For the DA, who withdrew from the race last week, describing his accomplishments for voters figured to be a challenge. Describing his legacy for posterity will be, too.
On Jan. 9, 2011, Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed his police chief, George Gascón — a man who had never tried a case and earned a J.D. in his 40s from the unaccredited law school he attended in the off hours he wasn’t working as a Los Angeles cop — as district attorney of San Francisco.
So, that was a bit of a surprise.
On Oct. 2, 2018, two-term incumbent DA Gascón abruptly announced he would not seek re-election, citing family opposition and the failing health of his 90-year-old mother. Unless you’re related to Gascón or situated within his innermost circle, this, too, was a bit of a surprise (it certainly blindsided all of his declared opponents).
And there was no shortage of surprises in the 2,823 days in between. Newsom did (and does) have a taste for flashy, out-of-the-box, attention-grabbing — but ultimately superficial — acts. Appointing Gascón out of left field was, most certainly, a flashy, out-of-the-box, attention-grabbing move. But it was not superficial. The past seven years and nine months have been a consequential time and Gascón has played a consequential role. And a counterintuitive one.
The former cop, former Republican, and erstwhile legal naif may, legitimately, be the most progressive DA this city has ever had. Whether it’s moving away from cash bail, de-emphasizing incarceration for nonviolent offenders, reintegrating prisoners into society, pushing for funds to be invested in mental health services instead of jails, expunging marijuana convictions, or advocating for undocumented immigrants, Gascón’s c.v. is full of things San Francisco voters ought to like.
But it’s not at all clear they like George Gascón.
The incumbent was, clearly, facing a pitched battle to keep his job. Leading contender Suzy Loftus — city native, mother of three, former DA and Attorney General prosecutor — is running with the enthusiastic backing of her former boss Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor London Breed. As soon as this week Nancy Tung, a former prosecutor under Harris and Gascón, may pull papers to run; she would be another credible female candidate and — bluntly — the only Chinese American up for the job in a city with a hefty Chinese voting bloc.
Gascón’s problem, or at least one of them, was that he was never able to define himself — to the media, to voters, and, not insignificantly, to the City Family that runs this town — as the guy who pushed for all of the above. Rather, to the city’s left, focused to the exception of all else on police shootings, he was the guy who, repeatedly, failed to bring charges against killer cops. To the city’s right, he was the guy who, resplendently, fumbled the Kate Steinle shooting case. All the while, Gascón was caught up in a series of running battles with his successors atop the San Francisco Police Department and their bellicose union — which, to too many, came off as an internecine pissing contest undertaken while the rest of the city trudged through streets ankle deep in shattered car windows.
For Gascón, describing his accomplishments for voters figured to be a challenge. Describing his legacy for posterity will be, too.
Assessing a DA’s effectiveness isn’t always so simple. As anyone who’s ever watched Law & Order knows, in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders (these are their stories. KUNG-KUNG). To wit, Gascón’s opponents have claimed that he’s fallen down on the job, as the number of felony and misdemeanor prosecutions has fallen.
The tally of prosecutions has indeed fallen.
And yet, recall the Law & Order mantra: Two separate yet equally important groups (these are their stories. KUNG-KUNG). The DA is now charging (and convicting) fewer cases because the San Francisco Police Department is making fewer arrests. A lot fewer arrests. And this comes while serious crime has skyrocketed in this city (violent crime is down but property crime is off the hook). In 2010, San Francisco was the site of 40,670 reported serious crimes, resulting in 7,344 arrests — an 18 percent clip. And yet, by 2015, this city was the site of 61,245 serious crimes, but only 5,764 arrests. That’s just 9 percent.
The San Francisco Police Department has stopped making arrests — and it stopped making arrest totals easily accessible after 2016. But, adding up month-by-month reports provided by the department, last year there were 65,879 serious crimes here, but only 6,983 arrests (10.6 percent).
In short, the SFPD registered hundreds more arrests in 2010 (under Police Chief Gascón, incidentally), even with 25,000 fewer reported crimes. The DA can only charge the cases the SFPD sends his or her way. The SFPD’s arrest rate on auto break-ins remains at around 2 percent. The DA’s office prosecutes 85 percent of the car burglary cases it’s given.
While we’re throwing around numbers, here are a few more: The DA’s 2017 charging rate of 57.5 percent is the highest since these statistics began being tracked in 2000. The conviction rate in the most recently recorded fiscal year is 77 percent.
None of this is to say that Gascón deserved to hold his office by fiat or that his challengers lack merit. We are all the poorer for not hearing a policy-based debate between the DA and his rivals. Because, with Gascón out of the picture, he becomes what the Police Officers Association and other maniacal critics have long strived to make him: the bogeyman for all that’s wrong with crime and punishment in this city. No elected official is above reproach, but many of the allegations leveled against Gascón simply do not mesh with the aforementioned statistics.
But that doesn’t mean these arguments won’t take hold. Or haven’t already.
Friday was a rough day for democracy in the United States. But a Chicago jury did convict former officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder for the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald — as well as 16 counts of aggravated battery; one for every shot he fired at the 17-year-old.
So, it can be done.
By then, a video of Gascón and profane anti-police violence protesters winging trash at one another after they confronted him on his own front steps was already making the rounds. Anger over police officers gunning down citizens with impunity is fantastically understandable. But directing that anger monomaniacally at Gascón can only get you so far. Chicago notwithstanding, any prosecutor hoping to convict a cop in a shooting case is facing a nigh-impossible burden of proof. And that’s by design. The law is meant to allow for police impunity. The law is unfair. This country is unfair. This should come as no surprise to anyone born before Friday. Or since.
It is, sadly, all too plausible that Gascón has failed to charge any cops in shooting cases because of the obscene deference with which they are treated under the law. Anger at Gascón and Gascón alone is akin to smacking a television because you don’t like the show playing on it. Eventually you may break that television, but you haven’t put that show off the air.
And yet, to a degree, this is a situation Gascón brought upon himself. He cast himself as a reformer, vowing to take on city corruption — including the ongoing scourge of young people of color being shot by SFPD officers. Yet he, more than most, knew what the law was. He, more than most, knew what one DA could and could not do.
Nobody your humble narrator spoke with saw reason to doubt the veracity of Gascón’s claim his family considerations drove him from the race. That’s all but surely a factor. But so is the fact that this race would have been a brawl. And that’s not to say the incumbent couldn’t have won. But, even if he had, it would have been a knock-down, drag-out affair in which his morals and competence and would have been publicly impugned. And a second full-time job. It’s in this context that claims of family pressure sound more plausible.
“I am very sorry to see that George is not going to run,” said Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney in the public defender’s office — who enjoys a sheepdog and coyote relationship with the DA. “I think that history is going to be very good to him in terms of the positions he took.”
And that may yet be so. But, in the short term, Gascón found himself in a literal garbage fight with sanctimonious visitors to his private residence.
In the future, that will be someone else’s concern.
Last week, Gascón said enough’s enough. San Francisco’s real-life former top cop belatedly heeded the advice of his fictional forbearer: A man’s got to know his limitations.