Tag Archives: San Francisco District Attorney

George Gascón: Violating Conflict of Interest Standards

Former San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón’s “conflict of interest challenge” continues to grow with yet another allegation of police misconduct by officers serving under his command.

The latest allegation stems from a video showing officers allegedly improperly searching a  residential hotel room and taking property from the room that was not marked into evidence – and then allegedly lying about it under oath.

These serious allegations of police misconduct require a serious response – and Interim District Attorney George Gascón can’t be serious if he proposes to investigate officers who were under his command at the time of the alleged misconduct.

When similar allegations arose last month, Gascón said he was under no obligation to recuse his office from any potential criminal prosecution. After the Federal Bureau of Investigation stepped in to review the allegations of misconduct, Gascón said he was stepping away from investigating those earlier allegations because of “resource” issues while continuing to insist that he had no conflict of interest. He has not defined what resources he was lacking.

From day one, Gascón had the clear obligation to recuse himself from investigating the Police Department he so recently led. And that obligation only becomes more pressing as the number and scope of allegations of police misconduct during Gascón’s tenure as police chief widens.  

The National District Attorneys Association’s National Prosecution Standards clearly states:

“The prosecutor should excuse himself or herself from any investigation…where personal interests of the prosecutor would cause a fair-minded, objective observer to conclude that the prosecutor’s neutrality, judgment, or ability to administer the law in an objective manner may be compromised.”

In my career as a criminal justice expert I have learned that our community is safest when the police and prosecutors earn – and keep – the public’s trust. Our appointed District Attorney undermines years of progress in building trust when he refuses to acknowledge his clear conflict of interest.

Gascón’s failure to address conflict of interest issues was also highlighted by recent disclosures that his former campaign consultant potentially violated city ethics laws by lobbying him on behalf of the San Francisco Police Officer’s Association, the police union. The campaign consultant also potentially violated the same ethics rules in lobbying another former client, San Francisco’s City Attorney. The City Attorney acted quickly to recuse himself from any investigation regarding the matter. Gascón has taken no action to recuse himself, despite the nearly identical fact set.

The people of San Francisco deserve and demand a District Attorney who will avoid clear conflicts of interest as a matter of policy – rather than personal whim. Gascón must recuse himself as a matter of policy from police misconduct cases of officers who served under his command. And Gascón is under an ethical obligation to develop and publish a clear conflict of interest policy.

David Onek is a Senior Fellow at Berkeley Law School, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney.

George Gascón’s Conflict of Interest Challenge

When San Francisco’s sitting police chief was chosen to become San Francisco’s district attorney, there were two clear schools of thought on such an unprecedented move.

Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union and others wrote to underscore the conflict of interest inherent in elevating a sitting police chief to district attorney in the same city. They predicted that new District Attorney George Gascón would be terribly challenged by the conflict of interest posed by his tenure as police chief.

Other San Francisco leaders took a different view. They argued that Gascón had shown signs of being a reformer as police chief and that this was the same spirit necessary in the district attorney’s office. Conflict of interest issues, these thinkers argued, could be identified and isolated.

But the events of the past few months have highlighted just how significant the conflict of interest challenges faced by former chief Gascón are going to be. And his responses have not been encouraging.

San Francisco police officers have been accused of allegedly conducting illegal searches and committing perjury – incidents that occurred while they were under Gascón’s command as chief. Most of these cases occurred at Southern Station – the one station located in the Hall of Justice, the same building where Gascón worked as chief (and where he works today as district attorney). As chief, Gascón was responsible for the training and supervision of the involved officers.

When confronted with these facts, the former chief insisted he was perfectly capable of handling the investigation in his new office. He maintained he could fairly investigate the San Francisco Police Department for conduct that occurred when he led the agency.

Gascón maintained this position for nearly a week. Finally, after lawyers for the accused officers met with the police officer’s union, Gascón announced he was turning over the investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office – but insisted that it was due to unspecified “resource” issues, not because of a conflict.

His decision to turn over these cases to a third party, regardless of the motive, is a correct step. Yet something absolutely foundational is still missing – Gascón has not made it a policy to recuse himself from investigations relating to his own tenure as chief.

Gascón’s decision to continue – as a matter of policy – to investigate incidents involving police officers when they were under his command is fundamentally flawed on at least two basic levels. First, every suspect is entitled to a fair, objective investigation. When Gascón sits in judgment of his own service as police chief, this foundational principle of the law is undermined.

The second flaw underscores a management principle rather than a legal principle, but is vitally important if you are an advocate of reform in San Francisco or elsewhere.

When Gascón makes the decision to investigate the officers who served under his command, he is saying clearly that he himself holds no responsibility for their behavior. Such a position of inoculating the leader from the behavior of his agency undermines the basic tenets of reform – and frankly, the basic principles of sound management.

In the not too distant past, San Francisco saw the bulk of the police department command staff criminally indicted for allegedly covering up an incident involving off-duty officers on the street. Those charges were dismissed, but the underlying culture of top command looking the other way rather than embracing oversight and responsibility was identified as a problem that needed to be fixed.

The new chief after that incident was Heather Fong, who embraced a culture of responsibility starting at the top.

If former chief Gascón is now saying that he was not responsible for the actions of his own officers – he is saying he does not understand the foundational principles of how to lead a reform movement.

