In the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, we witnessed an outpouring of grief and support. We have also begun a long-overdue conversation about police & community interaction, most notably concerning the use of violence by police officers towards people of color. As an African American man and a former Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, I welcome this conversation and believe that much good can arise from this discussion. We are all now engaged in the search for effective policies that address these systemic injustices that are deeply embedded within our society and criminal justice system. It is more important than ever that the people with experience in listening to their communities and enacting meaningful change are filling our elected roles.
Based on my personal experiences and by analyzing his problematic and worrisome record it is clear to me that Los Angeles County District Attorney candidate George Gascon is not one of those people. Gascon has positioned himself as a candidate as a reformer on the issue of police accountability. The problem is, that his record simply does not match his rhetoric. His claims should be exposed as fraudulent and he should be labeled as a political opportunist who should not be trusted by the people of Los Angeles.
In 1999, when I was serving as LA’s police chief, I was horrified to read the details of an officer shooting case involving the death of a 56-year-old African American man, Gus Woods. 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.
I noted that the original radio call specifically stated the suspect appeared to be intoxicated and/or possibly mentally ill. Upon arrival, the officer partially concealed himself behind his car door, while his partner retrieved the bean bag weapon from the trunk. There was no evidence that the suspect presented an immediate threat of death or imminent danger. I supported the findings of the Department’s Use of Force Board (UOF) and recommended to the Police Commission that the shooting be found out of policy. The Board of Police Commissioners, by City Charter, is the final authority on these policy matters and adjudicated the shooting as out of policy. They believed the officer was not in immediate danger and had more than enough time to assess and evaluate alternatives rather than using deadly force on Mr. Gus Woods.
This matter was sent to a Board of Rights, for disciplinary evaluation. Then, Commander George Gascon was selected by the accused officer to be part of this disciplinary review board. George Gascon, acting as Board Chairperson, rejected the Commission’s findings and instead, inexplicably found the officer not guilty.
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. 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.
The truth is that Gascon has a reputation for going easy on officers involved in disciplinary cases. 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.
Gascon’s actions were totally inconsistent with the direction I was taking the department. During that time, I fired 140 problem police officers; the most in LAPD history. Part 1 and violent crimes dropped over 30%. Officer-involved shootings dropped 44%. And, non-lethal use of force cases dropped 18%.
Gascon’s record in San Francisco on this issue is equally as questionable. During his only full year as Police Chief, officer-involved shootings spiked from the year prior from five to eleven.
As District Attorney Gascon, again failed to live up to his promise to hold bad cops accountable. He was not successful in prosecuting any officers involved in the death of a civilian.
The powerful image of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee was in direct response to the shooting of Mr. Mario Woods. Despite nationwide attention and calls for action, Gascon declined to prosecute Mr. Woods’ killer. When protesters showed up at Gascón’s house in response to this case, Gascón, on news video, showed his opinion of the seriousness of the situation (https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/sf-district-attorney-files-restraining-order-against-protesters/63725/”by throwing watermelon at the protestors and then filing a restraining order against them).
More recently, in 2018 the San Francisco Department of Police Accountability found that the officer who shot and killed Jessica Williams in 2016 should have been terminated. Gascon declined to file charges against the officers in contradiction to the findings of the Police Department.
Gascon claims he represents change in the D.A.’s office, but records show that, while serving as the San Francisco DA, he routinely sought the advice of Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey’s office on how to proceed with cases involving officer’s excessive use of force. This comes as no surprise for someone who has no experience as a trial lawyer.
The stakes are too high to take a chance on someone who will do plenty of talking but has never shown a willingness to act. It is clear to me that George Gascon lacks the legal experience and the ability to bring people together to deliver the measured reforms that we need to make the city & county a safer and fairer place. Further, Gascon demonstrates massive hypocrisy in calling for reforms and action in places where he has only shown the most retrograde and conservative of policies himself.
I am proud to support Jackie Lacey to be reelected so that she can continue her fine work as DA. She and her diverse team have tackled the biggest cases and made significant inroads on everything from addressing mental health issues in our criminal justice system to safeguarding children from human trafficking. It is more important than ever that we choose a leader with substance and a record of achievement over shallow rhetoric and broken promises.
Bernard Parks was the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department from 1997 to 2003. He served on the Los Angeles City Council representing the 8th District from 2003 to 2015. He recently retired from his role after nearly 50 years of public service. Parks holds a B.S. from Pepperdine University and an M.P.A from the University of Southern California.