On June 8th, 2018, several members of the League of Women Voters of San Francisco had the opportunity to interview San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon on policing practices. He was accompanied by his Deputy Chief of Staff, Alex Bastian. These are the questions that we at the League posed and DA Gascon’s responses. We will be asking similar questions of other San Francisco policing stakeholders.
QUESTION: What is your role in policing in San Francisco and how does your personal experience inform your work?
I don’t know how much you know about me so I’ll give you just a quick summary because I think it will give you a little context. I grew up in the LAPD professionally, where I rose through the ranks to become Assistant Chief. I ran operations in the LAPD which at the time included patrol, detective operations, special operations, so roughly 85% of the department or about 8,500 people.
And then in 2006 I became the chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, which is the second largest city in the state, a city of about half a million people in the Phoenix metro area. It was from August 2006 to July 2009.
I was recruited to come here to San Francisco to be the Chief of Police by then Mayor Gavin Newsom and I was the chief of police for roughly 16 months. I worked on Kamala Harris’ campaign for attorney general, and when she was elected and the opening came up, quite frankly unexpectedly, I was offered the job of DA by Gavin. I’ve been an attorney for many years (I became a lawyer back in the mid-nineties). But mostly it was while I was in the police department so I did labor work; I did a lot of pro bono work.
I have been involved in criminal justice reform in a very active matter starting in around 2004/2005. In roughly 2006 I became a member of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. At the time we were working on a national initiative to reduce incarceration through a process called justice reinvestment. Justice reinvestment started by recognizing that we incarcerate too many people in this country already (this was in the early 2000s). Then the question really became how do you reduce incarceration but still maintain a high level of public safety and some of the ideas that flow from that dialogue, it was a national dialogue, was taking some of the savings from corrections and the justice system, and putting those into community-based supervision for people that were being released from prisons.
Unfortunately California actually never grabbed on to justice reinvestment. California was always a very complex state and it obviously still is. We were successful in Texas, Arizona, and in other places. The good thing is that incarceration was lowered. But there was no reinvestment so the money went back into general funds to reduce taxes or other things instead of going into community-based supervision. So while it has some positive impacts in the reduction [of] incarceration in those states it really was half-baked right as one of the major components, which was the reinvestment in the community-based programming, was never there.
I also was involved with the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy Executive Sessions of Policing and Public Safety. I started engaging in those right around the mid-2000s. I authored several papers on topics from the economics of policing to what policing in the future should look like.
So when the opportunity came to become a DA, while very unexpected, I made the decision to accept it is because I recognized many years ago that district attorneys really control the criminal justice system at the end of the day. Because we hold the power of determining who’s going to be prosecuted and how they’re going to be prosecuted, which is really the gateway to incarceration. So while district attorneys may not control policing at the ground level, through policy decisions and posture they control much of what else goes into the system overall.
I become convinced years ago that the war on drugs was the wrong war to fight and that the levels of incarceration in this country were completely out of control. We have reached a level where you start getting into the law of diminishing returns. There is a place where you get public safety and then there’s a place where you no longer get better safety you actually get worse. And your expenses keep going up.
One of the things that I have always done in my decision-making process is to try to be thoughtful. To be data-driven. To look at science. I think [it] is important, where you can, to remove emotions and personal feelings and be more businesslike.
One of the things that I believe in and I know sometimes as a minority especially, is that in my line we are the guardians of public funds and that’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.
I believe that this is always a long-term game and when you’re looking only for short term gains or political gains generally you end up with bad public policy.
Criminal justice has been ruined by bad public policy in this country, because it’s usually appealed to the lowest level of emotional thoughts. We have a bad thing happen. A horrible crime occurs and we want to create new laws to deal with that crime and forget about all the other consequences of that. We have a nuisance in our neighborhood and we just think that we can police the hell of it and get rid of it. It’s always something that bothers me.
