By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
They are nothing if not persistent. The “they” in this case are police unions, disgruntled deputy district attorneys, victims’ rights groups, former District Attorney Steve Cooley, the right-wing echo chamber and some misguided, vindictive officials in a handful of smaller cities in Los Angeles County.
They are determined to recall Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón. This embittered bunch tried and failed a few months back to beat the deadline and collect the needed half million plus signatures required for the recall.
However, two things changed to put wind back in their sails. One is the spike in crime, both nationally and in L.A. County. The other is tens of thousands of dollars from the anti-Gascón forces. They have until July to get the signatures required to set a recall election.
For his part, Gascón has said little about the recall effort. That is a good thing.
He knows the forces against him represent some of the shrillest, most outspoken opponents of any police and criminal justice reform initiatives. They have a legion of conservative talking heads with lots of money egging on the anti-Gascón effort.
They have ruthlessly harangued Gascón almost from the moment he was sworn in. Their loudly stated beef with him is that his reforms will swing the prison and jail gates wide open and unloose hordes of dangerous criminals back onto L.A. County streets.
It’s a near textbook Donald Trump-style scare and fear-mongering campaign stuffed with the usual healthy dose of half-truths, distortions and out-and-out lies about Gascón’s proposed reforms.
His greatest sin to them is that he believes that district attorneys should not simply be about the business of locking up as many folk as possible, the overwhelming majority of whom are poor, Black and Hispanic. He is one of an increasing number of reform-minded district attorneys nationally who believe that equal protection under the law is more than noble words on a scrap of paper. It means enforcing the law in a fair, impartial, even-handed, and — most importantly — equal way.
That is just the starting point to try and make sense of why a guy who has been in office a little over a year has raised the hackles of the right and the old guard law enforcement establishment. Traditionally, district attorneys are a fixed extension of policing. Their mandate is a single-minded focus on prosecutions, convictions and maximum incarceration for offenders.
Their tunnel vision approach to the criminal justice system has made them immune to any talk of reform, which would mean finding ways to provide services and support to at-risk individuals to prevent criminal activity and reduce the chance of recidivism.
Traditionally, district attorneys have another mandate. That is to turn as blind an eye as possible to police misconduct. Cops who beat, maim and even kill under the color of law in even the most dubious circumstances know that they have a virtual open pass from most district attorneys who will not prosecute them. The pass holds even when the rare times that police officials request a prosecution, the answer is still no.
District attorneys know that if they forget that and start holding cops that break the law accountable, there will be a loud howl from police unions and associations. They will suddenly find themselves the target of a relentless big-money campaign to dump them from office. Few district attorneys have the stomach to risk that.
No surprise then that district attorneys have been the loudest proponents of three-strikes provisions that state legislatures have routinely rushed into law. With few exceptions, district attorneys also were the loudest in protesting any relaxing or outright repeal of three-strikes laws.
Then there’s the public. More than 20 cities in Los Angeles County, mostly small, have voted “no confidence” in Gascón. They took their cue from the coalition of right-wing forces that want Gascón out.
They have not put forth a shred of evidence to back up their claim that Gascón’s reform policies have made the streets in their cities any less safe. It is simply politically expedient, mixed with hysteria over the always emotional issue of crime.
The fear card is even easier to play with middle-class to wealthy business owners and homeowners. Toss in the conjured image of packs of poor young Blacks and Hispanics running roughshod through their neighborhoods and that part of the public is off to the races demanding a crackdown.
There have been and will continue to be crime spikes in Los Angeles. It goes through cycles.
There are many reasons for it. The lack of jobs, support programs for at-risk youth, the paucity of family support services, America’s insatiable love affair with guns, the sense of alienation and devaluation of Black and Hispanic youth, and the mania for mass incarceration of non-violent, low-level offenders. That ensures bitterness, resentment and crime recidivism.
This has been the pattern long before Gascón came along. It has nothing to do with his supposed lenient reform policies. The great danger is that the recall effort will succeed. If it does, it will send the terrible message that fairness, equity and, yes, justice under the law is not in the cards for L.A. County.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is on classical music. He hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.