New SF District Attorney Gascón Must Put Up or Shut Up

by Randy Shaw on January 11, 2011

After arriving in San Francisco to serve as Police Chief in the summer of 2009, newly appointed San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón expressed outraged that the city was allowing the Uptown Tenderloin, a residential neighborhood located in the city’s center, to be used as a containment area for non-resident drug dealers. He vowed to change this, and soon achieved startling results. But Gascón was not interested in working with neighborhood groups to sustain this progress, and moved on to other priorities with his commitment to the Uptown Tenderloin still unmet. Gascón later expressed doubts about his ability to defeat the street drug trade, and some linked this to the “revolving door justice” in the city – drug dealers and violent street people who are arrested, booked, and then let back out on the streets within hours. Gascón now has the power to ensure that the District Attorney’s office works collaboratively with the police to end this pattern, with his election in November likely at stake.

Like others, I was surprised by San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón’s appointment as District Attorney. But Newsom had put out a press release a few days earlier praising Gascón for the city’s drop in violent crime, and the outgoing mayor has always liked poking the eye of what he perceives as the city’s liberal establishment.

I have been concerned about the city’s District Attorney’s office in recent months, feeling that it was not being held accountable for the pattern of revolving door justice regularly described by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Chuck Nevius. But there was no point raising the issue with new leadership on the way, and now George Gascón – whose police officers privately blame the DA’s office for not prosecuting street dealers – is in a position to make a difference.

Uptown Tenderloin Rhetoric v. Reality

I was very happy when after two months as Police Chief, George Gascón stated at a press conference that he would push to end rampant drug dealing in the Tenderloin: “People are fed up. There are enough statutes in the books to clean out this area.”

We’ve been making that same point for years, and now it seemed we had a Police Chief who agreed. Gascón publicly committed to preventing out of area drug dealers from using Uptown Tenderloin sidewalks as their place of business (stats have long showed that 99% of those arrested for dealing in the neighborhood are non-residents).

Nevius’ September 5, 2009 column details Gascón’s plans. District Attorney Kamala Harris offered strong backing for Gascón’s strategy, saying “it is time we sent a loud signal to drug dealers.”

Yet for a “huge fan” of community policing, Gascón had surprisingly little interest in working with local Uptown Tenderloin groups to reduce crime. He was not interested in meeting with leaders of the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefits District, and after I met him at an event and he gave me his cell phone and email, he never responded to my efforts to contact him.

Further, in April 2010, the Wall Street Journal described a “backlash” against Gascón’s Tenderloin strategy. Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Sheriff Mike Hennessey both questioned the cost of Gascón’s intensifying arrests and prosecutions in the area, and CBD leader Elaine Zamora raised concern that the effort was “unsustainable.” But Gascón remained firm: “Don’t ask me to not do my job because of budget cuts or a city agency [that] is short-staffed. This department has an obligation to stop criminal activity.”

But by the end of 2010, Gascón was singing a different tune. He said that jailing street dealers is like “paddling against the current,” and earlier announced efforts to address the rise in street level prescription drug sales by working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to go after doctors, pharmacies and patients with prescriptions.

Meanwhile, police officers in the Uptown Tenderloin are frustrated. They feel that their arrests of dealers and even those charged with violating stay away orders mean little, because they are released within hours.

This was the pattern that Gascón condemned soon after coming to San Francisco, and vowed to change.

Now its put up or shut up time for our new District Attorney. Gascón will now decide prosecutorial priorities, and he either fulfills his original pledge to prosecute those arrested in the Uptown Tenderloin to the full extent of the law or be exposed as a guy who makes headlines but lacks follow-up.

Gascón’s Political Future

While the Chronicle’s Nevius argues that Gascon is “the prohibitive front-runner to win the job in November,” the new District Attorney could be in for a tough fight. Here’s why.

First, as I wrote in the context of San Francisco mayoral elections over the past forty years, Gascón fails local voters’ familiarity test. He will run for District Attorney in a city where he has lived for only two years, where few know him personally, and where his outspoken views on many subjects –
tasers, sit-lie, immigration, the crime lab – has alienated voters from diverse constituencies.

Second, Gascón has never worked in the office he now heads (in fact, he has never even tried a criminal case), does not know its organizational culture, and is not the choice of Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose endorsement could be important in November. Harris has been a strong supporter of Paul Henderson, an experienced prosecutor who has helped run the District Attorney’s office and has grassroots support in the gay and progressive community (and unlike longtime Republican Gascón, Henderson is a Democrat).

Henderson has not announced his plans, but I would be surprised if he abandoned his projected run in the wake of Gascón’s appointment.

Third, Gascón could say or do something in the next six months that undermine his chances. After all, he has been very busy retracting controversial statements since coming to San Francisco, and no longer has Gavin Newsom to protect him.

If Gascon can reconcile the long warring police and district attorney offices, and get both to prioritize the street level violence and drug dealing that afflicts low-income neighborhoods and far too many commercial districts, he will easily win in November. But if continues to backtrack on commitments, and fails to match his innovative vision with effective actions, than he will be yet the latest example of a leader whose promises went unfulfilled.

Randy Shaw is Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Editor of Beyond Chron.

Filed under: Archive