On today’s podcast we offer a special reprise presentation of the interview that Molly Miller and I conducted with Los Angeles District Attorney candidate George Gascón back in February of this year during the primary campaign. In March, Mr. Gascón and incumbent Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey received enough votes to move on to the general election runoff, which culminates on election day one week from today, Tuesday, November 4. (You can find the two-part interview that I just conducted with Ms. Lacey here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

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.

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 two 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 two of our interview with George Gascón. 

Molly Miller:

From 2006 to 2009, you were Chief of Police in Mesa, Arizona. Obviously you came into contact with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and I’m wondering how you were able to deal with that adversary and how you developed as a chief of police under those constraints in that situation?

George Gascón:

Yeah. So interestingly enough, Joe Arpaio and I actually started crossing our paths. And really without me knowing what was in store for the future, I had already developed before I went to Mesa, [inaudible 00:00:33] a national reputation, working in some reform circles around immigration. And the Washington Post was doing a piece by 2005, 2006, there was this concept that MS-13 was like an existential threat to the American democracy, which was insane, right? I mean, some of those guys, they do horrible things, but the American government and American way of life was not in jeopardy because of MS-13. And there was a Congressman in the Virginia area that was trying to pass federal legislation to make certain things a federal crime, and it was very tense because there had been a horrendous homicide that had been allegedly committed by some young members of a MS-13 in Virginia.

George Gascón:

And this was a time where a lot of central American families that moved into the meat packing companies in the Midwest and other places. You had all these incoming folks, many coming from Southern California, but others they were coming from war torn El Salvador, right? A lot of political refugees, and Arpaio then is now surfacing in the late 2005, early 2006, and his anti-immigration kick, and he’s becoming, slowly, America’s toughest sheriff, and he became the sweetheart of the anti-immigration groups. And the Washington Post was doing a piece on MS-13 and what Arpaio was doing with gangs and all that stuff, and they call me sort of to get the opposite view. And I questioned the whole concept of MS-13 being an existential threat to the US, but what I did say is that MS-13 is an existential threat to El Salvador because there’s a brand new democracy, and I had been in El Salvador doing some technical assistance with policing, I’ve spent also time around Latin America and the Middle East.

George Gascón:

So I actually said, actually, what we’re doing is we’re taking kids that came here at a very early age, they became a [inaudible 00:02:33] American inner cities, right? Their violence was mostly driven by our violence, and now we’re deporting them and we’re dumping them in El Salvador. And how prophetic it was, actually, that El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world, Honduras is a mess, and a lot of that really stems from our immigration and sort of deporting a lot of young people that really cut their teeth in violence and gangs here. So anyway, that article comes out and obviously I’m on the other side of this, and then quite not knowing at the time, probably months later, I’m being recruited to be the chief of police in Mesa and I ended up taking the job.

George Gascón:

And so I get there, we already have some bad blood going on. And then, quite frankly what I really wasn’t expecting is the level of hate and xenophobic activity that were going on in Arizona, especially in Maricopa County at that time. I mean what we see now at the national level, was going on in Maricopa County in 2006, right? It was on steroids. And I became kind of the person that many of the people in the Latino community would come to, if nothing else just to vent, because of frustrations and I became very outspoken about what was going on there.

Molly Miller:

And I’m wondering if you can just be specific about what exactly was going on, what were you seeing?

George Gascón:

I mean, I can tell you many examples. Though Mesa is the third largest city in the State, second largest is Maricopa County, Phoenix is the largest. Mesa was a city of around just about a half a million people at the time. A very conservative city, primarily governed by the original founders of the city, a lot of heavy Mormon influence. But about 30% Latino, many multiple generation Latinos, but the school district had the largest unified school district in Arizona at the time, right around 70, 80,000 kids, almost 80% were Latinos. Which just shows kind of the same thing that we see in a lot of communities where overall Latino representation may be at a point, but the younger generation is way over, right? So the school district, disproportionally Latino, and when there would be rumors that there were going to be immigration rates, which  [inaudible 00:04:59] regularly in Mesa, in [inaudible 00:05:02], in some of the small towns in the County, the word would get out and basically parents will stop taking the kids to school because they were afraid of getting stopped, getting deported.

