Aside from the risk of boring people to death, a PowerPoint presentation is usually not threatening. But as George Gascón clicked through slides in a packed auditorium at the San Francisco Hall of Justice on a January afternoon, it became clear the district attorney was offering a challenge.
The occasion was the 62-year-old's inauguration to a second term, following his uncontested re-election the past fall. Even after seven years in San Francisco, Gascón's second inauguration had a heavy Los Angeles flavor.
A refugee from Castro's Cuba, Gascón lived in L.A. for almost 40 years and spent over 20 of them in the LAPD, briefly in the running to become chief there in the early 2000s before he became the first outsider in decades to lead the San Francisco police department in 2009. He held that post for 18 months before becoming the even-more-surprising choice to succeed incoming Attorney General Kamala Harris as district attorney.
The welcome address came from Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest famous for working with gang members in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, where Gascón worked as a young cop back in the 1980s, an era when L.A. saw 1,000 homicides a year. The swearing-in was performed by Cruz Reynoso, Southern California born-and-bred and the first Latino to serve on the California Supreme Court (as well as the first to be thrown off of the court by voters after reducing too many death sentences to life imprisonment).
Most of San Francisco's prominent leaders, like Mayor Ed Lee and former Mayor Willie Brown, were elsewhere, which means they missed the PowerPoint — and the obvious challenge thrown their way.
Gascón began with a slide featuring a familiar sight even to Angelenos: San Francisco in ruins after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Those days were notable for prosecutors as well as for history buffs. This was the time when an elected district attorney brought corruption charges against San Francisco's mayor and main political boss, Gascón told the room.
Municipal graft was widespread in early 20th-century America, but San Francisco was special: The city had a mayor and a Board of Supervisors so greedy they would “eat the paint off of the side of a house,” in the words of one Abraham Ruef. He would know. A UC Hastings graduate who became San Francisco's version of Tammany Hall's Boss Tweed, Ruef assembled and ran San Francisco's political machine.
In 1902, Ruef installed a photogenic musician with no political experience, Eugene Schmitz, as a puppet mayor. Similarly corrupt supervisors steered city business toward Ruef and his friends, collecting their cut. Under Ruef, city officials made a killing running hustles on prize fights, gas rates, telephone service, and streetcars. Ruef invested his cut of the spoils into real estate speculation, buying property in the up-and-coming Mission District.
Everything was running smoothly — even after the 1906 earthquake leveled the city, an occasion Ruef, thinking like a developer, used to try to evict the Chinese from Chinatown — until William Langdon, the district attorney chosen by the Ruef machine, went rogue and started enforcing the law.
With help from a federal prosecutor sent by President Theodore Roosevelt to San Francisco specifically to break up the cabal, Langdon indicted both Schmitz and Ruef. Ruef did everything he could to shut down the investigation — the special prosecutor was shot in the face (he survived), and Ruef tried to have himself appointed DA (he failed) — but Ruef was convicted and eventually did time in San Quentin.
The DA had cleaned up dirty San Francisco.
“We sometimes have to hold powerful people accountable,” said Gascón, front and center on the auditorium's stage. “And it does not make for a popular decision. But it's critical for democracy that we do so.”
Gascón moved on with his presentation, showing slides of his prosecution rates and how he'd been trying different things — community courts, youth courts, drug courts — to fix what he has repeatedly called a “broken” criminal justice system.
Elected officials and politicos would barely notice. Gascón had issued his warning. The question was whether he could back it up.
Two weeks later, Gascón strode into a narrow, rectangular room on the Hall of Justice's third floor and faced a bank of television cameras. The day before, news had broken that a pair of fundraisers, working to retire debt from Lee's 2011 election campaign, had secured a campaign donation for Lee from a lumber company that later won a city contract.
The fundraisers — Zula Jones, a retired contract compliance officer with the city's Human Rights Commission once feted by Ed Lee as “freedom fighter of the year”; and Nazly Mohajer, an appointed Human Rights Commissioner — had been in the news for months. Transcripts from an FBI wiretap, capturing their boasts of the city's modern-day political machine — and how they learned all the tricks of laundering cash and “pay-to-play” politics from Willie Brown — had been made public in August 2015.
