George Gascon Has Said 'We Need To Turn Our Court System Upside Down.' Now He's Running To Be LA's Next DA

George Gascon announced he will run for District Attorney in L.A., challenging incumbent Jackie Lacey (Frank Stoltze / LAist)

George Gascon, whose view of law enforcement has changed dramatically since his days as an LAPD beat cop, formally announced Monday that he will challenge incumbent Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey for control of the nation's largest local prosecutor's office.

The announcement was made at a news conference in the shadow of the troubled Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A. It came just 10 days after Gascon resigned as San Francisco's D.A.

Gascon said Monday that he will run on a "reform" platform. He said he believed that the DA's office under Lacey "has lost its ability to distinguish the dangerous from the nuisance."

It's a distinction he says he has come to see over the course of this career.

"I was a warrior," Gascon said of his time patrolling some of L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods in an interview last year. "I viewed myself as a police officer on the thin blue line, that I had to make as many arrests as I could."

Over the next four decades, his outlook changed dramatically.

Gascon rose through the ranks of law enforcement, become a prosecutor, and eventually led the San Francisco District Attorney's office — one of the most liberal in the nation.

The primary is March 3. Two of Lacey's deputy district attorneys, Richard Ceballos and Joseph Iniguez, have also said they intend to seek her seat.

Gascon's candidacy will likely garner nationwide attention, as it comes amid a national movement to hold prosecutors accountable for ending mass incarceration. It's a movement that's already seen the election of reformist prosecutors in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Gascon, for his part, made his intentions clear in a TEDx talk five years ago.

"We need to turn our court system upside down," he said.

'TERRIFIED' OF SEEING A POLICE CAR

Gascon, 65, is from Havana, Cuba. He knows persecution firsthand.

His father lost his job for allegedly speaking out against Fidel Castro, and his uncle was imprisoned for being a union organizer. In 1967, his family fled to Los Angeles on a "Freedom Flight" for political refugees paid for by the U.S. government.

But the harassment had taken its toll.

"My parents were terrified of even seeing a police car," Gascon told UCLA's Blueprint last year. "My mom would start shaking if there was a police car behind us, and she would ask my dad to pull over."

Gascon was 13 when he settled in Cudahy with his parents, arriving with "a change of clothes in a cardboard box," according to a biography he submitted to Smart Voter during his 2011 campaign for San Francisco DA.

Speaking only Spanish, he struggled in school and eventually dropped out of Bell High School.

"School was just not fun," Gascon told SFGate.com in a 2010 interview, "and I felt I was going to make it some other way."

Gascon joined the U.S. Army and became a sergeant. In 1978, he signed up with the LAPD.

But three years later, in the first of a series of unorthodox career moves, he decided to leave the department.

A STINT AS A CAR SALESMAN

Gascon had taken a part time job selling cars at a Ford dealership. He liked the money, so he took a full-time job as sales manager.

In fact, he was quoted in a 1986 Los Angeles Times article about low interest rates offered by automakers. Customers were complaining car prices didn't seem any lower. Gascon sounded sympathetic.

"I don't believe the low interest rates have affected sales prices one way or another," said Gascon.

Later that year, he returned to the LAPD, where he had remained a reserve officer.

"After about four years of working at the dealership, I went back to my wife and said, 'I'm not really happy. We're making a great living, but I really want to go back to policing,' " Gascon told SFGate.

The LAPD was entering what might be called its darkest hour.

There were widespread allegations of brutality, illegal arrests and harassment of African Americans and Latinos. There was the 1991 Rodney King beating caught on videotape and the largest civil unrest in modern American history when an all-white jury acquitted the officers who beat King.

Controversy would continue to swirl around the department throughout the 1990s, culminating in the Rampart scandal that involved officers planting evidence on suspects and beating them up.

DISPENSING 'FATHERLY ADVICE' TO THE RANK AND FILE

Gascon rose through the ranks in part because he was well-liked and respected by other officers, according to a former partner.

As a captain at the Harbor Station, Gascon once made it a point to personally address every officer, including those on the overnight shift, about a new policy involving Miranda rights, said retired Sergeant Tim Smith. "He came in after midnight and sat down with the guys and explained it," he said. "It was unusual for a captain to do that."

Smith, who calls Gascon a friend, described it as "fatherly advice" from a superior who "cared about his officers."

Gascon also helped Latinos in the LAPD advance in their careers, said Anthony Chapa, executive director of the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association and former head of the Secret Service in L.A.

"He was considered a mentor," Chapa told LAist.

Along the way, high school dropout Gascon earned a B.A. in history from Cal State Long Beach and a law degree from tiny Western State College of Law in Irvine.

He rejected the LAPD's paramilitary, arrest-heavy approach to policing and was promoted in 2002 to assistant chief by then-chief Bill Bratton, who'd been hired to implement a federal consent decree mandating a wide array of reforms.