For the sake of justice – and for the sake of reform – former chief Gascón needs to implement a clear conflict of interest policy that would recuse him and the office he now leads from investigating the San Francisco Police Department.

David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney.

It’s Time to Reform Three Strikes

California voters overwhelmingly passed the Three Strikes initiative in 1994 based on the promise that it would take repeat violent offenders off the streets.

But now, more than fifteen years after the initiative’s passage, we have the benefit of facts to help us understand the true impact of Three Strikes.

Most Californians already know that in the wake of Three Strikes the cost of corrections has soared. Our state prison budget is now so high that California spends as much on prisons as we do on higher education.

But many Californians are surprised to learn that, under Three Strikes, Curtis Wilkerson of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for petty theft of a pair of socks; that Shane Taylor of Tulare was sentenced to life for simple possession of 0.1 gram of methamphetamine; or that Greg Taylor of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat.

In fact, the majority of those put away for life under Three Strikes – over 4,000 people total – committed a minor, non-violent third strike. These non-violent third strikers will, according to the California state auditor, cost the state at least $4.8 billion over the next 25 years – almost $200 million per year.

The people named above have an advantage that the vast majority of three strikers do not — they are all clients of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic. Under the direction of Project co-founder Michael Romano, Stanford law students have helped get a dozen non-violent third strikers released from prison after having their sentences reduced.

They are not being released because they are innocent. As Romano said on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast,

“Our clients are, in almost every circumstance, absolutely guilty. We’re not going into court and saying that they didn’t do it. What we’re saying is that the punishment that they received for this petty crime is disproportionate.”

This disproportionate punishment is unjust, and it is bankrupting our state. We are wasting precious resources to unnecessarily incarcerate minor offenders who pose little threat to society for huge periods of time – and draining resources away from the law enforcement agencies, community organizations and schools that can truly prevent crime and keep us safe.

Simply put, it is time to reform Three Strikes – so that it is focused on the serious and violent repeat offenders we all agree society must be protected from. Because Three Strikes was passed by a voter initiative, it can only be changed by initiative. In the past, Three Strikes was viewed as untouchable. But now, with the state facing fiscal catastrophe, and Romano and his students bringing attention to the unjust extremes of the law with each new client that gets released, there is momentum for change.

Romano thinks that there is another ingredient necessary for successful reform: political leadership. He says that “with a few notable exceptions, there has been very little leadership on this issue from our elected law enforcement leaders.”

Now is the time to show the leadership what it will take to return to sensible, cost-effective and fair criminal justice polices in California.


David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney. You can listen to Onek’s recent interview with Romano on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast.

A small investment for a safer California

California will release an unprecedented number of prisoners back to their communities in the coming year, prodded by both the state budget crisis and the federal courts.

But those returning will be far less prepared to successfully re-enter society – due to severe cuts to rehabilitation programs in prison – and will be returning to counties that are far less prepared to assist them – due to massive budget deficits at the county level.

Many are concerned that this will lead to an increase in California’s already astronomical recidivism rate of 70%, costing the state even more in corrections spending and leading to further victimization in our communities.

What to do?

A new report by the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice (BCCJ) points to a proven solution that will decrease recidivism and enhance public safety with significant cost savings to the state: increasing employment opportunities for people with prior convictions.

As BCCJ’s Founding Executive Director, I was privileged to convene the wide-ranging project advisory board that developed the report’s timely recommendations. The group consisted of an extremely diverse group of “unlikely allies” – with representatives from law enforcement, advocacy groups, employers, and other stakeholders from across the political spectrum and from all corners of the state. As advisory board member and East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis recently said: “It was just an outstanding group, and it opened my eyes: it really showed me that even with the diverse group that was there, law enforcement to prosecutors to advocates for the formerly incarcerated, how closely aligned we were.”

The BCCJ report points to solutions as simple as providing a California ID card to everyone leaving prison – a prerequisite for applying for most jobs. This low-cost measure has been passed by the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Governor-Elect Jerry Brown would be wise to call for and sign a new bill.

Other solutions do cost some money in the short run – but save many times that in the long run. Investing in prison vocational education programs has proven to save money: the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar invested netted nearly twelve dollars in return. But California has gone in the opposite direction, cutting vocational education and other rehabilitation programs in prison by $250 million – close to half of the total rehabilitation budget. Governor-Elect Brown has said he wants to avoid quick fixes and budget gimmicks that save money in one fiscal year only to cost the state much more down the line. That’s exactly what these recent cuts have done. Governor-Elect Brown should increase spending on vocational education and related programs and can count on future corrections savings as a result.  

At the county level, the BCCJ report calls for the development of re-entry councils such as those begun in San Diego under the leadership of District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, a BCCJ project advisory board member, and in San Francisco under the leadership of Attorney General-elect Kamala Harris and others, to better coordinate re-entry services at the local level. The councils cost little but can have a big impact.

Simply put, a small investment in helping formerly incarcerated people find jobs will have a huge payoff in reduced corrections costs, reduced recidivism and reduced crime in our communities.

As the BCCJ report shows, law enforcement leaders, advocates, and enlightened employers all understand this. Here’s hoping that our new Governor does too.


David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, Host of the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast, and a former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission.