Kary Antholis:

This is jury duty, a podcast forum for the discussion of crime and justice storytelling, news and narrative analysis brought to you by Crime Story Media. This is Crime Story Editor and Publisher Kary Antholis and on today’s jury duty Crime Story Reporter Molly Miller and I present part one of our two part interview with Los Angeles District Attorney candidate George Gascón. 

Gascón is running against incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey and former Los Angeles and Federal Public Defender Rachel Rossi. 

Primary election day is Tuesday, March 3rd and so without further ado, here is part one of our interview with George Gascón. 

Kary Antholis:

Welcome to Jury Duty, our weekly podcast conversations. I’m joined by Molly Miller.

Molly Miller:

Hello.

Kary Antholis:

Today we have a special guest, George Gascón, a candidate for LA District Attorney and former District Attorney of San Francisco as well as several other jobs which we’ll get into in the course of the conversation.

George Gascón:

Right, right.

Kary Antholis:

First of all, thank you for being here.

George Gascón:

Oh my pleasure. Thank you.

Kary Antholis:

What I’d like to do today is offer you an opportunity to tell us your narrative, your story, and what drove you to get into law enforcement initially, and then what shaped your path to becoming District Attorney of San Francisco and then resigning that position and running for District Attorney down here. First of all, tell us about your upbringing. Tell us about your immigration to the United States and some of the formative people, experiences and influences on your early life.

George Gascón:

Totally. So my family immigrated to the LA area in the late 1960s and … blue collar family factory workers. We moved into an area called Cudahy in Southeast part of the County that recently got the notoriety for having Delta Airlines dump a bunch of jet fuel on the about 20 school kids at about 2,700 feet. Kind of unthinkable that that would occur. But I grew up in a neighborhood that there was a lot of poverty, there were a lot of challenges, and English was a second language for me. Back in those days, it was the only incorporator in the early County, it was not a city then. And we were policed by the Sheriff’s Department and some of the early experience with the American policing were not necessarily pleasant.

George Gascón:

I think that being in a poor area, in those days actually still fairly racially mixed. There were a lot of Latinos coming in, but there were actually a lot of poor whites. But needless to say, the police wasn’t necessarily welcome. I went to middle school in the area, Huntington Park actually at Nimitz and then went to Bell High School and I dropped out of school. And early on I was failing every class and mostly driven by my inability to speak or read English. And at one point I met with a counselor in high school that he basically called me stupid and thought I was not college material. And that really encouraged my path to continue to be less and less engaged in school to come surfing. That was fun. It’s a lot more fun than going to school, certainly at the time. And eventually I completely became disconnected with school and then some of the kids that I was hanging around with, they’re having a lot of problems.

George Gascón:

And I think for me this led … When I just turned 18 I really felt that the path that I was going on was not necessarily the path that I wanted to take. And I wound up joining the army and the army for me was actually the early savior, if you will. The people that I met, the supervisor of which, most noncommissioned officers and some of the officers… I was a hard worker. I was physically fit and I think in that environment that worked well for me. And those really were my early mentors. I didn’t really have a bunch of mentors other than my parents and maybe people that I worked for. I was also working at a supermarket, but certainly they were not in school for me. So the army really became the school for me.

George Gascón:

And that’s where I actually completed my high school. And I started going through college while I was in the army. Promoted really early, actually became the youngest sergeant in my brigade. And I was very proud of that, especially because this was a … By this time we were on a peacetime army, we had [inaudible 00:04:28] from Vietnam. So promoting that early was not necessarily common. But then when it came time to leave I also decided that I did not want to make the military my life. It was good for me for the time that I was there, but I wanted to come back out to civilian life and did and then went to Cal State Long Beach. And that’s where I got my bachelor’s degree. Initially my goal was to become a history teacher. Really,I’m fascinated by history.

Molly Miller:

What parts of history?

George Gascón:

This was really somewhat arbitrary because you had to concentrate in three areas in order to get your degree. And I concentrated in Greek and Roman classical history. I was fascinated by the sort of the early stages of democracy and with the Greek and then the transitioning into the Roman Republic. And then the other part was, I really enjoy the European transition from World War I into World War II and the early stages of Nazism and actually the area, my area of concentration wasn’t necessarily during World War II, but was a period before. And the failures of the Treaty of Versailles and all the things that came from poor policies I guess. After World War I that created an opportunity for a monster to later become the dominant figure in German politics. And I thought that that was fascinating for me because it gave me a better understanding of the fragility of democracies and how quickly they can turn around.

George Gascón:

And my goodness, here we are today with somebody that interestingly enough talks about making America great again. And most people don’t realize that actually that was a theme in Germany, was to make Germany great again. And then the other area, because we have to just basically touch three bases also. The requirements I really got into the new deal and the transition during the Roosevelt administration and the pressuring and how the U.S. actually avoided a revolution, which was often not talked about. I think it’s really interesting. Again, looking at history and going back and forth. People here today talk about some socialists ideas that are floating from some of the candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and others. Somehow this is a horrendous idea, but we forget actually that Franklin Roosevelt was pretty socialist, right?

George Gascón:

And that things like social security and Medicare, those are really socialist concepts. And I don’t think anybody would go back and say, “We want to get rid of social … ” Well, I shouldn’t say that. Most people would not want to get rid of social security. And I think that most people would recognize that Medicare has actually been good to ensure that our senior population has medical care, which we hope that everyone should have. You should not have to wait until you’re 65 to have medical care.

George Gascón:

And so I find it just so fascinating when people look at these things in such a narrow view. And we forget actually that most of the dams that we have today, that most of the big, big projects in this country were very socialist type projects. And there was a Democrat, a visionary I think, that actually helped turn our nation around at a time where some people argue that, frankly, the U.S. could have been the place… It was ripe for a communist revolution at the time, right. Because, poverty, homelessness, all those things were just so rampant and there was so much anger going on. But anyway, that was the other area that I looked at.

George Gascón:

And then really, as I was getting ready to get out of college, a good friend of mine had become a police officer in LAPD. And they were really encouraging people with military background to come in the police department. It was a premium back then. Not sure it was a good thing, but it was certainly, and police officers were making more money than teachers. They still do, which I think is a world upside down, not that police officers should not get paid well, but it just shows how disconnected we are with the value of an education and especially K through12 education.

George Gascón:

And we should, there are nations like Scandinavia that in order to be a teacher you have to really be in the top 10% of your class and they get paid very well. And that pays off in the development of a society. And here we’re the other way around. We would cut every corner not to pay our teachers well, we keep taking money away from public education, which we pay the price in …later on criminal justice, right? We give up a dollar in education then we spent $10 in criminal justice later on. This is the world upside down. But anyway, one thing led to the other. I became a police officer and grew up in the LAPD through the ranks all the way through the number two, running operations, which is the largest job at the time. I was the assistant chief.

Kary Antholis:

How long were you, can you break your path down through the police department a little bit more? Like your climb to that position?

George Gascón:

Yeah, so I started in Hollywood division as a patrol officer and then when I was going through college, I was in the G.I. Bill. I was working part-time as a shoe salesperson and I got to meet a gentleman that was a general manager at an automobile dealership. And jokingly after he came to buy one pair of shoes and ended up buying two, he asked how much money I made. I forgot what it was. It was really very little back then and much less today if you were to do the equation. But he offers, he says, “I’m sure that your skill set would probably get you to make a lot more than that.” And I jokingly, this is a very large Irish gentleman, so he did not look like a drug dealer.

George Gascón:

But I said, “Well, so long as I’m not selling drugs.” He joked he was, “Of course not.” He gave me his business card and I wound up going and talking to him. And wound up working part-time in the car dealership as I was just getting out of college. And then when I became a police officer, he kept saying, “You’ll come back.” And I, after about three years in the police department I did go back, because they made me some offers that monetarily were hard to refuse at the time, especially my former wife and I were thinking about having kids. And so what I did is I became … I went to the car dealership, was basically on a track to, I was made a manager and they really spent a lot of money training me, to learn the entire operation and very successfully there.

George Gascón:

But because I still really enjoyed the police work, what I did is I became a voluntary service, doing basically the same thing I did before, but not being paid. And working quite a bit of hours actually as a volunteer. So I never left the police department completely. And even though financially I was very successful in the automobile industry six years later, well prior to the six years later, but I decided I wanted to come back to the police department. The benefit quite frankly in that interim time was that as a 24-year-old, I was given the opportunity to manage a fairly large operation and really got a lot of training. They spent a lot of money on me and more than simply in the car business, really understanding, getting to understand how to run an organization, how to run budgets, how to deal with personnel issues.