George Gascón:

So the school superintendent will call me because Arizona has a similar formula for funding for K-12, is based on daily attendance. So when a lot of kids are not showing up, that really drops the funding for the school district, so it was very frustrating to the school administration, the impact this had. You try to reassure the community that it was okay to take the kids to school and parents would come in, but they always had the story of somebody that got stopped and deported. So we were in the middle of this craziness, then we had, frankly, victims of crime. We have one case of a young woman out of Phoenix that was the victim of a severe rape, sexual attack, and she was afraid to go to the emergency room because even emergency rooms we’re required to report if people did not have papers.

George Gascón:

So she didn’t get the services that she needed, of course the assailant was never reported and then he went on to again sexually assault another woman, this time somebody that was a US citizen… really speaks to the problem when you have local law enforcement engaged in immigration enforcement. And then that led actually to, in Mesa, the police department was the one handling the credentialing of city contractors, and one of the things that we needed to do was look at a person’s immigration status according to the policy and law.

George Gascón:

And I really [inaudible 00:06:39] emphasize that. I said, “Look, let’s just make sure that people, if they’re going to have a criminal record, make sure that we understand what that is.” So somebody in the police department was unhappy with the policy that I had implemented and they complained to the Sheriff department, and one early morning around one, two o’clock in the morning, the City of Mesa was raided actually. The city administration offices, the main library, and later that morning, around six o’clock in the morning, a police facility by SWAT teams from the Sheriff’s department looking for unlawful or undocumented immigrants. The whole thing led to the arrest of two women in the janitorial team, including one of the two women, actually one of her kids was in one of our youth programs and she was then taken into custody and deported and very young children were left by themself. I mean this is the kind of stuff that we were facing.

Kary Antholis:

How did you respond… Well, specifically how did you respond to that situation, and how would you characterize your tenure in Mesa from that point forward?

George Gascón:

Yeah, so we had a new Mayor who I respect greatly, a very, very good man. And he was very angry that his city was, even though he was conservative Republican Mormon, so he said, “George, we’re going to do a press conference.” And we did that day and really denounced what was going on and that lead to even more tension building up. We had an incident where we had an elder within the Mormon church coming from Mexico, a lot of people know this but actually the Mormon church, the main place where they have grown in the last few years has been in Latin America. So a lot of the kids, when they do their missions, they do their missions in Latin America, a lot of them are bilingual.

George Gascón:

So for a lot of Mormon Republicans it is a very conflicted place, because on the one hand they are very socially conservative, on the other hand they have very strong ties to Latin America. But anyway, make a long story short, it was one of the elders on the Mexican side of the church that was coming to Mesa because his daughter, I believe, was getting married to a young man in Mesa, and clearly he was lawfully here. They were driving a car with Mexican plates, they had all the right stuff and actually he was a fairly affluent man in Mexico. But they were Mexicans, and they got stopped by the Sheriff’s department inside of Mesa borders, again, it was interesting and they go through a horrendous process, the car gets impounded and they’re left on the street.

George Gascón:

So that actually really amped up the anti-Arpaio thought process, even within the white Mormon church. So myself and a couple of other people, actually the former attorney general of the State and the Mayor of Phoenix, we went to the Justice Department, it was still under Bush, it was a transition from Bush to Obama, and launched the first formal complaint against Arpaio. Then much later in 2009, I was asked by a Congressperson out of Tucson, and the member of the Board of Supervisors in Maricopa County, thought we’d go to the US Congress and provide testimony, which I did, against what was going on. And then, really, that was the way out, the political heat on Mesa was so, so high that I was asked to leave Mesa. And that’s when Governor Newsom, who was then Mayor of San Francisco, recruited me first as the chief of police, and then later on I became the DA.