“You got to pay to play here,” said Jones, according to the wiretap. “We do it better here than in New York.”
Standing next to an FBI special agent assigned to public corruption and City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Gascón announced that he was enforcing the law. He was filing corruption charges against Jones and Mohajer (as well as a third corrupt political operative, former Lennar Urban consultant Keith Jackson, who had already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to federal prison time in a separate, much splashier case that nabbed state Sen. Leland Yee on public corruption charges and Chinatown mobster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow for murder-for-hire).
Jones and Mohajer were no Ruef and Schmitz. There were no direct ties to Lee, any sitting elected officials, or to Jones' supposed mentor Brown (whom the feds had been probing without success for decades). They might have been too small for the feds to bother with. But it was definitely not a popular move at City Hall. Gascón was getting close to Lee, which meant he was getting close to some of the same people who had had a hand in his appointment.
The prosecution, coupled with Gascón's statement that the investigation was not over, partly explained why Lee was was not present at Gascón's inauguration to absorb his barely veiled warning, and why Gascón — arguably the second most powerful citywide elected official, after the mayor — found better things to do than go to Lee's inauguration the following day.
But where Gascón was becoming really unpopular — which assumes that the outsider from L.A., a cerebral fellow and workaholic who never seemed to care much for the city's insular political circuit, had ever been popular — was among his former officers in the Police Department.
The year before, the first of a series of racist, homophobic, and sexist text messages swapped over a series of years between SFPD officers came to light. Featuring such choice phrases as “All n—-— must fucking hang,” the texts became public thanks to a court filing made by one of the cops, a soon-to-be ex-sergeant about to do prison time for leading a ring of crooked colleagues. An outraged Gascón announced he would enforce the law on law enforcement. At Gascón's request, Reynoso and two other retired judges would sit on a panel and investigate racism and bias in the SFPD.
Already disenchanted with Gascón's maverick positions on the death penalty (he opposed it) and on drug and petty crime (under Gascón-backed Prop. 47, a statewide ballot measure that passed in 2014, several felonies that had long clogged state jails with nonviolent offenders were reclassified as misdemeanors) police — and most specifically, the city's powerful, profitable, and influential police union, the Police Officers' Association — vowed to retaliate.
Later that year, S.F. police would shoot and kill two young men of color armed with knives: Amilcar Perez Lopez, a pint-sized, 20-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, who was revealed to have been shot in the back on Folsom Street by plainclothes police; and Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man from Bayview who had cycled in and out of prison thanks to tough-on-crime gang laws. All of the sudden, San Francisco had one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings in the country, higher than that of Los Angeles or Chicago. At public meetings and at press conferences following both shootings, then-SFPD Chief Greg Suhr said both dead men had advanced on police armed with cutlery; both times, autopsies — and in Woods's case, video evidence — revealed that to be false.
A few days after he'd charged Lee's fundraisers with felony bribery and corruption, Gascón fired off a letter to Lee, holding him responsible for police leaders dragging their feet in cooperating with the blue-ribbon panel's investigation into the institution that allowed the text messages to go on unreported. Police and Lee's powerful backers were appalled.
The city's progressive left, however, was thrilled. The city's chief prosecutor was talking about going after corruption, and was taking steps to back it up. He'd already stopped throwing drug users and petty criminals in jail — and was not backing the mayor's efforts to build a new jail.
For the first time in decades, the law was on the left's side. The most powerful politician interested in reform and shaking up the city's ossified power structure was a prosecutor. It echoed the days of Langdon and Ruef, with a modern twist of putting fewer people behind bars.
“DAs are, for the most part, still in the 19th-century when it comes to criminal policy: Lock them up and throw away the key,” says Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who enjoys a closer relationship with Gascón — his supposed nemesis in court — than any other district attorney in his career. “You don't hear that from this DA.”
Gascón's enemies — the police union as well as politicians and operatives who feel Gascón has turned on them — say he is a rank opportunist. A registered Republican when he came to San Francisco — not an uncommon party affiliation for a Cuban refugee who fled Castro— Gascón is now California's most progressive district attorney, a calculated shift intended to make him palatable for higher office, either here or statewide, his detractors say.
