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.