Flanked by his command staff in the Hall of Justice hearing room, new San Francisco police Chief George Gascon addressed the media Tuesday morning on his long-term goals for the department — to take a hard-hitting stance against organized crime, to address the city’s diversity issues and to implement a plan to fix outdated policing facilities and strengthen the department’s current operational structure.
Before he was sworn into office by Mayor Gavin Newsom on Friday, Gascon — who served as the assistant police chief in Los Angeles before his most recent position as Mesa, Ariz., police chief — said he witnessed first-hand the blatant narcotics exchanges of the “open-air drug market” in the Mission. While cruising through the neighborhood, which has been plagued by gang violence, he saw a drug deal. He said he couldn’t make an arrest at the time because he was still a civilian.
Gascon said it is the police force’s responsibility to ensure that all organized crime involved with the drug trade be stamped out.
“Our kids should not have to get out of their house and walk around and see somebody buying or selling dope in front of them,” he said. “Our kids should be able to go to a park and not be harassed by gang members who are selling drugs.”
Legalizing certain drugs, he said, will not resolve this complex issue, despite the recent resurgence in political support at the local and state levels to decriminalize marijuana.
California has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the country and, Gascon said, “we cannot arrest ourselves out of crime” in recognizing that the department needs more than just a quick fix.
Gascon said that the department needs “to start being much more enlightened” about the way it incarcerates and releases repeat offenders, who he said are often forced to continue committing offenses because of the lack of marketable skills and because of their drug additions.
He also said the problem is larger than the police department.
“Our entire […] criminal justice system is dysfunctional, it’s broken and it needs to be fixed, Gascon said. “And it’s not the police alone that can fix this. We’re providing a patchwork, we’re providing a quick fix for a much more difficult and much more complex problem.”
Gascon said that there needs to be greater cooperation among the district attorney’s office, the courts and the federal government. He said that while the San Francisco Police Department could go out and arrest dozens of people, the focus needs to be on the small percentage of core offenders.
“It’s really a partnership and we all share responsibility,” he said.
Gascon did not speak harshly of the department’s past, but instead chose to look at the challenges that lie ahead. The trimming of managerial fat and increasing community participation were two topics that came up repeatedly in the press conference.
High on the chief’s priorities is streamlining the command structure, creating a bureau of operations that would consolidate oversight of both detectives and patrol, essentially making one person responsible for all operations. Supervisors would still exist within each branch for day-to-day operations.
“We cannot afford to continue to do policing the way that we have [for the last 100 years]. Financially, we’re pricing ourselves out of the business.”
Gascon’s approach to increasing the department’s effectiveness involves bolstering mid-level management by placing more inspectors on the street, which would provide detective services at the stations. Although he wants to make this happen within the next 90 days, he said stations were not designed to accommodate this kind of staff.
“By putting inspectors in the stations, then you can hold them accountable to neighborhood problems,” Gascon said.
The in-station detectives would handle property crimes, such as burglary, robbery and some crimes against persons “at the lower level,”, while homicides would continue to be managed by central detectives.
Along with “physical facility challenges,” Gascon said technological resources were not up to his standards and has limited the ability of the department to study long-term trends in crime data. Beyond changes within the department, he envisions greater participation from the community, through the creation of community forums and a community police advisory board.
Without referring to a specific neighborhood, Gascon said he recognized the diversity of the city requires tailored approaches for different districts and interest groups with forum groups for different racial and ethnic groups as well as businesses, the LGBT community and potentially seniors.
Community participation at the forums would ensure that the police are taking “ownership” of their precincts and making sure that local concerns are being addressed. But he said that the community needs to actively voice concerns.
“We’re all public servants,” Gascon said, noting that there is no single group that can be blamed when it comes to effectively policing the streets.
Gascon said that these forums, made up of people that can speak to the community, will not serve as neighborhood watch programs, but would address larger policy issues and take a macro look at each community.
“My goal is to make sure that we will be servicing each of those neighborhoods in the most sensible, most powerful way possible.”
While his inability to speak Chinese “will be a handicap” in maintaining the level of involvement with the Asian community that outgoing Chief Heather Fong had, Gascon is fluent in Spanish, an advantage in reaching out to the Latino community.
His overall tone at the press conference reflected a desire to be innovative and to take chances.
“I make a lot of mistakes because I’m always pushing the envelope,” he said. “ When you get out of the comfort zone, sometimes you’re going to make mistakes.”
“Excellence is not a destination, excellence is a journey.”