“He came to this city to reinvent himself,” says Gary Delagnes, a retired narcotics cop and former head of the Police Officers Association, and onetime Gascón confidant.
If the city's establishment is having buyer's remorse with Gascón, they won't say it publicly. No one from the Mayor's Office would go on the record for this story. (Perhaps they're afraid of being indicted, as Gascón is known to have assigned investigators to various politicians' campaign accounts as a means of keeping them in check.) The office of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — the man who appointed Gascón to DA on, perhaps, little more than a whim — did not respond to requests for comment.
But it's clear to anyone with vision.
“If people have known he would turn out the way he is, he would never have gotten the job,” one city politico says. “If people who appointed him had known, he would not have been appointed.”
Born in 1954 in pre-communist Cuba, Gascón's parents were initially supportive of Castro's revolution. But after his father — “A real rebel against government corruption,” Gascón says — lost his job for alleged anti-government activity, and his uncle, a union organizer, was jailed for over a decade, the family left for Miami on a Freedom Flight in 1967.
They eventually settled in Los Angeles, where Gascón — a good student and athlete in Cuba — struggled to learn English and dropped out of Bell High School (something his parents, busy working factory jobs most of the day, found out from their landlady). Gascón quickly out-earned his parents working a union job in a grocery store, which he secured after the then-14-year-old lied about his age. In between work and surfing, he'd do what everyone did in 1960s Los Angeles: go cruising. It was in East Los Angeles where he first saw American police go above and beyond the law.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies would routinely pick out cars carrying teens from Latino neighborhoods, like Gascón and his friends. “My car would be searched, the back seat taken out of the car, thrown on the sidewalk,” Gascón recalls. The deputies were looking for marijuana, possession of which was a felony at that time. Friends would talk back to the cops and get “knocked on their butts.”
“I remember my trunk being opened, spare tire being dumped out. As a brown kid driving a low-rider around town, sometimes you would get stopped every other week.”
“I never had any dope because that's not what I was doing as a young man. But that's the treatment we would get,” he says. “If you had weed or anything else, you were going to jail.”
Gascón enlisted in the Army at 18 and expected to be sent to Vietnam. Instead, after choosing to become a military policeman, he was sent to Germany, where he was promoted to sergeant by the age of 20. He earned a GED and “squeezed in two years of college” while taking classes in his off-hours. Back in civilian life, he was working as a shoe salesman and making progress toward a history degree at Long Beach State when a friend suggested he become a cop. Partially from his experiences with Castro's police, partially from his encounters with the L.A. sheriff's deputies, he gave it a shot.
He went through the academy and was a rookie LAPD cop working an evening shift in the Hollywood Division when he was assigned to take a report from a woman whose house in affluent Hancock Park had just been burglarized. This was the early 1980s, and the LAPD was under scrutiny for the 1979 death of Eula Love, a 39-year-old black woman whom police shot to death in her front yard after she threw a knife their way. The department was also in the news for a troop of Hollywood officers assigned to the burglary detail who were committing burglaries themselves. (They pulled off more than 100, the LA Times reported, yet all managed to avoid jail time.)
Gascón vividly recalls the encounter he had with a woman whose home was burglarized. While taking the report, she followed him closely as he went from room to room. “She would not leave me alone,” Gascón said. “Whenever I turned around, she was uneasy, very uneasy. I asked her if there was anything wrong — and I've never forgotten this — she said, ” 'Officer, I'm very sorry, but there are still a lot of valuables in the house. I don't feel comfortable with you walking around.'
“That was so hurtful to me — not because she said that, but because what the other officers had done created a mistrust in the police.”
Married to Mariann, a woman he'd met in Germany, and with two young children, Gascón left the LAPD for a few years in the mid-1980s, working in sales at an auto dealership and rising to manager. He insists he had no crisis of faith over seeing bad cops in action, but ultimately unfulfilled with the career change, he returned to police work in the late 1980s.
After becoming a sergeant, he had another significant encounter with a bad cop. A fellow sergeant was taking bribes to tip off drug dealers to impending busts. Gascón has his suspicions about the guy early on, yet only after he went to his “boss' boss” was an investigation launched. The lower-ranking superior was furious with Gascón for going over his head, “but I felt it needed to be done,” he says.
