Gascon’s Decision to Gut Office’s Special Victims Unit is Case Study in Incompetence

By Ryan Erlich

In early December, our office held its first post-pandemic “in-person” training seminar.

George Gascón showed up, ostensibly to introduce us to a new class of recently hired deputies. He was late. He had a cameraman in tow (because he’s starring in a documentary about himself). No one clapped when he was introduced… except for a few members of what he calls his “executive team.” He wasn’t prepared. He mangled the names of many of the new hires. And when he finished his brief “comments,” he scanned the room and asked — out loud and to no one in particular — “what do I do now?”

Great question, George.

After two years of staggering administrative incompetence, managerial chaos, mounting legal bills, and plummeting approval ratings, what does George Gascón do for an encore?

File to run for re-election, of course. Which he did on December 28, 2022.

Like a shark that swims to stay alive, Gascón must believe that running again is the only way to stay politically relevant or, at the very least, seem important at cocktail parties.

Renown over results. That’s his trademark.

For the next year, the most treacherous place in Los Angeles County will surely be the space between candidate Gascón and a TV camera.

But the situation is far worse behind the scenes.

More than 100 attorneys have left the District Attorney’s Office since Gascón took over. Some were respected and experienced DAs who decided to retire earlier than anticipated. Others left to work as prosecutors in other jurisdictions.

Refilling the ranks has been hard. Hiring new deputies is, for the first time in a very long time, a real challenge. Many aspiring prosecutors don’t want to work for Gascón. And even the let’s-change-it-from-the-inside public defenders aren’t interested in boarding a sinking ship.

But our numbers aren’t the only things that are down. So are our spirits. We are beat up, ground down, stretched thin, and short-staffed. Morale is low, especially for those of us who still love the job because of, or sometimes in spite of, what it was, what it is, and what we know it could be.

If you ask my colleagues, I’m sure some would say that our chief complaint about Gascón is that he’s often wrong on policy and the law. But he is also an epic failure as an administrator, leader, and manager. Why? Because he cares more about his own political future than anything else, including public safety and employee well-being.

Here’s an example.

Four weeks ago, a news outlet published an internal memo, now almost a year old, from the managers of our Victim Impact Program (“VIP”), which includes the units in our office that handle domestic violence and sexual abuse cases. These managers are more than just administrators; they are subject matter experts, mentors, and highly trained, experienced trial lawyers.

Their memo, which was addressed to key decisionmakers in Gascón’s administration, warned that “[c]ritical staffing shortages, combined with drastically increasing caseloads and additional work requirements… are creating operational and organizational risks with a significant potential for negative public safety impacts.”

In other words, if the office doesn’t flood these important units with resources and personnel, the most vulnerable victims and their loved ones will suffer. And some could end up dead.

Less than 24 hours later, Gascón announced that he was dissolving VIP and gutting those units.

Even now, almost a month after the initial rollout (and rollout is a generous term; it was more like a “Dear John” letter left on the mantel), practical details are hard to come by.

In videoconferences and telephone calls across the county, Gascón and his “executive team” seem to be making it up as they go along. (Un)surprisingly, few of the managers assigned to implement these changes knew they were coming.

Our union, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (“ADDA”), immediately asked to meet with the administration to discuss these changes. Since then, we have made four separate requests for 35 basic items of bargaining-related information, including pre- and anticipated post-change caseloads; the names and work locations of affected deputies; information about what, if anything, the office is doing to attract and hire new deputies; and the names, titles, and qualifications of the people who came up with this scheme. Gascón and his team haven’t responded to any of them.

On March 7, we participated in what was supposed to be a two-hour labor-management Zoom meeting on this topic. Gascon’s representative cut it down to an hour even before we began the discussion. And over the course of that truncated hour, his representative couldn’t answer some of our most basic questions, like who decided to implement this plan or why the administration decided to do it on the day after the managers’ memo leaked to the press.

We were scheduled to meet with the administration yesterday, March 16. Gascón’s people canceled that meeting less than four hours before it was set to begin. This was a date that they chose, not us. In retrospect, we shouldn’t be surprised: many of Gascón’s managers still can’t answer the simplest questions about what comes next.

But here’s what we have learned about Gascón’s intentions from other sources, including our members. In addition to dissolving VIP, Gascón does not intend to throw any new resources or deputies at these cases. He intends to move deputies out of these units while cutting managerial support by at least 50%. He intends to consolidate control over these units downtown, where his political cronies can better punish dissent, prevent leaks, head off bad press, and bolster Gascón’s “brand” as he begins his reelection campaign. He also intends to hand some of these incredibly difficult and sensitive cases off to line prosecutors who aren’t trained to handle them. And, of course, he is moving many of the managers who wrote the memo out of these units; some will be pushed out of management altogether in yet another act of retaliation.

In the end, Gascón’s approach will lead to predictably disastrous outcomes for the county’s most vulnerable victims and will most likely increase caseloads for the already overworked attorneys who remain committed to this work.

Some in his administration have said as much. In rare moments of candor, they have conceded that Gascón’s scheme will endanger victims, make it more likely that cases will be mismanaged, and further compound the ongoing mistreatment of VIP deputies. Regrettably, these same administrators are either too weak, too afraid, or too comfortable in their current assignments to speak those truths directly to Gascón.

So why put these cases and their vulnerable victims at risk, especially when eliminating VIP was not one of the seven targeted recommendations in the leaked manager memo?

The answer is simple and predictable: because George Gascón is running for reelection.

This scheme is a political fix, dreamt up by someone who has never prosecuted a single case let alone a case involving domestic violence or sexual abuse. For ten months, Gascón sat on an incendiary memo that spelled out, in data-driven detail, the pressing need to ease the strain on VIP deputies and managers. And for ten months, he didn’t do a damn thing… until that explosive memo leaked.

And when that leak came, Gascón threw a handful of managerial spaghetti on the wall and hoped that it would stick. He did it to control the political narrative. He did it because he wanted to “get in front” of a harmful political story, one that is, at base, about his own managerial incompetence. He did it because he realized that ignoring the memo’s qualitative and quantitative criticism looked bad for him, especially when one considers that the objective criticism came from prosecutors who know a lot more about these issues than he and his “executive team” ever will. He did it because he hoped voters and the press would be gullible enough to accept his claim that he was “expanding” these units, not eliminating them.

This is Gascón the Manager in a nutshell. Petty and thin-skinned. Chasing re-election at the expense of public safety.

Gascón’s scheme is scheduled to “go live” today, March 17. It shouldn’t.

Ask Gascón to immediately stop this dangerous and unnecessary “reorganization.” Tell him to go back to the drawing board, to solicit real feedback from affected deputies, managers, frontline victim advocates, detectives and investigators, community groups, and – most importantly – the victims of these crimes and their families. After all, they’re the ones who will suffer the long-term consequences of Gascón’s short-term, selfish thinking.

Because when this whole thing blows up in his face, the results will be tragic. Those who have committed the most heinous crimes – rapists, child molesters, and domestic abusers – will get another break while the county’s most vulnerable victims are revictimized, yet again, by the man elected to protect them.<

The downside risk is too great to stay silent.

Ryan Erlich is a Board Member of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA), the collective bargaining agent representing over 800 Deputy District Attorneys working for the County of Los Angeles.

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