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.