As a teenage immigrant from Cuba who spoke only faltering English, George Gascon was advised by a teacher to focus on shop class, not academics.
As an Army veteran, he was warned by skeptics that a college degree wouldn’t come easily, especially working full time. And as he rose through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, colleagues scoffed at his ambition to earn a law degree.
Gascon, who now runs the LAPD’s daily operations, didn’t listen to any of them.
He received his high school equivalency degree in the military, undergraduate history degree while working in sales, and his law degree while policing Los Angeles streets.
Along the way, Gascon won the admiration of many of his colleagues, Chief William J. Bratton, his young daughters and the dozens of organizations whose awards adorn the walls of the assistant chief’s Parker Center office.
In a place of honor is a framed copy of a school essay by one of his daughters about the person she most admires: her dad.
“I look up to him because he didn’t listen when people told him he could not do something,” she wrote.
Gascon is proud of the essay, and proud of his own father, now living in Los Angeles, who he says taught him how to battle the odds.
One of Gascon’s earliest memories is of his dad being arrested for anti-Castro agitation. An uncle, a labor organizer, spent 20 years in a Cuban prison, Gascon said. His father fled with his family to Los Angeles 37 years ago, taking nothing but the clothes on their backs and one cardboard suitcase.
When Gascon took over the LAPD’s daily operations this year, he brought a reputation for success. His accomplishments include a new pursuit policy that ended chases for minor traffic infractions and a major overhaul of police training.
“He is a crime fighter. He thrives on it. In some respects, he’s my Patton,” Bratton said, referring to World War II Gen. George S. Patton. Bratton was selected chief over Gascon and others in 2002.
Taking a page from his boss’s playbook, Gascon vowed to cut violent crime and homicides by 20% this year. The challenge may be his toughest yet, Gascon concedes, given his tools: shrinking budgets, fewer officers and a struggling economy.
Still, Gascon exudes confidence. “If you don’t strive for excellence, you won’t get there,” said Gascon, 50, an athletically built man who speaks with a regal Havana accent.
“These numbers aren’t unrealistic, but they are difficult,” said Gascon.
Gascon’s approach is to target the 10% of all criminals he says are responsible for more than half the city’s crime.
To that end, the department established a 24-hour anti-gang operations center, began targeting parolees and is experimenting in the Harbor, Rampart and Hollywood divisions with so-called district policing, involving further decentralization of command.
Gascon’s goals include acquiring technology that would allow detectives to quickly search the LAPD’s 19 computer records with a system called COPLINK, a kind of Google for law enforcement.
Gascon concedes that his critics think he is unorthodox. After officers killed a mentally ill man, Gascon, then a captain in South Los Angeles, took activists to the LAPD’s shooting simulator to show them how difficult it is for officers to make decisions under pressure.
Gascon assumed command of the LAPD training unit in April 2000 at the height of the Rampart scandal, in which disgraced former Officer Rafael Perez told authorities he and other Rampart Division officers had routinely planted evidence, framed suspects and covered up unjustified shootings.
Five months into Gascon’s tenure, the city agreed to submit to a federal monitor to oversee police reforms. Many of those changes were in training.
“He took what others saw as a curse and used it as an opportunity to redesign training with more emphasis on problem solving, civil rights and the ethics of being a police officer,” said Det. Art Placencia, president of the Latino Law Enforcement Officers Assn.
Lt. Bill Murphy said Gascon tied together tactics, the law and use of force as part of a continuing education plan.
“He began by using adult learning techniques. Problem-based learning became the mode, not just boring lectures,” said Murphy, who conducted classes on the Rampart scandal.
Gascon posted a copy of the Bill of Rights in every classroom, scrounged money to pay for hundreds of hours of new classes and invited the U.S. attorney’s office to participate in training in search and seizure to demonstrate how officers protect the rights of civilians.
“Many times when officers violate the law, they do not understand they violated the law,” Gascon said.
“He fundamentally changed the way the LAPD teaches its officers about civil rights,” said Michael Gennaco, the former head of the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division in Los Angeles, the agency that forced the LAPD to reform.
That appreciation of civil rights came from Gascon’s early years in communist Cuba, said Capt. Sergio Diaz, a fellow Cuban who has known the assistant chief since their days at South Gate Junior High School.
Born in the Santo Suerez area of Havana, Gascon was a child when Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. In 1967, his family flew to Los Angeles. The youngster, an above-average student, found himself in a strange land.
Diaz said Gascon quickly landed a job as a box boy in a market, and became night manager. But largely due to his language struggles, he left Bell High School without a diploma in 1972 and joined the Army, Gascon said.
The military would be his education. First came his general equivalency diploma, then two years toward an undergraduate history degree. His love of policing blossomed with the 64th Military Police Detachment, much of it in Germany.
Honorably discharged as a sergeant, Gascon completed his history degree at Cal State Long Beach while building a career in sales, first in shoes and then in cars. It was his old buddy Diaz, now an LAPD officer, who persuaded him to join the department in 1978. He lasted three years, until the car dealership lured him back as sales manager.
“It was double the money I was making, and at the time we were trying to have kids,” recalled Gascon, the father of two college students. He served as a reserve officer in the Hollenbeck Division until 1987. But the LAPD continued to beckon.
Gascon, who received his law degree from Western State University College of Law, practiced part time until he was promoted to command his own division. Being a lawyer and a cop, he says, allows him to have two perspectives.
“I know the many factors that affect the ability of law enforcement to perform, and on the other hand, I have an understanding of the law and the civil liberties that the Constitution affords,” he said.