And so you understand the me: I started, I grew up in LAPD. I got out of the Army, finished my college education and went right into the LAPD, so I grew up working the streets. I worked for years in Watts. I went through a riot. I saw what bad leadership led to. I’ve been through all of it. So I know that often officers think I don’t support them; it’s not that I don’t support them, it’s about policies. How can I not support something that I’ve done for so many years.
So that’s where I am and I’m sorry for the long introduction but I think that will inform you as I discuss my thoughts.
To your first question about my role, I think my role is one of setting the tone for the criminal justice system here by the policies that I implement, how I prosecute cases. Quite frankly, I use the bully pulpit. How I seek funding or not. What I do at the national level. What do I do at the state level. All those things have implications that sometimes may not be immediately felt on the street when you’re talking to a police officer but they have a long-term implications.
For instance, Proposition 47 started on that whiteboard right there. We wrote it out and we started to say okay, how do we start reducing the incarceration for low level drug offenses? And we worked with Senator Mark Leno to get legislation passed, which failed. And then I worked on the reform of three strikes as an invited guest, if you will, by the Stanford Law School, so for the first time I got a taste of what it’s like to do a statewide initiative. So I said okay, maybe we need to do the same thing here and then we got the funding we needed and Proposition 47 passed.
Prop 47 has arguably had the biggest impact on incarceration in the state, even more than realignment, if you listen to the analysis that had been done. Combined, they have had tremendous impact but if you look and you separate them it is actually Prop 47 that has had a bigger impact for two reasons: first because they lowered the number of people who are going to prison for low-level drug offenses, and secondly because it completely readjusted the criminal justice system at the bottom level.
While we still have a tremendous disproportionality in terms of how African Americans get treated in the criminal justice system, if you look at the numbers probably Prop 47 had as big an impact in reducing incarceration for African Americans in the state. It also started to change the conversation at the national level in this area. Including the Obama administration talking about releasing people, during his second term, that were in federal prisons for drug offenses.
So for me it’s really about tone-setting when it comes down to the ground level but it’s also the policies that I believe are supported by good science, good economics. When I look at public safety I’m always looking at three prompts. One is raw safety in the streets how does it feel and how does it look like. The second one is social impact, because too much police intervention actually has a negative social impact, not enough has a negative social impact. And the third: the economics of it. We have to be able to afford what we do. We cannot have a society or a community where we’re underfunding our schools or services for other vulnerable populations because we have an outsize spending on policing.
And the spending for some policing is unfortunately often driven by political considerations of the moment with very little consideration of the the impact over decades. For instance right now we’re talking about adding another 200 police officers. That may or may not be a good idea, I don’t know, but what I can tell you unequivocally today is that nobody really knows what the productivity of a San Francisco police officer today is. No one knows because no one is taking the time to actually do an analysis of that work. So if you were running a business and you’re making paper clips and it takes ten people for you to make your production and you don’t know how productive they are but you’re gonna add another five people just because? I mean you will never do that with a business. First of all you want to know what your getting out of what you have before you go beyond that. But that’s not what we’re doing with policing. We’re doing really bad public policy in the city right now that we will pay for, by the way, for many years because the other part of public safety employees, unlike other city employees, is that the the pension liability that they come with is tremendous. Police officers get to retire fairly young in terms of our longevity especially today when we’re living healthy lives well into our eighties. You have people who can retire in their fifties. They can collect pensions for well over thirty years. Very high level pensions. So what appears to be one budgetary impact on the front end completely neglects that you are saddling future generations with a huge debt that may impact public safety on the other end because you may not be able to afford to staff your police department the way you need to because you have a pension liability that is sinking you.
So these are considerations that unfortunately are not playing any role into the decision making and you have a mayor for a few weeks that decides I may want to run again for something. I am being critical but you’re carrying favors for the future. You’re writing checks that your kids and my kids and my grandkids are gonna have to pay for; I think this is tremendously wrong.
Download the full text of the interview below.