Molly Miller:

So I’m wondering then about that transition between being chief of police of San Francisco to becoming the District Attorney of San Francisco. Was that a difficult transition for you?

George Gascón:

So yes and no, right? So again, going back and forth, I already been involved in criminal justice reform for years, and one of the things that was very obvious to me the further that I travelled that path, which is common knowledge today, but it really wasn’t common knowledge in 2010, 2011, is that mass incarceration was driven by elected DA’s in this country, right? Elected DA’s have so much discretion, and how they use that discretion really impacts tremendously how we incarcerate people. So when Kamala Harris became the Attorney General, and I’ve been now an attorney for about 20 years, and the Governor offered to appoint me with a condition that I had to run that year. Which I did and got elected. I really came in with a very clear focus in finding the intersections between the carceration, criminal justice reform, and public safety.

George Gascón:

And I believe that you can do it all. And we proved that we could, right? In San Francisco we continue to lower violent crime, and we became one of the biggest decarcerators in the State, and then I got engaged in other criminal justice reform like Prop 36 in 2012 which was a reform of three strikes. I also got involved in Prop 34 in 2012. That one failed, that was trying to do away with the death penalty. And that transition eventually led in 2014 to work on Prop 47. I was one of the original architects, and now we have over $350 million every year to go to counties and cities to deal with addiction and mental health.

George Gascón:

So it was a hard transition in the sense that, obviously, in policing you have a very paramilitary organization. Basically, by and large you give orders and people, to some extent, you hope they’ll follow it, also if you’re leading attorneys and everything is why, why, why, right? So it’s a very different approach to managing, but also is a very smart workforce, right? So then also you’re going to have to deal with different challenges. And then the questions early on, “Well you’ve never tried a case.” And I used to tell people that most airlines are run by people that have never flown a large commercial aircraft, and that usually surgeons make very poor hospital administrators. And that when you’re running an organization as large as a County DA, yes, you have to understand the law and clearly you have to understand the system, but more importantly you have to know how to run large organizations.

George Gascón:

I think my success, and quite frankly my credibility within the troops of the DA’s office, came from that, the reforms that were brought in, the professionalization that we brought in, the increase in training, better management systems, more transparency, technology. So we started doing a bunch of things that really put us completely at a different level than where we were before, and I attribute that to my management and leadership skills.

Kary Antholis:

When Larry Krasner, for example, went into Philadelphia, he established a policy where he evaluated which prosecutors were on board for the reforms he was implementing and let go of those prosecutors who weren’t going to line up behind these policies. How did you approach prosecutors in the DA’s office in San Francisco, who either were not willing to line up behind your policies or who opposed them?

George Gascón:

Yeah, I mean, look I took a more deliberate approach. And by the way, Larry Krasner, our friends, Larry spent time in my office before he became DA. And then after he became DA, his personnel spent a lot of time in San Francisco. San Francisco became an incubator for progressive prosecutors. But based on my many years of experience managing large organizations, and frankly working in organization with very strong civil service protections, which Philadelphia did not have, and San Francisco was hybrid. But I came from LAPD where if you want to move somebody, you have to go through a more rigorous process. I went in with a different approach, I took an approach, so very clearly the direction that we were going to go, and I gave people an opportunity to sign up for it. And now the people that didn’t sign up for it, then they started deselecting themselves or sometimes we encouraged them to leave and make sure that they did.

George Gascón:

But it was a more gradual process, and I think it was important because I came also in the office that two DA’s prior had a former defense lawyer, not a public defender, but a former defense lawyer who came in and there was a bloodbath, a lot of people were let go. And most of them, quite frankly, were let go because they had supported the opponent, so it was really more of a political firing, which is a problem. In my case, because I came in actually having been a supporter or Kamala Harris, and so it was a more gradual approach for me. But the reality is that probably within a year, a year and a half, a lot of people left and I was able to bring in a lot of new people. And certainly the management team, by and large, I created both from within but also from outside.