George Gascón:

So by the time six years later I came back in the police department full-time again, I had this incredible experience that I would never have had in a police department. Not at that early age. And that really propelled my career. And although I kept pushing and I spent a lot of time in East LA than in South LA, but I kept promoting in the process.

Molly Miller:

So I’m interested, you said growing up you had some negative interactions with police, or in your neighborhood there were some negative interactions. I’m wondering what your perspective was on police when you were a kid and how that changed then when you became a police officer yourself?

George Gascón:

Yeah, so I mean, first of all, even I’ll take it one step back, coming as Cuban, our experience, especially because my family were dissidents and they were not necessarily, they were not comfortably wealthy. I mean, my father actually was a supporter of the revolution and risked his life during that process. But yet at the point when communism took over, he was a Democrat. And I don’t mean that in a party sense. I mean, he wanted  democracy for Cuba and obviously that did not occur. Then Fidel Castro, about a year into this thing basically said, “Democracy was really a tool for capitalists to exploit the poor and we did not need democracy.” The way that people voted was they created the revolution. That was a disappointment for my dad and my dad became a dissident.

George Gascón:

And so we went through some really hard times there and the police in those cities in Cuba again was used as an arm of repression. So I grew up a non … I was very young and that it was like, you walk, you saw a police car, you walked the other way, right? And you really avoided contact because it generally did not lead to a good thing if you were a political dissonant. Then we get to LA, we get to Cudahy, and next thing I know-

Kary Antholis:

What year was that?

George Gascón:

Yeah, so we got to LA in 1967.

Kary Antholis:

Then you came directly here from-

George Gascón:

Straight here, yeah. We came through with Freedom Flights. So we landed in Florida in Miami, but we were there really overnight. My dad had not seen his mom, my grandmother for, at that time, roughly a decade. She had left around ’58, ’57. Our family actually had been in the U.S. since the ’50s. They initially lived in Providence and they came to the LA area in the early ’60s, running away from the cold. And my mother had heavy arthritis problems and the doctor said you need a drier climate. And they recommend either Phoenix or LA, the whole family packed their bags and everybody came and Phoenix was a really small town back then. And then they didn’t like it. So they came to LA and the rest is history.

George Gascón:

So by the time we came, we were in LA. So then get into Cudahy then the kids that I grew up with, they all, they feared the police and the police wasn’t necessarily kind to us. And then as soon as I got, I was old enough to have a car, we were going to stop all the time and the cars were always gets searched, and you get sat on the sidewalk, the typical police tactics enforcement had been going on for decades when you deal in poor neighborhoods. I was fortunate enough that drugs really were not part of my growing up personally, although they were all around me, because I just, I think I had more fear of my dad that I had a fear of the police.

George Gascón:

But nevertheless, just because you were a kid in the neighborhood riding in a low rider car and all that stuff. You got stopped, and there was never an apology after they searched a car, after they threw things on the sidewalk. It was you’re left there, and life goes on. So that was sort of my world, you know what I mean? Really, if you saw a black and white, if you could walk the other way, I mean, we would run sometimes, which was the stupidest thing because then the cops wanted to run after you, even though we haven’t done anything wrong. Just because you didn’t want to make any contact.

Kary Antholis:

Tell me about your going back to the police force after your six year stint at the car dealership.

George Gascón:

Yeah. So I never left, right? In the sense that I was a volunteer. So I came and that probably was the biggest reason why I came back. I think had I left completely, I probably would never have come back. I would have just sort of disengaged and gotten into a different direction. In fact, monetarily it was a big hit for me to come back. I mean, the pay cut was brutal to the point that actually for a while we had to move to my parents and by this time I had two little ones. So that was really rough, not that my parents were not welcoming, but it’s like, “Really, coming back at 30 years old with a wife and two kids?” But we can not even afford to live in the house that we in lived before, because we established a standard of living that was based on the income that I had and all of a sudden that income was gone.

George Gascón:

But I just came to the decision that what I really wanted to do was back in policing and I wanted to use the skill sets I had in this area. I have a passion for public safety and community safety. And I came back.

Kary Antholis:

What year was that?

