From High School Dropout to Police Chief to DA's Office
August 3 , 2010 4:50 PM
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón opens a worn, metallic-beige cardboard suitcase. He studies a yellow National Airlines ticket stub from Cuba to Miami, and inspects a red stub for Miami to Los Angeles.
"I'm not sure what I feel looking at this," said Gascón, San Francisco's first Latino district attorney. "My mother was going to throw it out years ago, and I caught it just at the last moment.I said, 'You can't throw this out. This is so much of the history of what we are all about.' "
His eyes welling with emotion, Gascón added, "Basically, this represented our flight to freedom.''
The year was 1967, and Gascón, then 13, carried the cardboard suitcase with his mom, Maria, and dad, Marcos, on a flight from Havana. They had nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a change of underwear in the suitcase.
Gascón's path to the district attorney's office was hardly direct. He was a high school dropout who thrived at work. He spent three years in the Army, where he found the mentors he never had in school. He gave up a lucrative job in the private sector to return to community policing, and earned his law degree while working 6o hours a week as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department.
"Nothing about George's trajectory, about the arc of his career, is direct, but it's a case where the universe puts you where you are supposed to be,'' said Sergio Diaz, chief of the Riverside Police Department, who has known Gascón since the two were teenagers in Los Angeles. "George is one of the most principled people I know.''
Diaz, who had emmigrated from Cuba about six years before Gascón, believes that his friend was drawn to law enforcement because of his early exposure to a "totalitarian regime, a cult of personality and an intolerance for any dissenting point of view."
Father jailed in Cuba
The Cuba of Gascón's youth was defined by Fidel Castro's overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and Castro's Communist rule. Gascón's father, a mechanic, watched as Castro's promises of free elections never materialized, and as friends, neighbors and relatives were incarcerated or executed for daring to speak out against the system.
"My uncle, a union organizer in Havana, was arrested and spent years in prison," Gascón said, sitting in a conference room next to his office at the Hall of Justice. "My dad was arrested and only got out of jail because he was someone the government needed.They had a beer brewery, and my dad knew how to fix it. But people were detained for months, and no explanation was given."
After a failed attempt to leave the island in a small boat in 1966, the Gascón family - along with thousands of others - was permitted to leave on a "Freedom Flight," approved by President Lyndon Johnson and paid for by the U.S government, after Castro declared that any "antirevolutionary" Cuban wishing to leave the island was free to do so.
"When the government learned you were going to leave, they would come to your home and inventory all of your things," Gascón recalled. "They literally counted plates and cups, and it all had to be there when you left.It all was owned by the government."
Gascón remembers asking his mother why the family needed a suitcase when they were not allowed to bring anything with them.
"My mother, who was very naive, said, 'When people travel in airplanes, at least in the movies, they always have a suitcase.' We had one set of underwear for each of us."
The Gascóns arrived in Miami and were given $1oo by Catholic Charities, and plane tickets to Los Angeles.Within one week of settling in Cudahy, a small, blue-collar town in southeastern Los Angeles County, both parents had full-time jobs working in nearby factories. George Gascón started at South Gate Junior High in November 1969, and months went by before any of his teachers realized he didn't understand English.
"My aunt had given me an English-to-Spanish dictionary, and I would try to use that to do my homework," Gascón said with a laugh. "I was failing and sitting in class not understanding what was being said.One day a teacher just started yelling and screaming at me, and I couldn't figure out what he was saying.
"He was a large man, and he was getting very red. I turned and asked a girl next to me - she spoke Spanish- what he was saying.The girl said, 'He thinks you're using LSD.' I had no idea what LSD was, and she started laughing.She then explained that I didn't speak English, and the teacher got very apologetic."
Gascón was then transferred to a school for English language learners. He completed middle school, but started skipping classes in high school. He'd show up, jump the fence and head to the beach to surf, and soon dropped out entirely. Gascón was a dropout, but not a delinquent.
"I started working very early on bagging groceries at a supermarket," said Gascón, who is 59."I was a big kid. I lied about my age. My parents left for work early in the morning and came home late at night and had no clue I wasn't in school. Starting in 11th grade, I didn't go to class at all I was learning English outside of school. I was working at the store 25 hours a week and making what my dad made working 40 hours a week. I went from box boy to stock clerk and, in the evening when the manager wasn't there, I'd handle the store."
Gascón had confidence he would somehow find his way. "School was just not fun," he said, "and I felt I was going to make it some other way."
Hollywood patrol is 'fun'
That other way started with the Army, where he enlisted after turning 18. He quickly became the youngest sergeant in his brigade, and earned his high school degree while simultaneously taking college extension courses. After earning a four-year degree in history from Cal State Long Beach, Gascón landed a job as a patrol officer in the Hollywood division.
