One brave district attorney wanted: To break the police accountability deadlock

A recent in-depth article in The New York Times on Marilyn Mosby is a cautionary tale. Prosecutors who charge police for excessive use of force are the targets of right-wing extremists, of Republicans, of conservative radio talkers and of well-funded police unions. And sadly, of their erstwhile allies and supporters when things don’t go well.

If you’re a district attorney and you press charges — even in the case of Freddie Gray, an African-American man whose spine was severed on a brutal, handcuffed “nickel joy ride” in the steel cage of a police van — then get ready for a pile on. Even if you are only half-aware of what you’re in for, it takes courage to prosecute killer cops.

Mosby had courage in spades. But what she may have lacked was the experience, strategy and thoroughness to get convictions within the context of a police cover-up.

Mosby is now under attack herself, the defendant in a wrongful prosecution case brought by vindictive Baltimore police unions who want to make an example of her. This looks like a judicial lynching, meant to teach other prosecutors with the temerity to prosecute police a hard lesson: Don’t mess with cops.

But it’s a lesson that must be unlearned if we’re going to stop the dizzying march of the police snuff videos. We can, we will and we must unlearn the lesson of police impunity.

How? By one brave district attorney following Mosby — but winning.

Police unions have no magic elixir to pour into the defense of indefensible extrajudicial executions of people of color. Police unions have no enchanted fairy dust with which to blind courts and juries when a cop goes on trial for murder.

What they do have is three things: money, the system and friendly juries. Police unions can pay for the very best lawyers, lots of them. They have a criminal justice system and judges tilted historically toward cops. And they have a jury pool that is mostly police-friendly. But these are challenges, not impossible obstacles. It will take only one courageous, shrewd and seasoned prosecutor to break the impasse. We believe George Gascon is the man, and San Francisco is the city to do it.

Unlike Mosby, Gascon is experienced. He was the former police chief of San Francisco after a career as a cop. He was hired as the San Francisco Police Department top cop as an outsider to clean up the department and began that work. Gascon knows the SFPD inside and out. But there’s more.

Unlike Mosby, who had only the one case against the killers of Gray to prosecute, Gascon has an excess of prosecutorial riches. Into his lap has fallen not one, not two, nor three but four high-profile SFPD shooter cases.

Amilcar Perez-Lopez was executed with six shots to the back in the Mission on Feb. 26, 2015. Mario Woods was executed by what Supervisor Malia Cohen described as a “diverse firing squad” of five cops on Dec. 2, 2015, and it’s on video. Luis Demitrio Gongora Pat was executed by two cops within 30 seconds of stepping out of their patrol car on April 17, 2016. Jessica Nelson Williams, pregnant and homeless, was shot in the belly on May 19, 2016, by a cop who has a long sordid history of abuse.

So Gascon has four bites at the apple. But there is still more.

Gascon also has San Francisco. We are a city that prides itself on its social progressivism, that celebrates diversity and that has been profoundly shocked by the racist texts messages we read, by the drumbeat killings of people of color in our streets and by the impunity that we are finally seeing for what it is: a shameful reflection of how far we are from our professed ideals.

We are a city of activists, protesters, bullhorn-wielders and organizers with plenty of radicalism still in our aging bones. We’ve got the justice coalitions. We’ve got the White Coats — the UCSF Do No Harm Coalition. We had the Frisco Five and Frisco 500 — political startups who took The City by storm.

In the very near future, we are going to have an upwelling of tech workers, students, soccer moms and creatives joining the ranks of the Enough is Enough crowd. Because enough really is enough. We’re sick to death of the street executions in our name, by the dark underbelly of racism in our police department and the impunity for the killers.

Recently, at the Board of Supervisors special hearing on Gascon’s Blue Ribbon Panel Report, the entire people’s house came on board. They, too, are fed up with the POA — with the bullying, baiting, dodging and weaving — and are ready to pull up their collective sleeves and get to work on transformative reform. And while Gascon’s BRP report is a step in the right direction, it does not absolve him of his duty as a prosecutor.

As if all this isn’t enough, we had the Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Report released to great fanfare, with Mayor Ed Lee, Interim Chief Toney Chaplin and Director Ron Davis all saying publicly that transformational change is happening and that San Francisco will be the national example.

At this point, Gascon has a tidal wave at his back. All he needs to do is get on his surfboard and ride the wave.

So Gascon, who is not lacking in imagination and hopefully not lacking courage, will soon see that he truly is next in line. In line to carry on from where Mosby left off. In line to press charges. In line to prosecute with care and precision. And out of four at-bats, to score at least one home run even if he walks, or outs the other three.

If Gascon takes the challenge, he will have a city and a nation at his back. And if he doesn’t, he will soon be dining alone on a dish of personal dishonor and community scorn.

David Carlos Salaverry is one of the founders of San Franciscans for Police Accountability.

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