LA district attorney race: George Gascón on police reform, funding priorities, LA sheriff’s deputies

The race for LA County district attorney has gained lots of attention nationwide. It pits the incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey against former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.

Gascón stepped down from his position as San Francisco DA to challenge Lacey here. He bills himself as a progressive prosecutor who oversaw big reforms to the criminal justice system in San Francisco. He’s also a former Los Angeles Police Department officer.

KCRW speaks with Gascón about how much money should go to law enforcement versus other programs, whether Jackie Lacey is prosecuting too much, his lack of endorsements from San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, and prosecuting police officers. 

KCRW: This race is really centered around police and the role that they play in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the protests nationwide. What should be done about police misconduct, police violence and homicides? Do you think the police should be “defunded?”

George Gascón: “I think that the term “defunding” is very elastic, and different people have different interpretations. Let me begin by saying I don't foresee a society where there will not be police or prosecutors or jails and prisons. I think those are always going to be necessary. 

The question for me is: How much of that do we have? For the last three, four decades, we shifted a lot of our funding priorities as a society. We moved away from education, social services, public health. And we increasingly put more money in the public safety spectrum. And I believe that we're paying the consequences of that. 

We built 22 prisons in the last three decades in the state, and we built one public university, even though we know that one of the easiest ways of securing our communities is by educating our people. Educated people generally tend to be gainfully employed and less likely to engage in criminal activity.

So I believe that it's very important that we begin to move funding away from public safety agencies, and begin to start funding public health and social services. But that is not to say that we're going to eliminate one to replace it with the other. I think that there are appropriate functions for each. 

I think it’s inappropriate to have police responding to mental health calls. Just like I don't think that prosecuting and jailing people that are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems fixes a problem. These are public health issues and they need to be addressed through a public health lens.”

The DA is not involved in direct budgeting or allocating funding for different agencies. But when you're looking at this idea, you have to talk about it in concrete terms. What percentage of the city and county budgets should be reallocated to police and law enforcement?

“I'm going to give you a nuanced answer because I think this is a nuanced issue. It is true that prosecutors do not get directly engaged in the funding. The structure of the budget that is in the case of the county is done by the Board of Supervisors. 

But what people often don't see is that prosecutorial practices have a huge impact on public funding. It takes it outside of everybody's control. If you over-prosecute, you over-incarcerate, that money has to come from somewhere. 

LA County has, for the last few years, consistently had a jail over capacity. Capacity 12,000, typically 18,000 in jail. LA County puts more people in prison per capita than 70% of the other counties at the extent of the state taxpayers. By the way, the way that we fund prison systems in this state, we fund them by a collective tax pool, if you will. So a county like LA that actually over-incarcerates is forcing other counties around the state to supplement or subsidize LA County. So the practices of the district attorney in essence have a tremendous impact on the budget, and it’s billions of dollars every year.”

Do you think that DA Jackie Lacey or her office is over-prosecuting? Do you think that she shouldn't bring as many charges as she's bringing?

“There's no question. Look, I mean, when you consider that LA County puts people in prison four times the rate of San Francisco, with a jail that is 6,000 and 7,000 people every day overcapacity, clearly it’s a problem.”

Violence crime is up nationwide — in New York City, Chicago, and a lot of big cities. It's not just Los Angeles.

“No, no, no, no. Let's put 2020 aside, 2020 is an anomaly. There's a lot of different things that are occurring this year. I'm going all the way through 2019 when crime was not going up. 

And by the way, crime is still at historic lows nationally. In fact, in San Francisco, violent crime was down to early 1960s levels. So first of all let's be very clear that crime is still down at historic lows. 

Having said that, LA County has seen substantial increases in crime in the last seven years.”

Are you blaming DA Lacey for LA’s increases in crime?

“The reasons for crime to go up or down are complicated. I mean, I know that Lacey and her police supporters are always blaming me for the spikes in property crime in San Francisco. And I understand this is politics. 

But there is a component that the district attorney plays here. When the district attorney has incarcerated at rates that are substantially higher than most of their peers, and crime in the county has continued to go up, you have to ask yourself what is the utility of incarceration?

So while I don't blame any district attorney for crime spikes or significant reductions, they play an important role. And in the area that they do control, which is incarceration, they have to be held accountable for that.”

You have won big endorsements in this race: California Governor Gavin Newsom, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles Times. But the people who worked closest with you, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, endorsed Jackie Lacey. And Mayor Breed blamed your reforms for a rash of car break-ins and other small street crimes. Breed said that Lacey has “effectively navigated the delicate balance between keeping our communities safe and enacting meaningful reform.” So why did Breed and Herrera endorse Jackie Lacey over you?