George Gascón:

Yeah, it was 1987 when I came back. And then, like I said, I think I brought a new set of skills. I mean I had a little bit from the military, but I think I really got a lot more in private industry and you come, generally private industry you also develop a different way of looking at money. If you don’t make money, you are a business, right. In government you have a tendency just to go through it and you figure that is a bottomless pit, which unfortunately the criminal justice system becomes a bottomless pit. We just keep asking the taxpayers for more and we, whether it works or not. I jokingly say that if you looked at the return on investment for criminal justice, the whole system will collapse, right? So I came in really with a more fine tuned attitude towards budgets and management and leadership.

Kary Antholis:

And that, if I’m remembering correctly, that’s the era of crack cocaine, of Crips and Bloods and the emergence of the war on drugs crack down. How did that factor into your reentry into full-time policing?

George Gascón:

Yeah, I mean, that was exactly, this was really, we were at the pinnacle of the war on drugs. The war on drugs, certainly a little early, in the early ’80s, up to the late ’80, 1990s we were roaring. And I became a drug warrior, right? I probably made as many arrests as the next LAPD. God knows that arresting people was not our problem, right? We did it in mass and then it took me a while. I mean really, I grew up in that culture and we would arrest people for very small possession of drugs for personal use. So they may be under the influence of drugs, and obviously there were always poor people of color, right? We never got to arrest the drug users in West LA. That was, unless it was a brown or the black kid that came into the West Side.

George Gascón:

And then as I kept growing through the system, I started to question what we were doing. And have been one of those individuals that I’m always looking for answers. I never, I just don’t relax, I think they would probably call me attention deficit disorder today, but back when I grew up that didn’t exist. So luckily, so, I did not get a bunch of drugs to deal with that. I just kind of was allowed to be that way. And the more curious and the more uncomfortable I was getting and the more that I would read. And then I started becoming involved in other organizations and educating myself. And of course I had, in the interim I had gone to law school. So then a new world opens up also in other ways and I just sort of, it was an evolution for me. And…

Kary Antholis:

Who are some of the thinkers, the writers, the legal scholars, particularly that influenced the evolution in your thought about these things?

George Gascón:

Yeah, yeah. And going through law school, obviously you’re force fed a lot of stuff and obviously one of the components is the evolution of constitutional law, and I had some instructors that were more left leaning. So being exposed to a different way of thinking about the criminal justice system, questioning what police did. They were very critical of the police, and frankly they knowing that I was a police officer, and so that certainly it was some of the faculty during my legal education. Quite frankly also drawing back from my own undergraduate experience. And then just, I started working with other organizations, so at one point. And then I’m really now moving fast forward, but I started working in justice reinvestment by the time we were in the mid 2000s.

George Gascón:

And I became a board member of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. I started getting exposed to a lot of work through the VRI Institute on criminal justice reform. Eventually got into the Kennedy School of Public Policy executive sessions on criminal justice. And I met people like Chris Stone who used to run that organization and many others. And then, so, that path was a process of working with other organizations, getting more engaged in criminal justice reform.

George Gascón:

People often say, “Well, what was the aha moment?” There really wasn’t one aha moment. It was just an evolution. One of the big moments for me, but in combination with the other things was, one of my daughters who is an attorney now, an incredibly bright woman and she was a runner and I was a runner. I mean, my other daughter on the other hand was not a runner, but also incredibly bright. They both are.

George Gascón:

But the runner daughter and I would sometimes spend time running and talking. And I remember, I’ve never had this horrible aversion to marijuana, but I did believe that marijuana was a sort of a gateway drug, a very antiquated view of the drug I guess. Or the substance. I remember we’re having one day a conversation about legalization of marijuana, way before it was popular. And I was explaining my thought process around how this is sort of a gateway to other problems, which is very prevalent still in law enforcement circles today, very wrongheaded but nevertheless prevalent. And somewhat hypocritical given that almost anybody in this country today has at least touched marijuana once in their life. And my daughter started pushing back, she often did when she thought that I was out of touch with reality. And I have to admit that I was probably at that point.