"I like people who are creative, who are risk takers, who are assertive and who are not afraid to advance ideas," Bratton said of Gascon at the time in an interview with the L.A. Times.

CLASHES WITH 'SHERIFF JOE' IN ARIZONA

But Gascon wanted the top job and when he didn't get it, he left to serve as police chief in Mesa, Arizona. At the time, Joe Arpaio was sheriff of Maricopa County, which included Mesa.

The two clashed. At one point, Arpaio sent his deputies on a midnight raid of Mesa City Hall in search of unauthorized immigrants. Gascon was outraged.

"You know, we would prefer it that we didn't have to play these kinds of games," he told reporters.

Arpaio shot back: "Bottom line, he is doing everything he can to keep me from coming into that city and locking up illegals."

Three years later, in 2009, Gascon was back in California. This time, he was in San Francisco, where then-mayor Gavin Newsom appointed him police chief.

Gascon would hold the position for just 17 months.

He convinced Newsom to appoint him district attorney to replace another rising star, Kamala Harris, who had been elected state attorney general.

THE WAR ON DRUGS IS 'IMMORAL' AND 'UNETHICAL'

With his new platform, the one-time LAPD warrior became one of the state's loudest critics of the war on drugs. "It is unconscionable, it is immoral, it is unethical," Gascon boomed in his TedX talk.

For a lot of old-school cops, Gascon is a turncoat, more interested in coddling criminals than catching them.

One strong critic is Steve Gordon, a board member of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers. "If you're going to leave, leave," he said of his one-time fellow LAPD officer. "Don't come back with a different agenda."

Gordon slammed Gascon for supporting Proposition 47, which lowered certain drug and theft felonies to misdemeanors. He called the measure "a disaster for California."

Gordon argues conditions deteriorated in San Francisco on Gascon's watch, "with the feces all over the street, the needles all over the street, the open-air drug markets."

While that description is over the top, San Francisco did experience an epidemic of car break-ins during Gascon's tenure. But it's unfair to blame the DA for everything, said U.C. Berkeley criminologist Frank Zimring.

"Would it be easier to point your finger at police failures there? I think yes," Zimring told LAist.

For his part, Gascon touts his efforts to keep non-violent offenders out of jail during his tenure as San Francisco's DA.

He also took on the police. Gascon assembled a blue-ribbon panel to examine racial bias in the San Francisco Police Department. And he opposed a ballot measure backed by the police union that would have allowed more liberal use of Tasers.

'WE HAVE TO HACK OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM'

Zimring says in the end what stands out the most about Gascon is that he is a cop who became a DA and outspoken critic of the nation's justice system.

He calls Gascon "a remarkable outlier as a prosecutor."

Gascon dares to suggest DA's listen not just to crime victims, but to perpetrators who need help changing their lives.

"I would say we have to hack our justice system," he said. "And the first hack is that we have to turn our court system upside down."

Reformers, including lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and activists with Black Lives Matter, say Lacey has done too little to change the justice system, opposing Proposition 47 and the legalization of marijuana, while continuing to seek the death penalty — even after Gov. Newsom placed a moratorium on capital punishment.

Gascon is a breath of fresh air to the criminal justice system, said Father Greg Boyle, who created Homeboy Industries and has worked for decades to get young men out of gangs. Gascon once patrolled the streets of Hollenbeck Division in Boyle Heights when Boyle worked at Dolores Mission.

"Cubanos are not typical here in Los Angeles," Boyle told KPCC/LAist. That made Gascon — whom he calls a friend — an outsider, even among Latinos, said Boyle.

As a result, Gascon had more "reverence" than most cops, he said. "It is reverence for the complexity of things," Boyle said. "He didn't presume to know stuff, and consequently, he's an open guy."

THE 'EYES OF THE NATION' ON THIS RACE

Over the past three years, the political landscape for district attorneys has shifted, with Philadelphia and Chicago electing reformist prosecutors promising to lock up fewer people.

Now L.A. County — home to the largest DA office in the nation — is the next battleground, said Cal State Los Angeles political scientist Raphe Sonenshein.

"L.A. has always been seen as the great prize," he told KPCC/LAist.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the reform group Fair and Just Prosecution, agrees.

"There are a lot of eyes of the nation on this race," she said.

The L.A. DA's office sends a lot of people to state prison — more than 600 per 100,000 residents in 2017, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. That's more than four times the incarceration rate of San Francisco.

After running unopposed four years ago, Lacey faces a very different political climate now, said Sonenshein, adding that it's no longer sufficient for a prosecutor to claim to be tough on crime.

"In the old days, the concern about crime would way outweigh the call for reform," he said. "Now, I actually think it's even money."