“It's complicated. I also have endorsements of several members of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. I have the endorsement of the chair of the Democratic Party in San Francisco. I have the endorsement of state Senators from San Francisco.

The mayor was the subject of scrutiny, under a public corruption investigation that I started as part of a task force with the FBI. And I think that people feel very uncomfortable when you start rattling cages. 

And as we have seen in LA County, if the district attorney doesn’t play an active role as the gatekeeper of good government, government has a tendency to go sideways. In San Francisco we have already seen people being indicted for pay-to-play, and in LA County we have seen people currently being indicted, and I believe there will be more.

And the difference between San Francisco and LA is: In San Francisco when I was district attorney, I was an active part. In fact, the task force that started those investigations was one that I initiated with the FBI. 

Whereas here in LA County, the Feds have to step in completely because the district attorney has been silent. So you have the endorsement of one mayor, and one city attorney who have a relationship.

… By the way, a mayor that talks out of two sides of her mouth. One hand, she says she is a reformer. On the other hand, she blames drug policy reform for things I have been pressing in San Francisco for many years. The Tenderloin [neighborhood in SF] has been a problem, just like Skid Row has been a perennial problem in LA County. The Tenderloin has had the same problems for many, many years. In fact, when I was first appointed chief of police in San Francisco, the big cry was the problems in the Tenderloin. 

Now in addition to that, we have an epidemic in drug addiction that is killing our country. And it has nothing to do with whether you're a reformer or not. The problem is happening in the Midwest in some of the most conservative states where people are dying of overdoses because we have had for years become a nation addicted to prescription drugs, and then we transition from prescription drugs to street drugs when people cannot afford to continue to get prescription drugs.

And the problem has been that we — many years ago — about three and a half decades ago — we really had an opportunity to medicalize drug use in this country and treat it as a public health problem. We decided to use a hammer by militarizing our police and building more jails and prisons to deal with a medical problem, a public health problem. And we're paying the price on that.”

There are lots of issues with how LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is running the department lately. He is refusing to work with civilian overseers of the department. He has unraveled some of his predecessors’ reforms. Recently, the inspector general issued a report that there is substantial evidence of a secret gang within the East LA sheriff's station. There was also the whistleblower who said there was another gang at the Compton station. We saw that he oversaw a department that aggressively arrested a local public radio journalist. There have been some high profile police shootings, including Dijon Kizzee. 

Do you think Sheriff Villanueva should step down?

“Let me stay in my lane for a second. The inspector general also criticized the district attorney for not filing cases against deputy gangsters in the sheriff's department very recently, right? So part of that report not only was critical of the way the sheriff handled this investigation, but he was also critical of the way that the district attorney handled cases that should have been filed. 

And again, you have to look and see why. And to me, the answers are very obvious. You have a district attorney that is so conflicted because of how much money she's taking from police unions that even the attorney general had to conflict her out of a case recently, a case that I right off the gate said you need to be conflicted out.” 

Would you prosecute these deputies or look into prosecuting them?

“I'm looking at the inspector general's report very closely. And first of all, for the audience that may not understand this, this is a serious individual, an attorney who has been around for a very long time. And he understands prosecution. He's certainly pointing out to criminal conduct that in his estimation should have been prosecuted. And to me, that's very persuasive.”

Would you look into prosecuting these sheriff's deputies who are in these gangs?

“I would look into prosecuting anyone, including law enforcement officers, that commit crimes against the public, if we have the evidence to do so. Because that is what prosecutors do. You have to hold people accountable across the board. 

And the problem that we have in LA County now is that we have a blind spot when it comes to law enforcement. We're very good at prosecuting other people, but when it comes to law enforcement, we tend to look the other way.”

But you didn't prosecute any police officers for police killings when you were in San Francisco.

“I prosecuted six for excessive force. I did not prosecute any for killing. But unlike LA County, I didn't have anyone shooting or a killing occur on an unarmed person. 

Here, there's at least 12, according to the admissions of the district attorney. We believe that there are more. In fact, we're pointing out some of the cases where clearly the evidence points contrary to the legal analysis that was provided by the DA’s office. We even had a case where a chief of police asked the district attorney to prosecute the case, and she wouldn't. And we're looking at the evidence, and the evidence contrary to her written analysis of the case.”

You didn't answer my original question about the sheriff. Do you think you think Alex Villanueva should step down?

“The sheriff was elected by the people. And I think though that the people have to deal with that through the electoral process. What I am telling you is that if there is criminal conduct within the sheriff's department or any other public agency, just like anywhere else, where I have the evidence to prosecute the case, I will. I am not beholden to police unions.”

KCRW Features: LA County District Attorney candidate George Gascón on law enforcement during the pandemic
Greater LA: Jackie Lacey v. George Gascon: Do Angelenos want a progressive new district attorney?

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy and Brian Hardzinski