George Gascón:

So for instance, my chief of staff was a former LA public defender, and people at first say, “You’re bringing a public defender into the DA’s office?” And I say, “Yes and why? Well, because I want to have somebody that has done the other side of the equation because I benefit from the robust conversation in my inner circle.” Right? I often tell people that the last thing that you want to be, you don’t want to be the emperor walking naked, right? You want people that are going to push back, that are going to question, I believe that good public policy, well good management and leadership, comes from having constantly people questioning one another.

George Gascón:

So I was always looking not only for diversity of gender and race, but also diversity of thinking, and I think that I’ve benefited greatly from that process. But the reality, within a period of time, people that are not going to sign up, they were going to leave. Now, I’m not going to tell you that everybody was always 100%, and clearly there were some hardcore prosecutors there that probably wish that I was not around, but we were able to achieve a great deal of reform and we did it in a way that it worked better for San Francisco.

George Gascón:

And I think Larry also came into a very difficult place, because he came into  a place where his predecessor had been incarcerated for corruption, and there were people in that administration that also were engaged in corruption. So I did not have that, right? So Larry came in, obviously with a very different set of circumstances, not only as to what was going on inside the office, but also what he needed to achieve. I tell people that a lot of this stuff, there is not always a right or wrong. I mean there are some things are clearly wrong, some things that are clearly right, but there’s a lot of gray and you have to be really thoughtful about how you do a transition in the organization.

George Gascón:

Frankly, if I were to get elected DA in LA, again, it’s a different set of scenarios, where you have now full civil service across the board, right? So your lawyers and everybody has full civil service, so obviously the approach to shifting the culture within the organization will be different. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to shift the culture, we will, and some people will be unhappy and like they’ll either become internal terrorists or they’ll leave. And I know certainly how to deal with both.

Kary Antholis:

I want to go back to your tenure as San Francisco DA in a second, but do you think that if you’re elected DA here in Los Angeles you would replicate the action of naming a former public defender as your chief of staff?

George Gascón:

Look, I mean, I think everything is on the table, right? I mean, the one thing that I’m going to do, which I’ve always done, I look for talent wherever talent is, and we have a lot of work to do. This is an office that is really backwards. I mean this is an office, frankly, I always tell people that the criminal justice system in LA County is stuck in the past, but actually yesterday there was one of the most interesting moments where we were at a public event and the current DA said that she was the same person today as she was in 1986. And I said to myself, “Wow, no wonder that we’re so backwards, right?” I mean if you think about it, 1986 we were using desktops, Deloreans had just come out, right?

George Gascón:

Now we have phones, they have the computing capacity that it took a large frame computer and in the room probably the size of this living room, to hold the capacity that we have today. So the fact that we have a district attorney that proudly says she’s the same person that she was in 1986, really just so crystallizes where we are, right? Because technology, science, knowledge has increased so much. And I think that one of the capacities of a human being is, I think, for good human development is to develop and grow and learn. And I tell people that everyday I try to learn something new, and I’m definitely not the same person that I was in 1986, and I’m proud of that by the way.

Molly Miller:

So how have you changed since 1986?

George Gascón:

I’m sorry?

Molly Miller:

How have you changed since 1986?

George Gascón:

Oh my goodness, obviously I think I’m intellectually superior to where I was in 1986, because I intentionally have looked for knowledge. I continue to learn every day. I think that the way that I look at the work of the criminal justice system is completely different to how-

Molly Miller:

How so?

George Gascón:

Well, look I don’t believe that the war on drugs was successful, I don’t believe that… In fact, I believe that it was extremely damaging, right? I don’t believe that incarcerating people the way that we did has gotten anywhere, you know? And there’s a lot of science and a lot of data to support that, right? But for me, there has been an evolution of learning and continuing to seek knowledge in talking to other people. I believe that I’m a much better human being, not that I consider myself a bad human being in 1986, but I was a product of that environment then, and hopefully I’m a product of a more enlightened reality today. And frankly, I think if you and I get together for a podcast four years from now, I’d look forward to being also different, right, continue to grow.

