You can bet an already nasty District Attorney’s race is about to get more volatile when candidates start using videos of police shootings to score political points.
The battle between incumbent Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey and former San Francisco DA George Gascón was shaping up to be a referendum on police accountability even before protests against the killing of George Floyd made reform the consensus position. With Democratic lawmakers now embracing a more limited role for law enforcement in Los Angeles, both Mayor Eric Garcetti and Congressman Adam Schiff have walked back their previous endorsements of Lacey, the law-and-order pick who’s been lambasted for not charging more police officers accused of misconduct.
The shift in political winds has favored Gascón, a Cuban-American former assistant LAPD chief and district attorney of San Francisco who resigned the latter post last year to enter the Los Angeles D.A. race, positioning himself as a reformer on the issue of police accountability. Although Gascón finished 20 points behind Lacey in the March primary, his campaign has regrouped and is believed to be gaining ground.
It was only a matter of time before a supporter of Lacey’s more steadfast than Schiff or Garcetti did something aimed at diminishing Gascón’s glow. The challenger is now under fire, and the attack is being spearheaded by someone he used to work for: former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Bernard Parks.
“Gascon has positioned himself as a candidate as a reformer on the issue of police accountability,” Parks says in an opinion column published June 25 in the Los Angeles Sentinel. “The problem is, that his record simply does not match his rhetoric.”
The timing of the L.A. Sentinel column coincides with the rollout of “Just Ask George,” a new attack ad from the Lacey campaign. “George Gascón wants you to think he’s a reformer,” the ad says. “Truth is, he’s not.”
Gascón, 66, has credited his experience as a cop in the Watts neighborhood in the 1990s with convincing him that police reform was necessary. But the 76-year-old Parks labels Gascón’s claims “fraudulent” and calls him “a political opportunist.”
Showing how weeks of mass protests have transformed the political landscape of the race, Lacey and her supporters are evoking the national anthem protests of Colin Kaepernick to attack Gascón. As San Francisco DA, Gascón declined to prosecute five San Francisco officers who shot and killed 26-year-old Mario Woods in 2015. The shooting is reportedly what prompted Kaepernick, then the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, to begin kneeling before games in protest of police brutality and injustice.
The 75-second digital ad includes dramatic video of Woods’s shooting. San Francisco prosecutors said Woods had a knife, and Gascón determined that the police use of deadly force, though not “necessary,” was “reasonable.”
In his Sentinel column, Parks, who was chief of the Police Department between 1997 and 2002 and was the second Black person ever to hold the post, focuses the brunt of his attack on the time Gascón was a commander of the LAPD in the late 1990s. He claims that Gascón had a reputation in the department for going easy on officers accused of misconduct. “During my time as Police Chief, it was widely known that officers, accused of misconduct, would routinely select George Gascon as a member of their disciplinary boards because they knew he had a reputation for leniency,” Parks says.
The ad, which quotes from the L.A. Sentinel column, was still under embargo when I spoke to Max Szabo, a spokesman for Gascón. Szabo told me the Gascón campaign would take a lecture on police accountability with a grain of salt “coming from the guy that got tossed out of office because of the Rampart scandal.” That particular scandal involved widespread police corruption in an anti-gang unit of the LAPD Rampart Division in the late 1990s, and was partly why Mayor James K. Hahn did not rehire Parks as chief in 2002.
The former chief, who later served three terms as a Los Angeles councilman for District 8, blames Gascón for a shooting controversy from 21 years ago. In 1999, LAPD Officer Wayne Cespedes shot and killed 56-year-old Gus Woods when Woods was standing more than 20 feet away, holding what the officer said he perceived was a knife but wasn’t. “The LAPD officer shot Mr. Woods twice, killing him, despite the fact that Mr. Woods was more than 20 feet away, holding only a small metal rod,” Parks writes.
Parks recommended that the shooting be found out of policy, noting that the officer was concealed behind his car door when he fired and Woods appeared intoxicated and was standing too far away to be considered a threat. The civilian panel that oversees the Police Department agreed. But the disciplinary review board, headed by Gascón, found Cespedes not guilty.
“The board based its decision, in part, on a video Cespedes had been shown while he was a patrol officer,” the Times reported in 2004. “A sergeant who is a use-of-force expert at the Police Academy testified that several officers who had been shown the video at training sessions in the early 1990s walked away from it with the impression that any suspect who was armed with an edged weapon, such as a knife, and who came within 21 feet represented a threat justifying the use of deadly force.”
Parks saw the outcome differently. “Gascon hid behind a flimsy defense, claiming that the officer was acting on his memories of a ten-year-old training session, which counseled officers that anyone with a knife within 21 feet represented a threat that would justify the use of deadly force,” Parks said. “To this day the tape from this training has never been established as an officially approved LAPD training tape and is contrary to the LAPD use of force policy.”
Gascón spokesman Szabo dismisses the story as Parks dredging up a decades-old controversy to settle a political score on behalf of Lacey, whose re-election the former chief wholeheartedly endorses. According to Szabo, Gascón was the only law enforcement official in the state to advocate for a stricter standard for when police may use force. “Mr. Gascón asked every prosecutor in California to join him in supporting the law, DA Lacey responded in a letter that she was ‘evaluating,'” he says.
As for the claims of former Chief Parks, Szabo says, “I’m not going to comment on decades-old allegations from a former councilman and chief of police who implemented policies that were adversarial to the communities he purports to speak for.”
Los Angeles activists are angry over Lacey’s handling of police shootings. One shooting that has been a recurrent subject of criticism is the 2015 shooting of an unarmed homeless man named Brendon Glenn in Venice. Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck recommended that the district attorney charge the officer who killed Glenn, but prosecutors disagreed, determining it was reasonable for the officer to believe Glenn was reaching for the officer’s partner’s gun. If Lacey won’t charge an LAPD officer after the chief calls for it, critics asked, then when will she prosecute?
Despite Black Lives Matter’s well-organized movement to see Lacey unseated, the 63-year-old prosecutor is not ready to cede the mantle of criminal justice reform to Gascón.
Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., predicted in February that Lacey would resist efforts to paint her into a corner as an out-of-touch, lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key prosecutor. “She would certainly contest the notion that she’s conservative, but the challenge is coming from the progressive side,” Sonenshein said.
Asked for comment, Lacey again points to Gascón’s record on police misconduct, and suggests that the public’s ire has been misdirected. “As an African American woman, I’ve taken on systemic racism my entire life,” she says. “That’s why—in reality—this effort is pointed at the wrong person. The fact is my office has filed criminal charges against more than 200 law enforcement officers for murder, sexual assault, domestic violence, and financial fraud. Just ask George why his rhetoric doesn’t match his record.”
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