In 2016, Trump promised to “drain the swamp”. Working-class Americans, tired of being ignored by politicians not listening to their concerns, voted out incumbents at any cost, never looking at Trump’s history of sexism, race baiting, incompetence and corruption. The same happened in 2020 in LA’s District Attorney race. Angelenos, frustrated at a DA that refused to hear their concerns, voted out Jackie Lacey and voted in George Gascón. And like Trump, Gascón, gave the appearance of being an outsider with a fresh voice; in this case promising to address police misconduct. Like Trump voters, Angelenos, never actually saw Gascón’s record and how crime in San Francisco (SF) rose during his tenure. According to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, in 2018, Gascón’s last year as the DA in SF, was near last in arrests, resulting in crime being near twice the US average, > 95% of all cities, the third highest in violent crime and the highest property crime. Angelenos also never saw Gascón’s history of corruption, silencing whistleblowers, his hidden disciplinary records as a police officer, and his history of dropping the most serious charges against police — all reflect anything but reform.
When Trump first took office, he promised reform but instead destroyed US institutions from within, bringing in unqualified people who did him favors, including his friends and relatives, elevating them to the highest positions. He chased out competent public servants in the Departments of State, Education, Housing, Defense, and Environmental Protection, among others, destabilizing government. Instead of serving the public, institutions served special interests, fake colleges, and chronic polluters. Even our national security apparatus can no longer defend the US from foreign powers; Russia has had access to our most sensitive systems and data for more than half a year now.
Gascón played right from Trump’s playbook and promoted a person that had only 2 years’ experience and a literal handful of minor trials to be the second highest ranking member- the Chief Deputy. Joseph Iniguez’s main qualification appears to be that he also ran for DA, but dropped out, and gave his endorsement to Gascón. Iniguez is not qualified to be Chief Deputy; he has never run a serious violent felony trial and cannot advise on murder trials, procedure or complex cases. Gascón’s actions have all the appearance of a quid-pro-quo–“drop out of the race and endorse me, and I will promote you”.
Gascón further sought to undermine the DA’s office by making public that he would fire Deputy District Attorneys (DDAs), but to his dismay could not, since they do not work for him but for the County of Los Angeles. This was what he did in SF — got rid of all the people who actually prosecute the murderers, abusers, and rapists that plague our poorest communities. The result in SF was a dysfunctional DA’s office, where the prosecution of violent felons collapsed. Gascón chased out ~45% of the Deputy District attorneys in his last term as DA and now there are more homicides waiting for trial older than 4 years than any other county.
This last week, it was recently uncovered that Gascón offered a sweetheart deal — 7 years for a gang execution of an innocent bystander. The reason for the deal was that the public defender on that case took a position to work for DA Gascón. If it were not for the Honorable Judge Arnold who refused to entertain such a deal, the family of Fernando Rojo, would have no justice.
Gascón’s indifference to victims is routine, even going so far as to publicly insult grieving family members; but equally egregious is how he treats those in his office. In an interview Gascón named his own DDAs, those that disagree with him, as “terrorists”. LA has the largest community of people of Middle Eastern ancestry in the US. The label terrorist is the gravest insult, used as a form of race baiting and intimidation; such language inspires so many hate attacks in the US that the FBI tracks them. Gascón is supposed to serve as the symbol of protecting LA against hate, but instead, like Trump, uses rhetoric that does just the opposite.
Gascón’s behavior, like Trump, threatens the very foundation of our system of justice. He has threatened his own DDA’s and demanded that they withhold the truth in court or be disciplined; this has been stated in open court. Judges across LA refused Gascón’s directives noting that they are “not in the interest of justice”. A number of news outlets reported that Gascón has also colluded with public defenders (PDs) to work against his own deputies, including engaging in intimidation tactics. This demands investigation by the FBI’s public corruption outfit. The DA cannot collude with the PDs. It violates the rights of the accused. Our system rests upon a defense and prosecution that is independent of each other- this is the only way to ensure a fair trial for all.
Why should the country care what happens in LA? LA is the largest prosecutorial department in the US. What happens there affects us all. A more important question, is LA going to wait four years to see how much more damage Gascón can do? The country saw how that went with Trump. Whatever one’s politics, there is growing recognition that Gascón, like Trump, is a Trojan horse. A grassroots recall effort is underway, only weeks after his election. In a historical first for the US, the Deputy District Attorneys for LA filed a lawsuit and injunction to stop thier own DA Gascón from forcing them to break the law.
The public wanted reform, not corruption. People want each case to be treated with the care and respect it deserves, to protect the victim’s and the accused’s rights. Americans wants an end to abuse, whether by domestic abuse in the home, police or other. To simply say that all people should be let out of jail or all murders are the same, or all crimes, regardless of motivation or likelihood of future violence, deserve the same charges and sentences, is unfair, unjust, and dangerous. It is not reform, it is not good for LA and it is not good for the country.
Bio: Pete Hatemi is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, at Penn State University. He spent an important part of his childhood in LA, his family is there, and he cares deeply about the community, the beauty and diversity of Los Angeles, and the freedoms and rights of all peoples. In the spirit of transparency his brother is a Deputy District Attorney of Los Angeles.
Standard Disclaimer: The analyses, thoughts, suggestions, or experiences here reflect my own and not those of the US government, Penn State, or any organization I currently work for, have in the past, or will in the future.