In the 1990s, Gascón's career took off. He vaulted from sergeant to captain to commander — while earning a law degree from an unaccredited night school in Fullerton — then all the way to assistant chief under William Bratton, a prominent and prestigious police executive who assumed the chief's position in 2002 with the mandate to reform a department still reeling from its mishandling of the 1992 L.A. riots and the O.J. Simpson case a few years later. (Gascón was one of the 50 LAPD officers to put his name in for the chief's spot given to Bratton.)
In Bratton, Gascón found a mentor: a data-driven reformer who didn't care much for the way things had always been done. With Gascón as Bratton's assistant chief of operations, the two developed a scientific crime-fighting strategy. Using a Bratton-devised tool called CompStat, short for “computer statistics,” they focused on repeat offenders, with a mantra that “10 percent of criminals commit 50 percent of the crimes.” Resources were diverted to the most crime-ridden areas. Crime went down every year for three straight years — a good enough record for Gascón to draw attention from Mesa, Ariz., a sprawling city of almost 500,000 with a police department of about 1,100 officers that was badly in need of a kick in the ass.
One afternoon shortly after arriving, Gascón tried to call a meeting with his command staff, only to be met with laughter. It was after three in the afternoon — a time when most of his senior commanders were out golfing. He made it clear such behavior would no longer be tolerated, prompting some senior commanders to retire.
“He laid it out there that the bar was going to be set a lot higher than it was before,” recalls Johnny Meza, who served as a commander under Gascón and is now Mesa's police chief. “I would get texts and emails from him at one, two in the morning. He would tell me, 'This is not a job. This is a lifestyle.' “
In Mesa, Gascón brought along CompStat — and also injected a level of creativity into police work that Mesa cops hadn't seen. When gas stations and convenience stores kept getting robbed of beer from coolers stored near the entrance, Gascón had them move the alcohol to the back. Thefts went down.
Mesa was also where Gascón first became a celebrity. The city is in Maricopa County, where the elected sheriff is a fellow by the name of Joe Arpaio. Shortly before Gascón arrived in Mesa in 2006, Arpaio had made national headlines for a draconian stance on illegal immigration. Sheriff's deputies would perform immigration checks after traffic stops for the most minor of infractions, and inmates at Arpaio's jail were forced to wear pink underwear under chain gang-style black-and-white striped uniforms. At once a vocal critic of Arpaio for racial profiling, Gascón also managed to upstage the camera-hogging Arpaio more than once, providing “police protection” for a planned Arpaio immigration sweep while resisting calls to have Mesa cops check detainees' immigration status and report it to federal authorities.
His handling of Sheriff Joe — and the underlying serious issue of how police should handle undocumented immigrants — made him an obvious choice for then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2009. Homicide was on the rise and Chief Heather Fong was having serious issues controlling her people. (In one infamous case, homicide inspectors ruled the case of a man who was discovered stabbed to death, the knife washed and put away in a drawer, as a suicide.)
And San Francisco's vaunted Sanctuary City policy — in which law enforcement are barred in most cases from reporting undocumented immigrants to federal Immigrations and Custom Enforcement — was facing stiff criticism. In 2008, Anthony Bologna and his two sons were gunned down in broad daylight by Edwin Ramos, an MS-13 gang member who had escaped deportation as a juvenile and mistook one of the sons for a rival gang member.
Police officers wanted one of their own in the position — specifically, future chief Greg Suhr — but Newsom selected Gascón, the first out-of-town, reformist chief since Charles Gain in the late 1970s. (Gain was also the last chief before Gascón to wear a suit and comport himself like an executive, and was sent packing by the city's establishment, his reforms soon undone.)
As San Francisco chief, Gascón began making changes. “It was a department not doing well in the basic functions of crime fighting,” he says today.
He brought in a sergeant from Los Angeles, Jeff Godown, to run a new SFPD CompStat unit and worked with Delagnes, then head of the union, to clear a years-long disciplinary backlog. “Frankly, it was a well-oiled machine to ensure discipline did not move very fast,” Gascón recalls.
