Two months before former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon tossed his hat into the race for Los Angeles County district attorney, I had a lengthy phone conversation with him.
At the time, Gascon had not officially decided to run, but he was leaning hard toward it. His concerns were first money. He knew it would be a brutal, hard fought and costly campaign to unseat L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. She would likely get most of the backing from police unions, prison guard unions and local establishment politicians.
The other was how effective he could be in rallying grassroots community activists and African-American and Hispanic voters behind him.
I was frank with him on the second concern. He had a good shot at getting them on his side if he sold them that he would do things differently than Lacey on the one issue that has been a colossal sore point with activists and many blacks and Hispanics in L.A. County. That is Lacey’s absolute refusal to prosecute police officers who commit blatant acts of misconduct against civilians. Topping that list is the slaying and beating of unarmed civilians.
I told Gascon that he has a lot going for him. He is a one-time ranking Los Angeles police officer and is highly touted as a first-rate criminal justice reformer. He’s got a relatively good record for reform initiatives as the top San Francisco prosecutor.
That earned him the ire at times of police unions there. But that brings it back to Lacey. It’s not just her head-in-the-sand refusal to prosecute police misconduct. It’s also her zeal at prosecuting capital cases where the accused was black or Hispanic.
One study found that in the nearly two dozen cases in which she has sought the death penalty, not one of the defendants was white. She has bucked a growing nationwide trend among prosecutors to back off the death penalty except in the most heinous cases and to find more ways to fund and push rehabilitation treatment and alternative sentencing to prevent packing the jails with drug and non-violent offenders.
In interviews with Lacey on my radio talk show, I asked her whether she would back the creation of an independent investigator at the state level to review questionable police shootings. She flatly said no, gave a variety of reasons that boiled down to her office was perfectly capable of making an objective and legally sound determination of whether those shootings merited prosecution without any outside interference.
Gascon assured me that he would take a flexible, transparent approach to police abuse cases. I took that to mean that he would look hard at the evidence and weigh carefully whether his office could get a conviction against the dubious violence by an officer. That is not a small consideration.
Judges and especially juries have been loath to convict officers in cases involving excessive force against civilians. And Gascon, like other district attorneys, knows that the name of the game is getting convictions.
One of the suggestions I did make to Gascon was that, if elected, he take a bold step and set up an Office of Special Prosecutor of Police Misconduct within the D.A.s office. It would likely be the first in the nation.
It would be tasked with investigating, and where warranted, prosecuting police officers for racial profiling, excessive force and giving false testimony. All are illegal and nearly all are routinely brushed aside by district attorneys when committed by police officers.
Gascon was aware that district attorneys play it close to the vest on the issue for another very good reason. To go after cops is fraught with political peril.
They become instant targets of police unions with local politicians ducking for cover and not raising a peep of protest when the assault on a reform-minded district attorney kicks into gear.
Despite the police union counterattacks, things are changing. The ranks of district attorneys who are not willing to turn a blind eye toward police misconduct are growing. They are taking a much harder look at police misconduct cases, and in some cases, are pushing prosecution for violations.
They have shown that they can be tough on crime, yet still hold cops accountable when they break the law. They can at the same time back effective alternative programs to put the brakes on the continued mass incarceration of mostly poor blacks and Hispanics.
As the campaign unfolds, Gascon can and should answer these questions, just as Lacey can and should answer the same questions.
Will your office continue the push to lock up far more people proportionally than any other county in the state? Will there be full transparency in your investigation of officers who use excessive force?
Will your office continue to fight hard against the release of prisoners convicted of murder who haven’t committed the murder, though they were involved in a felony? Will your office still vigorously push the death penalty?
Will your office push to expunge the records of offenders who have paid their debt to society but are hampered by that record when seeking employment?
I, and many others, will be looking hard at just how Gascon answers those questions. And more importantly, how he acts on them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Who Can Beat Trump?: America’s Choice 2020.” He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.