it’s easy to see the positives in having a D.A. who used to be chief. But is it possible for the D.A.’s office and the SFPD to become too entwined? That is a good question. Certainly it would be possible somewhere else. But I’ve been heavily involved with reform, with improving discipline and training, and with creating departments that take their obligations to the Constitution more seriously. So not under my leadership, I believe.

In San Francisco, the D.A.’s office has been so underfunded that, not long ago, computers there were more a rumor than a reality. Now, as attorney general, Kamala Harris has said budget cuts will “handcuff” the state’s ability to stop gang and drug violence. What kind of impact will these cuts have on your plans for reform? The word you hear is realignment. It isn’t only about cutting; it’s about transferring responsibilities to the counties—moving state inmates to county jails; moving people to county probation. These changes will add work for local prosecutors and courts at a time when we’re all suffering. That said, I think realignment is a good thing.

Really? The economic meltdown may have brought us to realignment, but at the end of the day the changes are going to have significant social implications—I believe very good ones. Our criminal justice system is broken and socially unsustainable because of the negative impact it has had on minority communities.

But Superior Court chief Katherine Feinstein has talked about the dangers of realignment­—how bad it could get if it isn’t handled well. In terms of community safety, you’re going to have people not incarcerated because there’s no space in the jails. If you don’t provide the right supervision or services, there’s a danger these people will commit crimes because that’s all they know how to do. Now the good news is that we started working on this from day one, by restructuring the D.A.’s office to take lower-level cases out of our courts and put them into community courts. We are as well prepared as anyone can be to deal with the new reality.

How will your community courts figure in realignment?
We’re expediting low-level offenses while giving the D.A.’s office and courts more resources to deal with serious cases. And we’re using a “restorative justice” model [community input and restitution] to improve outcomes.
     We had a case recently in the Mission in which a young man who considered himself a graffiti artist saw a wall he thought was attractive and decided to express himself artistically on it. The police caught him in the act and arrested him. In the neighborhood court, the arbitrators were able to explain to this young man that he was defacing the community. The building’s owner was able to express his view that graffiti isn’t art. And the young man was happy to be judged by his own neighbors—he actually said so. The upshot was that he agreed to pay $100 to the owner to repaint the wall. Then he got community service. Working at a local art school, helping kids. This was a case that shows how restorative justice can work. It clearly did not belong in our criminal courts.

But what about more serious cases? How might the changes forced by realignment work then? It requires more collaboration and new thinking. We have a case involving a shooting. This is a young man who’s still a juvenile but who can be tried as an adult. He’s been your classic system failure—a horrible childhood, involved in serious offenses twice before. At one point, I sat down with the defense and said, “We could very easily send this kid away for 15 to 25 years, but is warehousing him a good idea? Are we going to fix him? No—we’re going to make him a hard-core criminal. But if we [give him] incarceration not in a prison but in a place that deals with his problems, then ease him into heavy community supervision for several years so that he hopefully becomes a productive citizen, that’s the much better option.”
     We’ve been wrestling with this for months. And I’m still dealing with the defense side trying to mitigate and reduce. And I’m telling them, “Look, this is serious. I don’t want this guy committing more crimes and creating more victims. So don’t try to sell me on how he’ll be fixed in a year [in jail]. If you’re really as serious about helping your client as I am, [let’s create] something that ensures him the greatest opportunity for success.”

More than anything, this requires a new relationship with the public defender’s office, doesn’t it? Jeff Adachi stated that I’m the first D.A. to speak to the public defenders at their invitation. And I invited him to speak with the prosecutors. One of the arguments I make to defense lawyers is that getting your client off so that he can go out on the street without support and offend again—and eventually commit a very serious crime that puts him in for a long time—is not helping your client. Of course, that’s a view that requires everybody to take the 40,000-feet-above-the-ground look. To see the whole system, not just their part of it. That’s the biggest change we need.

Bennett Cohen is the Co-Author, with former SFPD Chief Prentice Earl Sanders, of The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights (2006), Now in paperback.