“What the hell is going on?” asked an exasperated Gov. Gavin Newsom last week when he joined an effort to clear the cargo detritus from the train tracks.
Gascón, however, calls that “misleading,” telling CNN, “They did not send 100 cases to us.”
Union Pacific points to a controversial order issued in December 2020 by the DA to its staff not to prosecute many misdemeanors including most cases of trespassing. A company executive about a month ago wrote to Gascón, “UP and our goods movement partners strongly urge you to reconsider the policies detailed in Special Directive 20-07.”
But Gascón is not backing down from the mandate – or from other initiatives that have drawn fierce opposition from within his own ranks, as well as from the community he serves, where organizers are now driving a second attempt to throw him out of office .
Diverting nonviolent suspects to treatment
He is now the top prosecutor of America’s most populous county, home to more than 10 million people.
“Over the course of my decades in policing, I have witnessed over and over again the multigenerational impact of arrests and prosecutions in poor African American and Latino communities,” Gascón said at his inauguration in December 2020.
Gascón’s directives also included a measure that would become the crux of Union Pacific’s particular beef: He ordered his deputies not to prosecute many nonviolent misdemeanors, like trespassing, if a suspect suffers with mental illness or substance abuse or does not pose a “verifiable, imminent safety risk. “
“When we see evidence of mental health and substance abuse and it does not involve violence,” Gascon said, “we are diverting people” for rehabilitation and treatment.
The suspect was “in and out of institutions most of his life,” Gascón told CNN. He blames Avant’s and other murders primarily on a lack of rehabilitation efforts in the past. “We are paying the price of 30 years of really bad public safety policy,” he said. The suspect has been charged with murder.
A number of arrests were made after those raids. “None of those cases came to us,” Gascón said. Not yet. “Everybody was cited to late March of 2022,” he explained.
“Whether it’s fair or not to point the finger at (Gascón), the finger is being pointed,” said Professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “I do not think we have the statistics to show how these new directives are really impacting what’s happening on the streets of LA.”
‘There is always going to be a hard pushback’
Gascón claims such salvos are purely political. “He’s running for reelection. He’s got very strong opponents,” Gascón said of the sheriff. “I think it’s important for the public to understand that his fight is not just with me. He’s got a fight with every elected official other than Donald Trump.”
But Gascón is now facing a second recall effort, which Villanueva supports. It aims to raise $ 5 million and collect 800,000 signatures to get a recall measure on the November ballot.
Gascón was asked at the news conference with the other progressive DAs about his spat with Villanueva. His answer: “My dad used to say that when you wrestle with a pig, you both get muddy and the pig likes it.” Gascón clarified he wasn’t using “pig” as a derogatory term for a lawman but to describe someone who lacks “decorum.”
“For those of us who just want the system to work,” Levenson said, “it’s distracting to have this constant tit-for-tat.”
Gascón is now pushing back against Union Pacific. He disputes its claim that he is to blame because no prosecutions have resulted from over 100 arrests tied to those package thefts from trains. “None of those cases came to us,” Gascón told CNN. “We cannot prosecute an empty chair.” He wonders if Union Pacific perhaps sent cases to other jurisdictions.
Gascón replied to the letter in which Union Pacific pleaded with him to reconsider his reforms. “UP does little to secure or lock trains,” Gascón wrote. “And has significantly reduced law enforcement staffing.” Both sides are now calling for greater collaboration.
Meantime, Gascón’s reforms roll on. “When you’re taking on systems that are deeply embedded,” he said, “there is always going to be a hard pushback.”
Reforming Los Angeles’ criminal justice system could take a decade or more, Gascón told CNN. “If at some point the voters decide this is not the direction they wanna go and they wanna go in a different direction,” said the prosecutor whose term ends in late 2024. “That’s what a democracy is all about.”
CNN’s Stephanie Becker contributed to this story.