Gavin Newsom's appointment of his police chief, George Gascón, as district attorney wasn't just a slap in the face to the D.A.'s office, it reversed a long tradition in which the city's top prosecutors have pledged their opposition to the death penalty. It broke an unwritten rule that the district attorney should have some independence from the Police Department. And it suggests that Newsom's decision was about his own future and not about San Francisco's.
Gascón, who has a law degree from Western State University in Fullerton, has been a member of the state bar since 1996 and has handled labor and bankruptcy cases for a year and a half. But he's never prosecuted a criminal case.
He still believes he has the necessary organizational skills. "Running a D.A.'s office is not the same as prosecuting cases on the floor," he said at his Jan.9 swearing-in.
He sees the D.A. post as a way to build closer relationships between various law enforcement agencies, including the police department and the public defender's office. "We have to find a way to bring law enforcement together," Gascón said.
But so far the response to his appointment in those circles has been less than favorable, even though City Attorney Dennis Herrera issued a press release praising Gascón's help in moving ahead with gang injunctions in Visitacion Valley.
Attorney Elliot Beckelman, who worked in the D.A.'s office until a few months ago, said people in the office were stunned because no one thought Gascón was a good candidate. "It's like taking a lawyer who has been working for 20 years, and has done a stint as the D.A., and graduated from the police academy, and appointing them as police chief when they never worked as a police officer, arrested anyone, or saw a dead body," he said.
Beckelman said he wonders if Gascón's Jan. 9 comment that he is not "philosophically opposed to the death penalty" indicates that Newsom picked him to boost his own popularity with law enforcement groups and improve his chances at getting elected to higher office.
"It's very cynical to make your final political move one that disassociates you from San Francisco, but it's a big move nationally in terms of where Newsom hopes to land five moves from now," Beckelman said. "It's a politician appointing another politician."
Former District Attorney Terence Hallinan said Gascón's appointment was stupid. "Maybe it's Gavin's comeback after gay marriage to appoint someone who will say, 'Okay, let's kill people.' But this is not a well-thought-out move," he said. "OK, Gascón's a lawyer, but he has never practiced law. The D.A. and the police work together, yes, but you have to try a lot of cases before you work out which are worth prosecuting and which deputies to assign.
'It's the responsibility of the D.A.'s office to supervise the police," he added.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi notes that the choice of Gascon' has energized this fall's D.A.'s race , when Gascón will have to stand for election to keep his new job. "What was a sleepy race looks like it will take center stage" Adachi said. "Other candidates are now outsiders and will have to distinguish themselves."
One such opportunity could arise if Gascón seeks the death penalty in the coming year. Matt Gonzalez, who was the first candidate to oppose the death penalty when he ran against then-D.A. Terence Hallinan, said he thinks Gascón's views on the death penalty should have eliminated him. "That alone should have made him ineligible. This is a step backward."
Gonzalez thinks Gascón's appointment trivializes what the D.A.'s office does. "This was a real opportunity to pick a professional prosecutor who was familiar with the office and knew San Francisco," he said. "Instead, this is like me thinking I should be police chief because I've seen a lot of fingerprints."
Adachi worries that little is known about Gascón's legal abilities. "He does not have a track record in terms of felony and homicide experience," he said. "That's not to say he wouldn't run the office well, but it leaves us without an important knowledge base. He does bring many years of experience as a police officer, but the responsibilities are very different."
Adachi observes that while police bring cases to the D.A. based on probable cause, the D.A. reviews those cases and only brings cases that are deemed justified. "But will Gascón file more cases for the sake of wanting to justify arrests by the police?" Adachi mused.