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A Cuban immigrant, Gascon joined the LAPD in 1978. He quit in 1981 to get a law degree and run a car dealership, rejoined the force in 1987, and was admitted to the California bar in 1996. But he remained a cop.
As Gascon rose through the ranks, a corruption scandal involving a group of renegade cops in an LAPD antigang squad erupted in the late '90s. One officer in the Ramparts division was implicated in covering up a bank robbery and police shooting, and later accused 70 other officers of misdeeds. The U.S. Department of Justice ordered reforms, including beefed-up officer training in squishy-seeming fields such as ethics and civil rights. Some top L.A. cops, including then-Chief Bernard Parks, bristled at the federal hand-holding. But Gascon saw an opportunity to proselytize about his ideas regarding the "right way" of policing.
A 2002 LA Weekly article describes how Gascon finagled grant money to create a training curriculum in which officers were required to think their way through dangerous jams — without gunning down or bludgeoning suspects. Gascon also put in for the job of LAPD chief. That role instead went to Bratton, who'd just spent two years as chief of the NYPD implementing a policing strategy called CompStat, in which the department took special pains to gather month-to-month crime data in order to better scrutinize individual commanders' results. By paying closer attention to more accurate statistics, police managers are able to set specific, realistic crimefighting goals, then reward or punish officers based on whether they meet these targets.
Though he'd vied for Bratton's job, Gascon soon became an enthusiastic acolyte and assistant chief. But it was no secret that Gascon wanted to run his own show. When he took the job as Mesa's chief in 2006, the move was seen by some as an attempt to prove his mettle for a big-city command post.
In Mesa, some of Gascon's detractors accused him of applying a one-size-fits-all policing formula he learned in Los Angeles. Just as Bratton had done in L.A., Gascon held regular meetings discussing crime patterns and evaluating precincts' response.
He set up individual "community forums" including African-Americans, Hispanics, business leaders, disabled people, and clergy. The stated aim was to improve the department's ties to Mesa grassroots. The real-life effect was to give Gascon the tools to manage the kind of crisis his officer-students used to analyze in his Los Angeles ethics training sessions. Earlier this year, when a videotape surfaced of a Mesa officer slamming a handcuffed African-American suspect's face against a car trunk, Gascon was quick to gather members of his African-American forum.
"The chief got members of the African-American community to come to the police station," Goodie recalled. "A few hours later, there was a press conference and the media was shown the tape. We, the forum members, could then say, 'Hey, the chief called us in; the Mesa Police Department is investigating the behavior of this particular officer.' That was something pretty transparent."
In the world of traditional policing, Gascon's brand of "transparency" — in which he went straight to community leaders and the media before an officer's behavior had been thoroughly investigated — might be considered grandstanding.
Gascon had been in Mesa for 14 months when he called a press conference condemning a commander who had served on the board of a police-linked nonprofit. A nonprofit staffer had been accused of improperly paying family members to raise funds. The state attorney general eventually declined to press charges, and the disgraced commander quietly retired. In some law enforcement circles, this behavior might be considered a violation of officers' rights.
"In ordinary disciplinary cases, I always tried to be very cautious in terms of making public statements, particularly if I didn't have all the facts, and if public statements could compromise the fairness of the process, I tried to keep the lid on that type of information as much of possible," said Tony Ribera, director of the International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership at the University of San Francisco, who served as San Francisco's police chief for four years in the '90s.
Ribera's close-to-the-vest policy has been typical of San Francisco police chiefs ever since. Also typical is that Ribera will be best remembered for a widely covered scandal that compromised his ability to run the department. For months, reporters filled columns with news of allegations that he had sexually harassed his spokeswoman. He was cleared in 1995, but stepped down the following year.
In 2002, Chief Earl Sanders resigned for purported health reasons after he was accused of helping cover up reports that an off-duty officer — who happened to be the son of Assistant Chief Alex Fagan — had beat up a civilian after asking for a bite of fajitas. Fagan succeeded Sanders, and stepped down within a year after failing to quell the scandal by then known as Fajitagate. Outgoing Chief Heather Fong, meanwhile, is best known for her clumsy handling of Videogate, in which some officers made satirical movies deemed insensitive to minorities.
In this light, Gascon's reputation as a cutthroat public relations warrior may serve as his secret weapon as he prepares an upheaval that will leave angry, PR-savvy San Franciscans in its wake.