Marking one year in office, L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gascón touts accomplishments, spars with critics on crime
On his first day in office, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón stood before a lectern in a largely empty room and described his plan for reimagining criminal justice in the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office, announcing sweeping changes to the way the office would file cases, seek bail and pursue charges.
One year and one day later, Gascón was flanked by progressive prosecutors from around the country as he stood before a room full of reporters during a 90-minute news conference meant to celebrate what he saw as his successes during his first 12 months on the job.
But on the heels of weeks of high-profile crimes, including the killing of a beloved Beverly Hills philanthropist, an explosion of gunfire that left one child dead in Wilmington and viral videos of smash-and-grab robberies at retail stores, Gascón instead spent much of his time sparring with reporters and trying to counter questions about criticism levied by those seeking to recall him.
Gascón stood firm, saying there was no link between his policies and what he called the inaccurate perception that crime is rising in L.A. County.
“Let’s be grounded in reality because fearmongering and misinformation doesn’t enhance public safety,” he said.
A string of incidents at private homes and public spaces has catapulted crime in Los Angeles back into the zeitgeist.
Joined by progressive leaders including Cook County, Ill., State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Suffolk County, Mass., Dist. Atty. Rachael Rollins, Gascón spent the better part of an hour describing what he sees as major victories in his bid to reform criminal justice in the county.
He touted a dramatic drop in misdemeanor filing rates for crimes related to addiction — a delivery on his Day 1 promise to stop prosecuting low-level crimes like minor drug possession and public intoxication — the dismissal of more than 60,000 marijuana convictions and the fact that his office had reduced the potential prison exposure of defendants in L.A. County by 18,000 years through his policy that largely bans the use of sentencing enhancements.
But during an often contentious question-and-answer session, Gascón found himself repeatedly grilled about crime data and criticisms levied by supporters of the effort to recall him from office, including L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. After one reporter questioned the D.A. about an insult the sheriff had lobbed earlier in the day, Gascón responded in kind.
“My dad used to say that when you wrestle with a pig, you both get muddy and the pig likes it,” Gascón said, before clarifying that he didn’t mean to insult law enforcement.
Villanueva did not respond to a request for comment, though he referred to Gascón’s tenure as an “absolute disaster” during his weekly Instagram Live appearance earlier in the day.
Connecting crime rates to Gascón’s policies is complicated. Homicides are up roughly 46% in Los Angeles as of Nov. 27 compared with the same time frame in 2019. As of Oct. 31, murders had increased by the same rate in areas patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department compared with the same time frame in 2020. Car thefts — which also surged during Gascón’s tenure in San Francisco — are also up 53% in Los Angeles compared with 2019.
But property crime, which experts more often link to policies like Gascón’s that lessen punishments on low-level offenders, is down in 6.6% in L.A. compared to 2019. Robberies are down 13.6%, and burglaries are down 7.7%, in the same time frames, per LAPD data.
In Sheriff’s Department territory, robberies are down 12% and burglaries are down 9% as of Oct. 31, according to data published on the agency’s website. Violent crime is relatively static, while property crime has increased 5%, the records show.
Gascón said those looking to tie his policies to crime increases were doing so without evidence, noting that other jurisdictions with more traditional prosecutors have also seen increases in homicides since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not a question of whether I assume responsibility or not. I readily would if I thought there was a correlation,” Gascón said Wednesday. “But if we have things that are occurring in multiple jurisdictions with different people with different postures and the outcomes are the same, it has to be something more than what that D.A. is doing.”
But to some of Gascón’s critics, perception trumps reality. When they took to the steps of the Hall of Justice to announce a second attempt to recall Gascón from office earlier this week, the district attorney’s detractors quickly seized on the idea that crime is out of control.
“What people are seeing with their own eyes, you can’t tell them to unsee it. We are seeing these smash-and-grab robberies — you’ve never had that happen with such frequency,” said Tim Lineberger, a spokesman for the recall effort. “You can try to tell people, look statistically, it’s really not that bad ... [but] it is really obvious to everybody that when you don’t punish crime, when you allow people to get out on zero cash bail for a certain offense, they have absolutely zero incentive not to do it again.”
Authorities also charged Aariel Maynor with attempted murder, saying he opened fire on a security guard with an AR-15-style rifle during the fatal shooting at the Avants’ Beverly Hills home.
The emergency rule requiring defendants be released without posting bail for certain offenses is actually a result of an order issued by L.A. County Superior Court’s presiding judge, not Gascón.
Gascón started off his event with a moment of silence for victims of gun violence, including Jacqueline Avant. But once he began to speak, the D.A. harped on his central message that rehabilitation, not punishment, will make people safer, championing pretrial diversion efforts and prevention programs like his modification to the office’s gang prosecution strategy.
“We are working tirelessly to ensure that no mother or father has to attend their child’s funeral because they have been harmed by violence,” he said. “We want to stop the violence before someone is saying a eulogy for their spouse.”
But those words meant little to Gascón’s critics, who dismissed his review of his first year in office as an episode of political theater.
“For the better part of a year, he has been doing the criminal justice equivalent of wheeling cancer patients from the oncology ward to the hospital parking lot, handing them a lollipop, wishing them the best of luck, and shooing them off into the darkness,” wrote Ryan Erlich one of the leaders of the union that represents deputy district attorneys.
Times staff writers Kevin Rector and Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.
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