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Gascón Vows To Review More Police Shootings In Emotional Meeting With Relatives

Lisa Hines, mother of Wakiesha Wilson. (Frank Stoltze/LAist)
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In an emotionally charged meeting Monday night with more than two dozen family members of people shot by police, newly-elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón promised to review their cases for possible criminal charges against the officers involved.

It was Gascón's first official meeting as DA-elect after beating incumbent Jackie Lacey last week. The meeting was organized by the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter. In some ways, it made sense that it was the first group Gascón met with.

Black Lives Matter-L.A. protested outside Lacey's office every week for three years over her decision not to file criminal charges against hundreds of officers who shot people during her eight years in office. Those protests served as a catalyst for the opposition that led to Lacey's downfall -- and Gascón's rise.

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"What you have done in many ways, you have moved mountains," Gascón told about 100 people gathered in the basement meeting hall of McCarty Memorial Christian Church in the West Adams District. "That is why you are the first group that I have come to talk to because I do respect and honor what you have done," he said to loud applause.

The evening started with a traditional opening ceremony in which Black Lives Matter activists solemnly say aloud the names of people killed by police as one member pours water onto a plant, followed by the word "Ashay," which means amen in Yoruba.

Gascon with Black Lives Matter-LA leader Melina Abdullah. (Frank Stoltze/LAist)

Later, family members sitting at folding tables dotting the bare concrete basement floor rose to talk for a moment about the death of their loved one.

Most spoke through tears and anger at the officers who were involved.

"No mother, no parent should ever have to bury their child under these circumstances," said Lisa Hines, who has challenged the LAPD's explanation that her daughter Wakiesha Wilson, 36, committed suicide at the department's downtown jail in 2016.

The mother of Anthony Vargas spoke of the anguish of losing someone to police violence. Vargas, 21, allegedly had a gun in his hand when two L.A. County Sheriff's deputies fatally shot him in East L.A. An independent autopsy found Vargas was struck 13 times from behind.

"We can't be the full mothers that we want to be because our child is gone," Vargas said. "I don't even know how to love anymore and I still have a seven-year-old baby."

In some of the cases that were discussed, the people who were shot were armed. In others, they were not.

But for each person who spoke, Lacey had declined to file charges against the officers involved. Black Lives Matter does not officially endorse candidates, but the activists in the room said they're turning to Gascón for justice.

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"In order for us to trust you, you gotta earn that trust," Vargas told the incoming DA. "It's not just going to be given to you."

In one of his most dramatic steps during the campaign, Gascón promised to reopen four police shootings: the 2013 Gardena Police killing of Ricardo Diaz Zeferino; the 2015 LAPD killing of Brendon Glenn; the 2015 Long Beach Police killing of Hector Morejon; and the 2018 Torrance Police killing of Christopher Deandre Mitchell. All were unarmed. Mitchell had an air rifle in his car.

While promising to examine the cases raised during the meeting, Gascón also sought to lower expectations.

"Obviously not every case is going to be a case that will be prosecutable," he said. "But we've already committed to reopening four cases and we are going to look at other cases."

Even with a new California law that changes the standard for when an officer may shoot from "reasonable" to "necessary," the law gives police wide leeway to use deadly force.

Gascón said police shootings are not the only issue he intends to tackle. He said he will end the use of the death penalty, stop the practice of trying minors as adults, and divert more mentally ill people from jail.

"I am deeply committed to taking this county -- the largest county in the country -- in a different direction," Gascón said. "We have a long road ahead of us, and the drivers of systemic racism in our system are many and they all need to be addressed."

"Give him a chance," said Fouzia Almarou, whose son Kenneth Ross, Jr., was fatally shot by Gardena Police in 2018. Police said they found a gun in his pocket.

"I believe in my heart he will do the right thing," Almarou said of Gascón, saying she wants him to file charges against the officer who shot her son.

Albert Corado, whose sister Mely was accidentally killed by two LAPD officers inside the Silver Lake Trader Joe's while they were chasing a suspect, told Gascón he'll be watching him closely after he takes office Dec. 7.

"If you do not live up to your bargain, we will come to your house," Corado said as the crowd clapped. "I will ... give out your personal phone number. I want you to understand the gravity of the situation."

"Don't come to my home," Gascón bristled. "I want to work with you. But I don't react well to threats."

Later, Corado said he was happy Gascón met with Black Lives Matter first -- and that he understood the DA-elect would not be able to file charges against all officers involved in shootings.

Black Lives Matter leader Melina Abdullah nonetheless put Gascón on notice.

"The clock has started ticking, George Gascón," Abdullah said. "This is a great first step, but we also want to make it very clear that we plan to hold you accountable."

Gascón has many other constituencies to contend with -- not least his frontline prosecutors and the police unions who staunchly opposed him during the election. He must win their trust if he is to operate an effective DA's office. And they -- unlike Black Lives Matter-LA -- argue the prosecution of more police who use deadly force is not only unnecessary, but could prompt cops in the field to withhold fire and endanger lives.