Unhappy with a stagnant old order on his command staff, he shook up the department's leadership. Delagnes said Gascón told captains, “I have a problem with how you run your stations.' ” “Basically, he was telling them, 'I don't think you're very good.' ” He was shocked to discover SFPD had no “Brady policy” — a way of informing prosecutors and defense lawyers if a police officer's credibility is in question. He changed staffing levels and redirected resources.
“I appreciated the way he knocked heads in the Police Department — people were very afraid of him,” says Supervisor John Avalos, adding that when the Board of Supervisors' Budget Committee slashed the SFPD's overtime budget, Gascón “practically thanked me.”
He tried to inject some L.A.-style spit-and-polish into the relaxed SFPD — making a short-lived issue with undershirts at one district station — but he also toed the line.
He played the hard-jawed paramilitary badass, standing in line with SFPD riot police doing mutual support for Oakland following the manslaughter verdict for BART cop Johannes Mehserle, who fatally shot Oscar Grant. He worked with progressive supervisors to preserve Sanctuary City policies, enabled friends or relatives to recover the impounded vehicles of undocumented immigrant motorists, and placated the city's establishment by backing a sit-lie law that would allow police to cite homeless people sprawled out on the street.
He also waged the war on drugs. On an introductory tour of the city, police took him from Central Station in North Beach to Tenderloin Station, on Jones Street next to the older, pre-renovation Boedekker Park. Then, as now, homeless people slept on the street, drug addicts nodded off, and drug dealers peddled pills and bags of heroin within sight of the police station. Gascón was horrified, and he ordered buy-bust sweeps, a tried-and-true narc-unit tactic.
“All of the sudden, our jails were full,” says Public Defender Jeff Adachi (though those suspects and many others were sprung the following year, after a lab technician at the city's drug lab was discovered to have been skimming cocaine).
There was resistance from the SFPD's old guard. “The standard line was, 'We just don't do it that way,'” Godown says. “You had about 50 percent of the department welcoming changes, and the other 50 percent standing with their arms crossed, waiting us out, saying, 'These guys aren't going to last.' Unfortunately, the way things ended up, that 50 percent won out.” (To this day, Gascón says he had no idea officers on his watch were swapping the bigoted texts.)
Still, things were going well enough — the homicide rate was down, and Gascón had a working relationship with elected officials and the police union — when Gascón went in for a Saturday afternoon meeting in January 2011 with then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. Elected lieutenant governor in November, Newsom delayed his swearing-in in order to select a successor to Kamala Harris, who had been elected attorney general. Gascón was talking about the traits a DA should have when Newsom interjected.
“What about you?” he asked, according to Gascón's retelling. Gascón was taken aback, and asked for time to mull it over. Newsom gave him three hours to decide.
Gascón drove to his home near West Portal, where he lived with his second and current wife, former Univision reporter Fabiola Kramsky. He asked for her advice. Among other considerations were money — specifically, the kind you earn and the kind you ask for. San Francisco's police chief takes home almost $100,000 a year more than the DA, but Gascón would be a politician running to keep the job that very same year, and fundraising calls were foreign to him.
He also made a few more phone calls, including to “someone back east” who advised him to take the job. (Gascón would not say who.)
The following morning, he sealed the deal with Newsom and Newsom's chief of staff, Steve Kawa, over breakfast, and was sworn in the following afternoon.
When Delagnes found out, “I said, 'What?! I didn't even know you were a lawyer,' ” he recalled. “I was surprised but not shocked — I knew he was ambitious, and I knew he wouldn't be here long.” Godown, who would become caretaker interim chief, found out via a five-minute phone call at 10 that evening. In a departmental bulletin to the rank-and-file issued the day he became DA, Gascón praised the SFPD as “one of the finest law enforcement agencies in the country, if not the world.” There was no mention of any concerns over bias, racism, or use-of-force.
Gascón's tenure as District Attorney started off in an unorthodox fashion. One of his first acts was to bring in Adachi to address all of the prosecutors. “That was unusual,” says Police Commissioner Victor Hwang, who worked in Gascón's office as a hate crimes prosecutor. “That probably created some ripples.” Gascón also gave his prosecutors a movie to watch: After Innocence, a documentary about former inmates released after exoneration through DNA evidence.
