A whirlwind three days in San Francisco politics has left the city with a likely new interim mayor, four new supervisors and today, a new district attorney, former Chief of Police George Gascon, as well as a new police chief.
The appointment of City Administrator Ed Lee as interim mayor, expected Tuesday, was surprising enough. Selected Friday by the Board of Supervisors, he will become the city’s first Chinese-American mayor, replacing now Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Newsom favored the choice of Lee over others being considered by many of the board’s progressive members.
Added to the city’s political mix are four new supervisors on the 11-member legislative board, who were sworn in Saturday. The composition of the new board is considered slightly more moderate.
And Sunday, in his final act as mayor, Newsom appointed Gascon as district attorney to replace Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Gascon said today he was “completely unprepared” for Newsom’s phone call Saturday.
“Frankly, at 12:45 Saturday afternoon, if you had mentioned that this position would be available to me, I would have laughed,” he told reporters this morning inside his new office on the third floor of the Hall of Justice.
After consulting with his wife and then with other city officials, Gascon agreed to the appointment about four hours later, he said.
Though never a prosecutor, Gascon is an attorney and an active member of the State Bar of California. He served as an assistant police chief in Los Angeles and was police chief in Mesa, Ariz., before being named chief in San Francisco 18 months ago.
During his tenure, Gascon has made changes to the San Francisco Police Department’s methods of tracking crime in real time and analyzing the data, holding district captains accountable for crime trends in their neighborhoods, and initiating new community dialogues.
Gascon failed at an attempt to get the police commission to allow Tasers for the department, but oversaw overall reductions in crime citywide in the past two years.
He has also guided the department through fierce criticism in the wake of last year’s crime lab scandal, when it was revealed that a former criminalist had been stealing cocaine from evidence. Prosecutors at the time dropped hundreds of drug cases as a result.
The department took another hit when it came to light that police did not inform prosecutors of the prior misconduct of officers who were called to testify in court, information that is required by law to be revealed to the defense. Gascon and Harris established formal written guidelines for the release of that information.
Gascon today addressed his rationale for taking the district attorney position.
“The reason why I have accepted this is because I believe that it will offer me an opportunity to continue the work that I have been engaged in for the last six or seven years, and it has to do with the reforming of the criminal justice system,” he said.
Until now, Gascon said, he had primarily viewed such reform through the prism of the Police Department.
“This will give me the opportunity to bring policing and prosecution closer together,” he said.
Gascon sought to reassure the public that he was fit to become the city’s top prosecutor.
“I am not a prosecutor by trade, and I recognize that,” he said. “But we have a lot of good men and women in this organization that are. And I was not hired here to prosecute cases, I was hired to continue to bring the good work that has been done in the past, and then bring other things on board.”
Gascon said he got a “very warm” response from staff at the district attorney’s office this morning. He also had kind words for Harris.
“Kamala and I work very well together,” he said, noting he had endorsed her for attorney general. “I think Kamala is an incredible professional, great visions.”
One difference between the two is his stance on the death penalty. While Harris opposes it, Gascon said he would consider it in especially “heinous” cases.
However, Gascon stressed that charging death penalty cases is very expensive.
In addition to the appointment of a second defense attorney in such cases, there is also an additional penalty phase of the trial, and there are often greater costs for expert witnesses and investigators, as well as for appeals.
Gascon said he simply wanted to make sure “that tool is available to us.”
Though he said it was still too early to detail specific changes he would bring to the district attorney’s office, Gascon painted a broad vision of reforming the criminal justice system, which he called “broken.”
“I don’t believe that we can continue to incarcerate people at the rates that we have been for the last 20 years,” he said. “It is unsustainable economically, and it is unsustainable socially.”
Gascon was also asked about bridging the at-times strained relationship between police and prosecutors in San Francisco.
“Officers generally complain that the prosecutors aren’t aggressive enough, and prosecutors often complain that the police are not doing a good enough job to create a prosecutable case.
“Well now I have the opportunity that I can complain to myself,” he said, chuckling, “and then come up with a solution that will obviously involve people in both the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office.”
Gascon has still not had the chance to address most of the Police Department about his departure. He noted that some might be disappointed by the sudden change.
“I have done this with a very heavy heart,” he said. “My body and soul has been in policing for most of my adult life.”
He said that while the change might bring some instability to the department, he stressed that an organization is not about any one person, but “an entire team,” and the structure that supports it.
Gascon called the Police Department’s command staff “very strong professionals.”
“They have the ability to continue to move the Police Department in the right direction,” he said.
Gascon also said he is gearing up to run for a four-year term for district attorney in November. He acknowledged that he’s never run for political office.
He said he hoped to bring “a more holistic” perspective to the criminal justice system.
“I believe that if we take a different look at how policing and the prosecution work together, and hopefully eventually other partners, we will be able to create even a safer San Francisco,” Gascon said.
The news was met with hopeful uncertainty by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has publicly criticized the Police Department–and especially the district attorney’s office–for the crime lab and misconduct fiascos.
Adachi said he had never heard of a sitting police chief being appointed district attorney. He called Gascon “the inside-outsider.”
“There’s really no track record to gauge what he’s going to do, and I think that’s why there’s some uncertainty as to how he would run that office,” Adachi said.
On the other hand, Adachi noted Gascon’s support for prisoner re-entry programs and rehabilitative services. Adachi said those programs will become all the more critical with more prisoners now being released by the state back into local communities.
“My hope is that (Gascon) will expand opportunities for individuals to get services and drug treatment, as opposed to incarceration,” Adachi said.
Adachi, however, is opposed to any use of the death penalty.
“My experience with George Gascon is that he’s very straightforward, he will tell you what he knows and what he’s going to do,” Adachi said. “I always appreciated that.”
For now, Asst. Chief Jeff Godown, who worked with Gascon at the Los Angeles Police Department and who Gascon brought to San Francisco, will serve as the interim police chief.
Godown met separately with reporters this morning on the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice.
He pledged to continue Gascon’s efforts and initiatives, including bringing the Taser issue back before the police commission in February and continuing training of officers to enforce the city’s new sit-lie ordinance. He will also be addressing the department’s budgetary difficulties with the new mayor.
“The rank and file have to understand that the mission is, we still come to work, we still do our job, there will be no disruption in service,” Godown said. “We’ve got some good people in place, the men and women of the SFPD are good people, and we’ll be just fine.”
While Godown said he didn’t expect and won’t seek a permanent appointment as police chief, he is looking forward to working with his old boss.
“I hope that…the relationship should be very good,” Godown said. “Now we’ve got a district attorney in place that’s been on the other side of the table, and I commented to (Gascon) yesterday, ‘Well, I’ve got some cases, I want to bring them to you immediately to see you file those for me,'” he said. “So I think it’ll be a good relationship.”
Godown would not specify which cases.
Godown, a tall and imposing figure who rarely, if ever, smiles, has held captains’ feet to the fire at the department’s weekly CompStat meetings. He said today he would continue to run those meetings.
A reporter asked him about his reputation as “bad cop” to Gascon’s “good cop.”
“The complaint I get from a lot of people is that I hold them accountable,” Godown reflected.
“And if holding people in this department accountable for what they’re supposed to be doing, if holding officers accountable for what they do, makes me a ‘bad cop,’ I’m good with that.”
Ari Burack, Bay City News