"It was incredibly fun," Gascón said. "You had the full spectrum of crime, from the working class and poor and Sunset Boulevard to the Hollywood Hills." He was making $34,000 a year as a police officer when he landed a part-time job selling cars at a Ford dealership. He was married to a woman he met while in Germany, and the two had two daughters (now ages 30 and 28).
Before long, he became the sales manager at the dealership, and was making $9o,ooo a year.The money was so good that he eventually scaled back his police work to focus on the car business.
"After about four years of working at the dealership, I went back to my wife and said, 'I'm not really happy. We're making a great living, but I really want to go back to policing.' "
To do so, Gascón had to lease out their home and move back in with his parents.
"My dad built an apartment over his home and we lived there," Gascón said. "I really concentrated on police work, and then started law school at Western State University College of Law in Orange County in 1992."
After earning his law degree, Gascón practiced law during the day and worked for the Police Department at night.It didn't take long before he was named a captain in the LAPD, then a commander, and finally, he was promoted to deputy chief, assistant chief and chief of operations. Gascón's career in law enforcement took a political turn in 2006, when he became the chief of the Mesa, Ariz., Police Department, and found himself squaring off against local Sheriff Joe Arpaio and anti-immigrant groups.
"Arpaio had these 'crime suppression' sweeps to pick up undocumented immigrants, and it all got to be very contentious," Gascón said. "Pro-immigrant groups came up and demonstrated against anti-immigrant groups. A lot of motorcyclists showed up. Arizona is an open carry state, so a lot of people were carrying guns."
In 2009, Mayor Gavin Newsom - aware of Gascón's work in law enforcement and his defense of immigrant rights - appointed Gascón as San Francisco's police chief. Gascón held the post for two years before Newsom appointed him as district attorney, succeeding Kamala Harris, who had been elected state attorney general. Gascón was elected as district attorney in November 2011, winning more than 62 percent of the vote.
"As district attorney, you are looking at how to deal with a crime once it has occurred," Gascón said. "What does prosecution look like? But because you are an elected official, you can also look at the larger issues affecting criminal justice. In the end, as DA, I decide who gets prosecuted and how they get prosecuted."
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told The Chronicle that Gascón is "the only police chief in the nation to become an elected district attorney, and brings 30 years of law enforcement experience and a unique approach to public safety and reform." Pelosi also marveled at Gascón's path to becoming district attorney. "His remarkable journey from high school dropout to police chief to being the first Latino district attorney of San Francisco is an inspiration to young people and the diverse communities of our city."
Gascón, whose silver hair spikes errantly at the top of his head- a pattern of wild strands that surfaced in childhood, prompting his mother to smooth the strands with Vaseline- has a shy smile and polite manner.
He is guarded about his private life - declining, for example, to even give the year of his divorce from his first wife - but says he is happily remarried to Fabiola Kramsky, a vivacious television reporter and Emmy-winning news anchor of a morning show on Univision's local Spanish language station, KDTV.The two live in San Francisco's Ingleside district, and like to go on hikes on the weekend. Gascón, a self described "car nut," drives a Mercedes soo CLS.
'Restorative justice model'Gascón's approach to law enforcement is a "restorative justice model." He explained, "We are looking to repair the harm instead oflooking to punish."
For low-level offenders, Gascón has focused on establishing neighborhood courts, where victims face perpetrators. He has paid special attention to elder abuse, securing convictions in more than 95 percent of such cases.And he has focused on issues affecting youth, working with public schools to identify troubled kids before crimes occur.
But, Gascón noted, "When you are dealing with violent crimes, there's a dividing line. When you are hurting people physically, we pay a whole different level of attention.When there's violence, we go after them hard. Some people are evil and need to be separated from the rest of us."
The challenge, Gascón went on, "is that in the past, we've taken a whole bunch of people and put them all in this one bucket.If you put someone who is in the mid-level or low level (of crime) and nrix them with the more violent ones, they in fact become more violent." To try to separate the groups, Gascón's office is working to come up with predictive analytics based on data collected about cases prosecuted.He wants to identify "10 key indicators of predictive behavior" to target interventions.
"The goal is to start identifying how we reduce recidivism," Gascón said, noting that he is working with people in private industry to create customized risk assessment tools.
Standing up to look out the window at the street scene below, with police cars lined up and an assortment of people milling about on the steps, Gascón said, "I think what I really enjoy about policing is that you make a difference in a real way under really tough circumstances."
He added, "Part of it stems from where I came from. As a young kid I viewed the police as oppressors. I believe in the saying, 'Do no evil,' and also in stepping in where other people are unwilling to do so. And I believe in doing that in a way that makes a difference in someone's life."