Former prosecutors say he did little to change things at first, allowing the office's various crime units to continue on as before. He did hire as chief of staff Cristine Soto DeBerry, a former Newsom aide and public defender with no prosecutorial experience. In return, his assistant chief district attorney Paul Henderson, who many had pegged as Newsom's likely choice to be DA, left the DA's office — which is still paying him — to be an adviser to Ed Lee. (Initially agreeing to an interview, Henderson did not respond to requests for comment by press time.)
One early conflict was over data, or rather a lack of it. Seeing an office using different computer systems and in some cases legal pads to keep track of caseloads and case results, he tried to institute a CompStat-like data system for the DA's office. That alone took years.
He also paid a visit to San Quentin to visit with death row inmates and other lifers — the first DA to visit the infamous prison for purely informational purposes.
Once elected, a reformist progressive streak started to show. A frequent attendee at think tanks and a devourer of academic studies, he began putting some of the new ideas into action. In 2012, the year after his first election, he co-chaired the successful campaign for Prop. 36, which reformed the state's three-strikes law. He also supported the failed Prop. 34, which would have repealed the death penalty.
After hearing from Chinatown seniors that their expensive smartphones kept getting stolen, he and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman started an eventually successful campaign to shame smartphone manufacturers into installing remotely activated “kill switches” to deactivate stolen phones in 2013. The following year, he joined prosecutors from Los Angeles in suing Uber and Lyft for lying about the effectiveness of their background checks, revealing that both rideshare platforms contracted with drivers with criminal records.
In June 2014, Gascón gave a TED talk at Ironwood State Prison in Southern California. There, he launched his most ambitious reform platform yet. With a recidivism rate of 70 percent or higher, the criminal justice system was “broken,” he said, and needed to be hacked. Specifically, the war on drugs needed to end. Gascón — who still stands by his decision to run drug sweeps in the Tenderloin as one of his first acts as chief — says his evolution on this issue came slowly, but started when he was a high-ranking officer in L.A.
After two decades on the force, he was noticing multiple generations of black and brown people going to jail for drug crimes, without any noticeable impact on crime. He was also swayed by one of his daughters, who challenged him on the notion that marijuana was a gateway drug. Drug-related convictions started to vanish from San Francisco — while, under new police chief Suhr, property crime rates started to creep back up.
That was the launch pad for Prop. 47, which reclassified nonviolent felonies like drug possession and petty theft valued at less than $950 as misdemeanors.
Opposed by every major law enforcement lobby in California, including members of the state District Attorney's Association, the measure still passed — and was immediately blamed for an uptick in property crime (although, according to the San Francisco Police Department's own data, property crime started rising in 2012, Suhr's first full year as chief and three years before Prop. 47 took effect).
Gascón also took other maverick positions, like backing the campaign for Assembly of an ex-offender, Prophet Walker, against a law enforcement-endorsed candidate.
He occasionally seized an issue in the public eye and dropped it just as quickly. After Michael Quinn, an on-duty firefighter who appeared to have been drinking, crashed his city fire rig into a motorcyclist on Howard Street in 2013, Gascón's office pursued felony DUI charges, leading Quinn to retire. (Police bungling — Quinn was not interviewed until hours after the incident, during which time he was videotaped drinking glass after glass of water at a nearby bar — led to a judge tossing the case.) San Francisco firefighters can legally have a blood-alcohol content of 0.04 while on the job. That led Gascón to tell Fire Department officials they should have a zero-tolerance policy, a warning Chief Joanne Hayes-White ignored without incident.
He's also been criticized for moving too slowly. It took Gascón six months to file charges against the Alameda County Sheriff's deputies who videotaped themselves savagely beating a carjacking suspect in a Mission District alley in November.
Several other new innovations are under way but have yet to be fully vetted for effectiveness. One, Young Adult Court, follows research that suggests brains are not fully developed until the late 20s, while many young offenders aged 18 to 24 become repeat offenders, and tries to connect offenders to services before they can re-offend. Another experimental program, just launched, is called “Make it Right.” Modeled from a program in New Zealand, it's a court-less real jury of peers, where the offender and victim come to terms on an agreed-upon restitution, with the accountability coming from the families of both.
Under Gascón, felony case filings have dropped by about half from Harris's tenure — a shift that can be explained by the end of court dockets filled with drug cases.
