Recently, District Attorney George Gascon and his team visited with Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community and Justice 4 Mario Woods. The new grassroots organization founded by Phelicia Jones of SEIU 1021, who is also a co-founder/leader of other justice groups, hosted Gascon at the union headquarters in San Francisco.
The meeting lasted more than an hour. Gwen Woods, the mother of Mario Woods, who was slain by the San Francisco Police Department in 2015, and Dolores Piper, a parent of Derrick Gaines, who was slain by the South San Francisco Police Department in 2013, both addressed Gascon. About 50 activists and community members were present, some quite vocal.
Jones led off the discussion, citing the 2015 Civil Grand Jury Report that was critical of the District Attorney. Gascon responded that he agreed with the report and was addressing the issues it raised. During his introductory remarks, Gascon made a case that the new Use of Force Independent Investigation Unit, funded by the mayor and Board of Supervisors, will solve the problems of timely resolution.
Gascon was convincing, but he lost the crowd entirely with his comments on the Alex Nieto case. Gascon found the use of force against Nieto justified, which he said had been confirmed by the lower standard of proof in the civil trial that also exonerated the police officers
After clearing the backlog of some 20 officer-involved shootings, which should take a year, Gascon said he expects new cases, if any, to be resolved in 90 to 180 days. Gascon introduced the head of his new independent unit and a new lead prosecutor. Each spoke briefly, had a credible résumé and professed commitment to their new jobs.
Next, Gwen Woods spoke eloquently and at length about the reality of the public street execution of her son and the consequences for her and her family. She asked poignantly and repeatedly for accountability, insisting that she and her son were not thugs and animals. Throughout the meeting, Woods was a voice of moderation and respect.
After replies by the district attorney that many found unconvincing, the more militant activists had enough. Several became very vocal, speaking about white privilege, a pattern of evasions and a history of inconsequential and meaningless responses. Woods pleaded with Gascon to “just throw us a bone.”
The meeting was frustrating for both sides. Gascon may sincerely believe he is doing the best he can under difficult circumstances. The community has in the past, and will likely in the future, supported him for his good work on the Blue Ribbon Panel Report, for his strong pushback against the San Francisco Police Officers Association and for his attempt to create and resource an Independent Investigation Unit. But the community also feels that Gascon has not yet connected. He has swung and missed, over and over.
Gascon is doing a lot, but it is not enough. His interventions — the BRP Report, the POA pushback, the new II Unit — are steps in the right direction. But none of them are what he was elected to do, and all of them insulate him from personal and professional accountability by shifting responsibility elsewhere.
The BRP Report shifts responsibility to the SFPD, Police Commission and mayor. The pushback against the POA shifts responsibility to the police union. His support of Sen. Mark Leno’s bill reforming the Police Officers Bill of Rights — which failed — shifts responsibility to Sacramento. And the new II Unit shifts prosecutorial responsibility to a semi-independent body under his control, while also shifting the timeline at least one year into the future. To the grieving community, these seem like evasions of his obligations as a public servant. They also seem calculated.
The II Unit may be a good and necessary idea and an innovative solution to the national scandal of police impunity. Gascon argued that, as it now stands, an Assistant District Attorney who might be an expert on insurance fraud or violent crime with close ties to police is rotated into an officer-involved shooting case without the proper skills or independence from the very cops he or she works with every day. But institutional failings and resource issues are not the whole story.
There is also pervasive systemic racism and the lack of will on the part of district attorneys nationwide. And the community is outspoken that “time’s up.” More than 20 SFPD fatal shootings during Gascon’s tenure have gone unprosecuted, with justifiable homicide the ruling in all. That bloody, ugly fact is an affront to the mothers, the families and their allies. Gascon has made his choices. It is doubtful he will be the courageous prosecutor I wrote about in a previous opinion piece. More’s the pity because that public servant will see his or her career skyrocket.
However, at a minimum, Gascon should rapidly, with single-minded purpose, implement the semi-independent prosecution unit he has created. He should expend whatever political capital is necessary to get a robust Memorandum of Understanding with the SFPD that allows the new unit to be free of police interference in shooting and in brutality cases that don’t result in death, and to get the funding he needs from Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors. He should also drastically shorten his timeline, so that the new unit completes the charging letter for the cases of Amilcar Perez-Lopez and Mario Woods by a date certain in the first quarter of 2017. With resources he now has, this is doable.
In short, now that he’s decided to pass the buck, Gascon should pass it quickly. Because the community is exhausted with the dance of the politicos and ready to take far more drastic action. And because, if there is another SFPD street execution, San Francisco may explode.
David Carlos Salaverry is one of the founders of San Franciscans for Police Accountability.