Culturas Corner highlights individuals who make their community a better place through their work, business, volunteering or activism. Over the next few weeks, Culturas will feature newly-elected leadership in Los Angeles and across the nation. First up, we have Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón.
Will you start by telling us a little bit about yourself? Why did you decide to go into law enforcement in the first place, and why continue a decades-long career in it?
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you, Haley! I was born in Cuba in 1954 and although I have happy memories of my childhood, Fidel Castro’s regime made life increasingly difficult for my family. So, in 1967, my mother, father and I all secured seats on a “freedom flight” and immigrated to the United States. Soon thereafter, I found myself a mono-lingual, Spanish-speaking, 13-year-old kid in southeast Los Angeles. Living in a one-bedroom apartment in Cudahy with my parents, I struggled academically and eventually dropped out of high school to join the Army. I loved my time in the military and, in retrospect, the Army saved my life. I became disciplined, earned my high school diploma and took college courses. After completing my military service, I returned to Los Angeles to attend Cal State Long Beach to pursue a degree in history.
After graduating from college I joined the LAPD. I decided to go into law enforcement because I wanted to serve my community and promote public safety. Though I began as a beat cop, I eventually rose through the ranks to become Assistant Police Chief. During nights off, I pursued my law degree at Southwestern Law School. I then became police chief of Mesa, Arizona (2006-2009), followed by a stint as police chief of San Francisco (2009-2011). At this point, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed me San Francisco District Attorney, a position I spent nine years in (2011-2019), and won re-election for twice. I left this role in order to become district attorney of Los Angeles County.
Though I have now spent 40 years in law enforcement, my perspective has evolved significantly, shaping how I approach this work. Being in law enforcement has allowed me to see first-hand that our criminal justice system is fundamentally broken. For decades, we have prioritized punishment over rehabilitation and results. The result has been a system of mass incarceration plagued by stark racial disparities. At the same time, I have also come to understand the steps we can take to reimagine criminal justice, creating a system that is truly equitable and just. I have continued to be involved in law enforcement because I am now in a position to make sweeping changes in the largest county in America— implementing progressive criminal justice reform that I hope will influence other jurisdictions across California and the nation as a whole.
Why did you decide to come back to Los Angeles?
Well, as my term as San Francisco DA was winding down, my mom (who lives in LA) needed me to care for her. I am an only child. I had always hoped to return to Los Angeles anyway, and so this seemed like the right time. Once I announced I was coming home, I was contacted by various activists groups and community leaders in LA who, frustrated with then-DA Jackie Lacey, hoped I might consider running.
You’ve said you will issue a directive to stop seeking capital punishment on day one in office. What are your other top priorities and how will you execute?
In the hours after I was sworn in, I issued eight directives that, taken together, represent the biggest single shift in criminal justice policy in recent history. You can read all my directives here. I’ve made it clear that I will waste no time in transforming criminal justice in Los Angeles, and my day one directives are a giant step forward in executing my top priorities. My top priorities, broadly speaking, are to end mass incarceration, restore our communities, increase public safety and serve victims.
Unlike many other elected officials, the district attorney has the direct power to impact the criminal justice system. On day one, I banned prosecutors from seeking the death penalty and committed to sentencing those already on death row to life in prison. I began the process of ending the use of cash bail and banned the use of all sentence enhancements. I ended the practice of trying kids in adult court and committed to expanding the Conviction Integrity Unit to ensure that no one is held in prison for a crime they did not commit. With respect to victims, I have pledged that all victims of violent crime will be contacted by my office within 24 hours. I have ended cooperation requirements for victims to receive services and families of those killed by police will now receive victim services as well.
These new policies are a great start, but there is much more to come. Executing these directives will require a reallocation of resources and an office reorganization. This will take some time, but I am committed to translating this vision for a safer stronger Los Angeles into reality.
How will you maintain a solid relationship with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and what actions will you take to meet their expectations?
Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, like many other groups, is a critical partner in the journey ahead. In fact, just days after being declared DA-elect, I had an open community meeting with BLM-LA and families of those impacted by police violence. The entire meeting was streamed live on Facebook for anyone to watch.
Throughout my time in office, I will continue to host and attend community meetings and town halls. As I have said many times before, anyone who is willing to show up and do the work will have a seat at the table. As an elected official, I am committed to listening to the community and ensuring my office is transparent, forthcoming and responsive.
What is your favorite cultural memory?
This is a great question! A few years ago, I took my family on a trip to Cuba and got to show my family where I grew up. We walked all around Havana, had some great Cuban meals and toured the countryside. We even found my childhood home! While I’m not sure when I will visit Cuba next, I am always on the lookout for local Cuban food in Los Angeles— a little slice of home.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity. Know someone who should be featured on Culturas Corner? Nominate them here.