George Gascón:

And we started and that sort of catapulted into the discussion about drug use, and drug use in our neighborhood and her school. And what became very evident without getting into a lot of details was that the kids that grew up around my kids would often use drugs at the same level that the kids in the neighborhoods that I police. But the difference was that the kids in neighborhoods that I police were generally arrested. Of course they were poor, they were black, they were brown. And the kids in other neighborhoods did not see any policing consequences for the same behavior. And that really kind of impacted me. It really questioned my sense of fairness and justice. And that was one of the … And this evolution is why I became a strong advocate for a very different approach to drug use.

George Gascón:

And quite frankly then I became familiar with the Portuguese model much later and the whole concept of the criminalization and again… So, many, many factors, but certainly even my own kids in their own way. I mean, I tell you my other daughter, often when we talk about people disrupting assemblies and trying to get their message across. And I would say, “Well, what, can we have a more civilized way of handling that?” And she would say, “Well dad, that’s the only way that poor people get attention. I mean, they don’t get attention any other way.”

George Gascón:

And initially I would say, “What do you mean?” I said, “Yeah, think about it for a moment. If you’re poor, if you’re disenfranchised, if you don’t have the ability to get the attention of the media and the community, how do you do it?” You have to sometimes disrupt. And so that’s why later in life I became very tolerant of public disobedience, because sometimes that’s the only tool that people have in order to get their messages across. We got to get hit over the head in the law enforcement community to see the suffering of other people because otherwise, people stay in their corner and everybody’s happy and you don’t see what’s going on, right?

Kary Antholis:

Tell me about the latter part of your tenure at the LAPD. What were you doing during that period of time and then what led you to transition out of the department?

George Gascón:

Yeah. So when the Rampart scandal occurred, I was already a captain and then Bernard Parks was the Chief of Police. And I thought he was very bright and when he did this, and I always complimented him for it.  He decided to put together a board of inquiry as to really do a deep down analysis internally as to what were the mistakes and what were the lessons learned. And I was fortunate enough that I was selected to be in the … The whole inquiry was massive and there were many different aspects to it, but I was fortunate enough to be selected to be in the group that was looking at supervision and management failures.

George Gascón:

And that gave me an opportunity to actually interview some of the supervisors that were … Not the ones that had obviously been targeted for criminal prosecution, but the other ones that were around seeing what was happening and the managers, and then really take a very deep and unusual dive into what was occurring behind the scenes.

George Gascón:

And I would say that that was probably one of the biggest moments in my life to really begin to question police culture, and what was allowed and what was okay. And frankly, and something that often is not discussed, as a board of inquirers also we had an opportunity to lean into prosecution in the bench, right? Because what often is now discussed, and I think the LA District Attorney, they were given a big pass here, is that they were complicit in many of the problems that were going on because they had the, there were prosecutors that were at the Rampart station working on gang cases. And you clearly had to know that some of the way the evidence was being obtained and some of the behavior was unlawful.

George Gascón:

But because there was one little things where sort of the false sense of good versus evil and you’re going after evil. So then the needs justify the ends. People not only look the other way, but they encourage really bad police behavior. And then you had,  frankly, judges that often are former prosecutors, which I think sometimes is a problem, right? It was okay to have some former prosecutors on the bench, but this should not be the majority of your bench, and LA county has a problem there. And then you had these judges that really, because this is our formation too… So they were complicit also in the way that they accepted police work coming through that everybody should have said, “Wait a minute, there’s something wrong with this.”

George Gascón:

So while clearly our focus was the police and police management and supervision, there were many other actors here. If any of them jumped in and raised a red flag early on, the damage would have been mitigated. And then of course that led, that became quite frankly the tool for their consent decree, because justice gone and basically took the board of inquiry and this was not what the LAPD planned, but I think it was a good outcome. Basically you say, “Okay, you’re handing us the evidence as to why there needs to be thorough intervention here.” And then by that time, then I had been promoted, I was running training for the LAPD. So I really became very focused on creating quality constitutional training for the police department and really … getting to learn more about adult learning systems.

George Gascón:

So again, another phase of my life where I continue to evolve and develop. And then they brought me to give me the chief of police and then I started to run operations. Not initially, initially I was running all the other support services. I got promoted, but I was running personnel, continued to have training. Just a broader… initially I was running just training and then also going to get elevated to all the human resource and technology stuff.

George Gascón:

So each of the steps was really part of my formation. And you start learning other things, working through experts and then running operations. And then that kind of led to the point where I was recruited to be a chief of police in Mesa, Arizona.