By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
It was no surprise that at a recent forum for candidates for Los Angeles County District Attorney the bulls-eye was squarely on District Attorney George Gascón.
Each of the seven challengers to Gascón took big shots at him. The biggest shot of all was his alleged failure to vigorously combat crime in the county.
Gascón had so angered conservatives, and many others, on this point that he was the subject of one recall. It failed. But there is still much talk of yet another recall effort against him before the March 2024 primary.
Gascón’s recent appointment of a controversial deputy district attorney as his chief of staff provided even more grist for the mill of conservatives to harangue Gascón. They dredged up alleged quotes from her from years past in which she allegedly lambasted the Los Angeles Police Department as “barbarians” and “an occupying army” in Black communities.
Fox News had a field day with that one and Gascón. His poll ratings are dismal among conservatives and barely above 50% among the general public. That spells real danger for him in the primary.
Gascón’s record that draws so much anger from many corners is certainly mixed. Take his promise to crack down on police misconduct.
He filed charges against a bunch of California Highway Patrol officers for manslaughter in the death of George Bronstein in 2020. He did not file charges — yet — against officers who gunned down double amputee Anthony Lowe in Huntington Park in February 2020. He has declined to press charges against officers in several other dubious cases of alleged misconduct.
He won some accolades for aiding through his Conviction Integrity and Habeas Unit the factual exoneration of two men wrongfully convicted of murder. Both spent long years in prison.
Gascón made clear that their release was testimony to his offices “continuing efforts to reform and improve our legal system.”
This is commendable and in line with his pledge to be a criminal justice system reform district attorney. However, it almost certainly will further feed the relentless criticism of him that he is too soft on crime.
The recall hit on him, for instance, was not undertaken by an enraged public outraged on an issue. It was a well-funded and well-orchestrated campaign by prison guard associations, police unions and associations, victims’ rights groups, disgruntled deputy district attorneys, and a legion of conservative talking heads looking to nail Gascón.
Their non-stop gripe against him is that his reforms will swing the prison and jail gates wide open and unloose hordes of dangerous criminals back on the streets. It’s a near textbook 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 remains that he believes that district attorneys should not simply be about the business of locking up as many persons as possible, the overwhelming majority of whom are poor, Black and Hispanic. He’s one of an increasing number of reform-minded district attorneys nationally who believe that equal protection under the law is something more than just noble words on a scrap of paper. This means enforcing the law in a fair, impartial, even-handed, and — most importantly — just way.
This is just the starting point to try and make sense of why Gascón instantly 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 virtually 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 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’ll 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.
Then there is the public. Gascón’s voracious opponents repeatedly cite public concern over alleged rising crime as their rationale for going after him. This is an easy card to play.
Simply mention crime and that always stirs anxiety and terror among many. The fear card is even easier to play with middle-class to wealthy business owners and homeowners.
Gascón will continue to be squarely on the hot seat in the run-up to the March primary. That’s OK. When you pledge reform, that heat comes with the turf. Despite the risk Gascón should stay true to that pledge.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.