Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón.

The Committee for Racial Justice hosted a virtual discussion

By Meera Sastry

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón took office this year with a host of promises that outlined his vision of a progressive prosecutor. As the featured guest of the June 6 installment of the Santa Monica Committee for Racial Justice’s monthly workshop series, Gascón outlined the work he has done to fulfill these promises — and the obstacles he continues to encounter as a DA seeking not only to improve but to transform the criminal justice system in LA.

Gascón spoke first of his successes, which number impressively but have not been without their opposition. “From the very beginning, we stopped the death penalty,” he said. “We stopped prosecuting children as adults. We put together a committee of lawyers, community members and people who have been affected by police violence to begin to take a look back at police shootings going back to 2012.”

These are just a few of the concrete examples Gascón gave as evidence for his office’s achievements: others included the shift away from cash bail that Gascón is directing; reforms in the response of law enforcement to mental health and addiction crises; and the implementation of restorative justice models, which addressed concerns some have had about Gascón’s prioritization for those who have been victims to crime.

But Gascón’s approach, which seeks both to minimize the punitiveness of the criminal justice system and to rethink the role of law enforcement in bringing people into this system, represents not only a change in policy but a change in mindset.

“We have begun to take a look at violence through a public health lens,” Gascón said. “We’re beginning to look not just simply at arrest and prosecution, but we’re looking at prevention, looking at intervention, looking for other vehicles to give community violence a holistic approach.”

This holistic approach also includes shifts away from cash bail and reforms in the way law enforcement responds to mental health and addiction concerns. It comes with the best interests of the community in mind — as his interviewers describe, unusually resolute in his prioritization of people over politics.

The discussion was hosted by the Committee for Racial Justice, a group formed in Santa Monica to tackle the issue of systemic racism with workshops, educational reform and protest actions. Many of the moderators, including lead moderator George Brown, also serve on the newly minted Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission, the first civilian oversight body for police in Santa Monica.

In addition to his summary of his office’s achievements during its first few months, Gascón was able to offer advice to the aforementioned Commission as well as answer community questions. Gascón spoke about dealing with complaints, internal investigations, and discipline within departments of law enforcement.

This advice comes backed by much experience, as Gascón has not only worked to investigate police conduct in LA, but has faced criticism himself, perhaps most notably from the LA County Sheriff. Though this opposition has progressed from injunctions on Gascón’s directives to now a campaign for a recall vote against him, Gascón responded to questions regarding these struggles, as well as his relationship to LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, with grace.

“This is about doing the right thing for the community,” Gascón said. “I am doing exactly what I said that I was going to do, and I will continue to do it so long as you [constituents] support me. A recall can only be successful if the community decides that it will be successful.”

Despite his determination, Gascón admitted that his office does not necessarily hold all the answers — because, to reform the office of the district attorney is also to reduce its footprint, as resources shift away from criminal justice and towards community support that treats the factors that lead to crime before it has a chance to arise.

“My office can play a role in that, but as a partner to you — to your city council, to agencies within the city of Santa Monica or other cities,” Gascón said. “Often for us, a partnership really means taking a step back so that others can come in to do the work.”

The meeting ended with Gascón’s advice not only for councils and committees, but for ordinary citizens as well, as he implored all present to continue educating their community and making their voices heard.

Those interested in joining this work through the forum of the Santa Monica Committee for Racial Justice can find out more through the committee’s social media pages on Facebook
@committeeforracialjustice or on Instagram @committee_for_racial_justice