George Gascon, the former Los Angeles police officer who is now running for Los Angeles County District Attorney emerged from the humblest of beginnings to become a real American success story.
I find his story deeply appealing. As a former public office holder, I take a somewhat different approach than others when evaluating a political candidate, especially when that candidate is seeking the county’s most important role in law enforcement.
Before examining the issues or sorting through the promises, I dig into the candidate’s background. I want to know everything I can about his or her formative years, in particular the values that were instilled from an early age.
Those values support core beliefs and shape behavior, especially in those unguarded moments picked up by a live mic or cellphone video.
A political refugee from Cuba at the age of 13, George struggled because he didn’t speak English. He dropped out of high school at 18 and joined the U.S. Army, where he found his calling.
George served as a Military Police Officer in Germany, rising to the rank of Sergeant during his three years of active duty. While in the Army, Gascon made up for lost time by earning his high school diploma.
After his discharge, Gascon became a Los Angeles Police Officer and steadily rose through the ranks to Assistant Chief, the No. 2 spot in the LAPD, leaving an imprint of change on a department that has been notoriously resistant to reform.
As the Commander of the LAPD Training Unit, his enlightened approach was noticed by law enforcement leaders in Washington D.C., like Michael Gennaco, the former head of the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, who recognized George for his impact on the department. Gennaco has a long history of acting as a watchdog for civil rights. Gennaco knows a thing or two about law enforcement in LA County, as he was the Chief Attorney of the Office of Independent Review for Los Angeles.
“He fundamentally changed the way LAPD teaches its officers about civil rights,” Gennaco said.
That in and of itself would be a career capper for anyone else. But George didn’t stop. As he was climbing the ranks of the LAPD, he was studying the law at night and in 1996 became a lawyer.
Yet, he didn’t trade in his badge for a cushy job at a name law firm.
He left the LAPD in 2006 to become the Police Chief of Mesa, Arizona, where he continued his campaign to show that good policework does not sacrifice civil rights.
In particular, he took on notorious Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio over Arpaio’s harassment of Latino drivers. Years ahead of his time, Chief Gascon condemned it as an illegal practice.
His willingness to stand for what is right caught the eye of then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who appointed George to serve as San Francisco District Attorney in 2009 when Kamala Harris left to become California Attorney General.
As DA in San Francisco, George advocated for ending some of the most racially pernicious practices in the criminal justice system.
He opposed cash bail and was one of the first voices to call for the wholesale dismissal of misdemeanor marijuana convictions, which mired a disproportionate number of African American men in the prison system.
Meanwhile, the former cop cracked down on bad officers whose abuses inevitably fell disproportionately on Black communities.
He established an Independent Investigations Bureau to probe officer involved shootings, allegations of excessive force, and in-custody deaths.
Now, Gascon has returned home to Los Angeles with the determination to oust an incumbent DA whose office has done virtually nothing when presented with compelling cases of police abuse.
That may be why former law enforcement colleagues up and down the state are treating him as the enemy, spending heavily to keep him from winning.
According to a recently published analysis, police unions have donated $2.2 million dollars to committees and organizations supporting Gascon’s opponent. One million dollars of that has come from the Los Angeles Police Union.
And, that’s just the start. Police organizations are expected to pour in as much as $5 million dollars more to make sure George does not win. Just last week statewide police unions poured another $1 million into the race.
Will it make a difference?
Not when it comes to George’s values. They’re not for sale. That’s why I urge you to join me in supporting George Gascon for DA on November 3.
William Paparian, a criminal defense attorney, is the former Mayor of Pasadena.