Kary Antholis:

I’d like to just touch on a few aspects of your tenure as DA in San Francisco. As you mentioned, you were one of the advocates behind Prop 47. There’s a lot of-

George Gascón:

More than advocate, I was one of the architects, proudly so by the way.

Kary Antholis:

And we covered a congressional field hearing where Michael Romano spoke and several other advocates spoke about the impact of Prop 47 and the reality of the statistics. What I’m wondering is how you respond to the campaign that’s out there to blame the rise in property crime on Prop 47?

George Gascón:

Yeah, yeah. I mean, look, it gets so ridiculous now that I’ve heard merchants say that the thieves come in with a calculator and they start adding the dollar amount to how much they’re going to take to make sure that they don’t go over to threshold, it’s very crazy. But look, let’s get to the real stuff, right? I’m going to use Department of Justice numbers, because we may agree or disagree, but they’re supporting me or not supporting me or Lacey or not, right?

George Gascón:

During my tenure as the San Francisco DA, we reduced incarceration to a fourth of what LA County does, and violent crime went down, while violent crime in LA County has gone up by 30% during the tenure of the current DA, and by a little over 50% in the city of LA. So first of all, we know that Prop 47 and the impact of Prop 47 has nothing to do with violent crime.

George Gascón:

But then the question comes up … “Yeah, but your property crime skyrocketed, right?” And then we say, “Well, do you understand that in San Francisco, during my tenure, 60% of the property crime, the accounting for that increase was car break-ins.” And the car break-ins are not impacted by Prop 47, they are still a felony. And in 81,000 car break-ins in the period, about a little over four years, there were 13 arrests made by the San Francisco Police Department. Thirteen arrests, 81,000 cases. And remember that prosecutors cannot prosecute an empty chair, somebody has to be brought in.

George Gascón:

But then more importantly, we got  new leadership about two years ago in the San Francisco Police Department. And the new leadership comes to work with the DA, and then the last two years we lowered car break-ins by 20%. So under Prop 47, different leadership, we reduce property crimes, we continue to reduce violent crime. So the facts are that police still have tools, that the tools that we have actually are more enlightened. The other thing that people don’t talk about is that we are basically taking back about $350 million every year and we’re pouring it back into the local communities.

George Gascón:

LA County has gotten almost $70 million from Prop 47, LA City has gotten over $25 million. Now the fact that they have chosen sometimes to use it for the City Attorney to prosecute quality of life issues, that’s not what the intent was, the intent is for services. But the reality is that we have thousands of people that are benefiting, not only from the criminal justice relief, but also from the services they’re getting, they are getting housing, they’re getting them employment. And how can you argue that use in the concrete box is going to somehow fix mental health and drug addiction.

George Gascón:

That will be like saying, “I’m going to take a hammer and I’m going to cure cancer by beating you with a hammer, right?” So the reality is that when you peel the onion here, and you really get to the essence of what we’re talking about, is we’re talking about what the current DA just said yesterday, “I’m still in 1986, right?” And unfortunately, a lot of law enforcement is still in 1986, and Prop 47 is really a 21st century solution that is based on science and data for a 21st century problem.

George Gascón:

Look when I was a young cop, we had drug addicts, we had homelessness, we used to incarcerate it. I remember putting people in jail and in prison because they had a small quantity of drugs and they were under the influence. I remember some of those faces, sometimes a vacant look or sometimes a view of anger. I look back now and I say, “How much harm were we doing, right?” And to say that continuing that process is going to fix this or to say, “Well now you lost the stick, and the stick is a felony conviction.” You say, “Well, have you thought about that a felony conviction is almost a guarantee that somebody is not going to get employment and they are going to lose their housing and they’re going to be homeless?”