But none of that made the headlines like when Gascón went after police or politicians. Nor did it make the same enemies.
To see where the real power in San Francisco criminal justice exists, you need only take a look at the real estate.
A few steps away from Gascón's offices — situated below the jail at the asbestos and lead paint-laden Hall of Justice — is a modern, glass-walled corner building that fits in well with the new condos filling the area.
On the second floor is the headquarters for the Police Officers Association — high-ceilinged with wood beams, immaculate wood floors, and framed photos of Issac Espinoza, the young SFPD cop shot and killed on duty by a gang member in 2004. (Former DA Kamala Harris forever lost the POA's support for not seeking the death penalty.)
In a spacious corner conference room, Gary Delagnes, Gascón's sworn enemy, expounds on Gascón's many faults over a series of interviews (one of which came on the morning of May 19, when an SFPD sergeant shot and killed unarmed car theft suspect Jessica Williams, leading to Greg Suhr's resignation and Toney Chaplin's rise to interim chief). Gascón has made a fair bit of the city's established order nervous, and Delagnes is acting as their attack dog.
“If you guys try to paint a picture of [Gascón] as a maverick who was not accepted, that would be a bad portrayal,” says Delagnes, who maintains Gascón is a cold-hearted climber willing to turn to any issue that might raise his profile — be it for mayor or another gig, like attorney general should Kamala Harris win the U.S. Senate seat in the fall (very unlikely, given Gascón's lack of a close relationship with Gov. Jerry Brown). It's a charge often muttered in local political circles as well.
“This is not the guy he was when he was chief of police,” Delagnes adds. “This is not the guy he was when he was an LAPD cop.”
The real message is clear: This is Delagnes's town — the police's, the POA's — not Gascón's. This is how San Francisco has always been.
A few days earlier, in a theater space at the African American Culture Center in the Western Addition, the blue-ribbon panel commissioned the year before to look into the SFPD had released its initial findings: The SFPD has serious problems with bias, discipline, and accountability. Gascón was on hand to hear it all and might have felt vindicated; at the end he slipped out a back door without talking to reporters or the public.
“He would never admit it, but he's a very political person,” says one City Hall official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He is focused on advancing his own career, but he also has a certain set of beliefs that push him away from the status quo.”
Supporters say Gascón has a moral compass, driven by data, and shows a Socratic honest streak.
“He is surprisingly candid and sincere,” says Stanford University law professor Mike Romano, one of the Prop. 47 co-architects. Romano recalls an editorial board meeting on the Prop. 47 campaign trail with the Sacramento Bee, whose editors asked Gascóon to explain the nationwide drop in crime over the past 20 years. “He said something to the effect of, 'I don't know,' ” Romano recalls. “You never hear a politician say, 'I don't know.' “
Did he turn aggressive police reformer when convenient, in a post-Ferguson America where scrutiny of the police is the issue du jour? Yes. But why? That depends on what you think of the man. And the man himself is hard to know.
Gascón agreed to two in-person interviews for this story. (A third, scheduled ahead of time, fell on the day after Suhr was fired. Gascón met with the mayor instead.)
In both, held in the conference room outside his Hall of Justice office — which I never see and am not invited to enter — he comes across as intelligent and forthcoming, yet guarded. He has a pair of smartphones, both of which are placed face-down on the table, that ding constantly with email and text alerts. As it happens, trying to reform the SFPD has been one of his toughest challenges — ever.
“I was expecting some level of disagreement and discomfort, but frankly, I was not expecting the hostility that evolved from this process,” he says. Then his voice, a “regal Havana accent,” as the LA Times once called it, gets a hard edge. “I don't react well to intimidation.”
“I don't like people that are lazy, I don't like people that are disrespectful of others, and I have very little tolerance for people that are doing wrongful things,” he adds. “If you talk to people who know me well, you will hear I go out of my way to treat people with respect. Having said that, performance is important.”
Gascón is either a man out on an island, a man without a country in the insular and provincial world of San Francisco politics, or it means he's a person who does not care about how things have always been done in a position of power. In a tradition-obsessed town, in a field more resistant to change than geology, that's frightening. But whether he can take find and take down a modern-day Ruef — or is here long enough to see it through — remains to be seen.