George Gascón:

And they say, “Yeah, but you don’t understand, we could use that stick to send people to drug court.” And I say, “Wonderful. So before Prop 47 how many people do you think were going to drug court in the County of LA? A year before, take a guess. County of 10.5 million people? Under 3,400 people. So in a county of 10.5 million people before Prop 47, we had about 3,400 people that actually, about 60% of those might have been helped by this. And you’re going to tell me that, but we hang a felony conviction on thousands and thousands of people that are homeless today, and you’re telling me that going back to that is a good thing?”

Kary Antholis:

Can you talk about the prosecution of Christopher Bucchere for vehicular homicide while he was riding his bicycle?

George Gascón:

Yeah, yeah. I mean this is probably one of the most egregious cases of gross carelessness for people around you, and a lot of white privilege here too on a lot of the… Also add a little bit of the rural culture within the tech industry, although its problematic, because it’s a lot of sense of entitlement here. So this is the guy that is coming from Marin County, very affluent county near San Francisco, riding his bike and he basically blows through multiple red lights, his bike, because he’s competing with himself, he’s tracking his prior time, and he’s going through a very crowded area, in Castro, and basically he’s going to blow another red light, he’s already blown a few.

George Gascón:

And when he realizes, coming down this hill at a very high rate of speed, he has a red light and there are people in the crosswalk. And in his own version of events, he was too committed to stop. So he continues forward and he lays the bike, and he strikes an elderly gentleman who was there with his family, a grandfather, and he kills this person. And then to add insult to injury, he starts posting a eulogy to his helmet because the helmet has bravely sacrificed itself to save Mr. Bucchere’s life.

George Gascón:

So the level of callousness in this case is just like off the… I’ve never seen anything like it. So here you are, you just kill someone, you took a grandfather away from their family through your gross criminal negligence. But on top of that you have the audacity to do a eulogy to your helmet because a helmet saved your life, not an ounce of remorse, not an ounce of apology, not an ounce oh my God, I just took the life of another human being because of my incredible selfishness.

George Gascón:

And we looked at this case and we said, if there is ever a case that needs to be prosecuted as a felony, it’s this case, right? This was a poster child of vehicular manslaughter. And he was tried and he was convicted. At the same time, I have to tell you that… well he pled, I should say. He was going to be tried. I also recognize when prison works and when prison doesn’t work. And he did not have a criminal record, and even though he’s incredibly insensitive and probably extremely self centered, prisons are not designed for the self centered and the insensitive, right?

George Gascón:

And so I knew that prison sentencing wasn’t necessarily going to make Bucchere a better human being, and it was not going to bring back, unfortunately, the person that died. But certainly, getting his attention by prosecuting him was important, because one of the jobs of a prosecutor is to make sure that we provide the right level of intervention based on the circumstances. So he pled to a felony, he was convicted, and interestingly enough he’s now decided to start independent ventures against me because he still doesn’t get it, that his behavior was horrendous. He still hasn’t apologized, by the way, to the family.

George Gascón:

I have to tell you, this is also when you see the greatness and the not so great in humanity, right? The family of the victim in this case, I have never seen more gracious people. How humble, how stoic they were in the way they handled this. I don’t know that I would’ve acted the same. I mean, I knock on wood, God hopefully never tests me that way, because I don’t know that I would have been that stoic about it. But to have this person now come out and start buying Facebook ads against me because I prosecuted him, it’s like the ultimate insult to this family. And I don’t think I can say anymore.

Kary Antholis:

I’m conscious of your time, you’ve been very, very generous with it. I want to ask one more question, I want to offer Molly a chance to ask one more. I’d like to talk about CalGang and the gang database, your experience with it as San Francisco police chief and District Attorney, and the current scandal that’s blown up in the Los Angeles police department.

George Gascón:

Yeah. So certainly in my years in policing, we use CalGangs, we often use it as a tool and certainly I did in San Francisco. And then, so, District Attorneys in the early stages, we did, we did some gang enhancements, never to the level of LA but we did some. And again, this is an area where the more that you look into it, the more you peel the onion, the more that I’ve come to the conclusion that gang enhancements are so problematic that I would not use them. And this is where I want to kind of divert a little, why I think science and research is important.

George Gascón:

So one of the things that I did is I engaged Stanford Law School to come in and take a look at the impact of status enhancements in our practice, because I began to be uncomfortable with the whole concept in 2016. And it took about a year, year and a half to get all the data and come back. We tried to do a statewide process, but couldn’t get any other prosecutors to open their books. So the data is only for San Francisco, which is probably less impactful because we use so much less, right? We have the lowest per capita rate of prison commitments, but even in our own data, we began to see, after the study, that there were certain status enhancements that really even as [inaudible 00:34:06], that still increase prison commitments in a way that didn’t necessarily make us safer.

George Gascón:

So now you fast forward to where I am today, where I basically think gang enhancements need to go, and then the scandal comes up with the LAPD. Which is really kind of heartbreaking for me, because frankly I thought that LAPD, you know, we went through the consent decree, we went through all that stuff, you think that we would be in a different place. And it’s like we’re reliving the past.

George Gascón:

And now I look at it and say, “Well, the nagging question for me is, is this only this 19 or 20 officers? I don’t think so.” Right? So what else is there? So I personally have come to the conclusion that first we have to get rid of CalGangs. Certainly I will not be using gang enhancements if I were to be elected DA. I think if somebody commits murder, they get charged with murder, right? You don’t have to add a little more salt into the condiment if they get convicted, that’s what they did, or robbery. But now the whole concept of even looking at CalGangs, I find it so, so problematic that I’ve come to the conclusion that we have to pivot away on that.

George Gascón:

You know, frankly I hope that the LAPD moves away from that, I hope that frankly we find a way to get rid of the CalGangs altogether. Because if this problem is going on in LAPD with all the structures that are in place supposedly, I can only imagine what’s going on throughout the State where you have, quite frankly, agencies and nobody’s looking over their shoulder, they don’t have an inspector general, they don’t have a police commission. So I really question now how many more brown and black kids are in the database that should never have been, and more importantly, how many brown and black kids are now in prison as a result of being in a database that has so many problems.

Molly Miller:

So I want to end by talking about diversion. In the last debate you quoted the RAND study that recently came out, and that study found that 61% of LA County’s jail population with mental health issues could be eligible for diversion. And Jackie Lacey, she said in that debate, “You have to have a place to divert people, you can’t just put them back on the street.” So if you were elected to office, would you divert these individuals, and how would you ensure that they wouldn’t end up back on the street?

George Gascón:

Yeah, well the first thing, they should never go in the jail in the first place, right? We would not take a cancer patient and put them in jail to cure them, but we take a mentally ill …and put them in jail because we don’t have any place else to put them. I mean, the conclusion of that is really morally reprehensible. So actually her statement when you really start breaking it down, is morally reprehensible. So I know that this is not the place to go fix it, but I’m going to put them there because I don’t have anywhere else, okay? So it’s like a cancer patient walking on the street, like I’m sorry we don’t have chemo for you but we’re going to put you in jail in the meantime until we find that chemo for you, right? So, that is so problematic.

George Gascón:

But the other part is that if you start getting people out of the jail system and start creating bandwidth to have services and start using money from Prop 47, for instance, instead of using it like it’s being used in LA for prosecuting quality of life issues, you use it for what it was intended, which is services. If you start to get a good inventory, not only of the current service available, but also where is the capacity in other places to bring services, I think the conversation would be very different, right? And I would say that we would never think of taking a cancer patient and putting them in County jail because we don’t have a chemo bed somewhere, right.? But we consistently put mentally ill into this setting, and we have to stop that practice.

Kary Antholis:

George Gascon, thank you so much for being with us and good luck on the rest of the campaign.

George Gascón:

Thank you. Thank you so much to both of you. Thank you for the opportunity.