Picture raises ethical and legal questions
2/25 NOTE: This post has been updated with information from the Gascon campaign and additional analysis.
The man running to replace Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey as the county’s top law enforcement official seems willing to bend ethics and campaign laws to advance his ambitions. George Gascon, who resigned as San Francisco’s District Attorney less than five months ago to run in L.A., faces staunch resistance from police. While he has been endorsed by a handful of retired law enforcement officials from L.A. County, most notably former Police Chief Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) has endorsed Ms. Lacey and has spent more than a million dollars in an effort to defeat Mr. Gascon. The Los Angeles Times reported today that Lacey also has received funding and support from the L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies union, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, and the L.A. County prosecutors union.
In the face of this opposition from law enforcement it seems Mr. Gascon decided to conjure some police support in a way that raises questions.
His official campaign website prominently features an image, which as of this writing remains live, showing him walking and talking with a uniformed police officer in front of a police cruiser. The officer and the vehicle appear to be from the LAPD: The uniform color, style, and badge are consistent with the city’s police force, and the cruiser in the background looks like an LAPD Ford Explorer, with a black hood and grill. Given that Mr. Gascon is seeking office in Los Angeles, voters reasonably will conclude that the officer in the picture is with the LAPD.
The image thus implies police support for his candidacy: Indeed, it appears as the header on the campaign’s “Endorsements” page, with the word superimposed. The picture also appears on the campaign’s homepage next to a solicitation for $100 campaign contributions.
An email on Friday to the Gascon campaign was not initially returned. However, after this story was published attorney Maxwell Szabo wrote an email on the campaign’s behalf in which he defended the use of the image. “The officer in the photo was off-duty. The uniform was rented, as was the police car. We have receipts for both,” he wrote.
California state law prohibits uniformed police and other law enforcement officers from making endorsements while in uniform. Specifically, Government Code Section 3206 says that an officer or employee of a local agency may not “participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform.”
In 2012 Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged breaking the law when he appeared in a video endorsing Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich for D.A. while in uniform. Sheriff Baca later apologized and Trutanich’s campaign removed the video. Last year, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Sheriff’s Department opened a criminal investigation into an event at the County Fire Authority’s headquarters. The O.C. firefighters union invited candidates they supported to wear official city firefighting gear, including fire department emblems. The candidates also participated in mock firefighting exercises.
The Gascon campaign’s photograph appears to be something of a legal novelty: The campaign used a real off-duty cop to simulate a real on-duty one. The active but off-duty LAPD officer wears a rented uniform that looks to the untrained eye to be LAPD issue, and he’s standing with Mr. Gascon in front of a rented car that looks like an LAPD cruiser. It raises the question, is it a violation of state law for a real police officer in a fake but realistic uniform to appear in official campaign materials, particularly on an “Endorsements” page?
It also raises the question of why the Gascon campaign is going to such great lengths to create an impression of police support. If, as Mr. Szabo says, the officer in the photograph is with the LAPD, and if he does endorse Mr. Gascon (law enforcement officers are allowed to make personal endorsements on their own time) why hasn’t the campaign identified him?
When contacted by the All Aspect Report, LAPPL President Craig Lally said in an email, “George Gascon continues to try and con voters into thinking he has the support of frontline police officers. He doesn’t and there’s a reason why. He was an absolute failure in San Francisco as DA, combining skyrocketing crime and out of control open air drug markets with a record of hiding evidence and making up phony crime stats.” Mr. Lally added, “It’s ironic that he mocks police officers one moment, then uses our image to raise funds for his deceitful campaign the next.” Mr. Lally’s statement also referred to an advertisement the LAPPL has been running on television stations in Los Angeles.
Mr. Gascon is running for a position of significant public trust in the County of Los Angeles. As the crime rate – whether prosecuted or not – continues to grow, the role of District Attorney is becoming more important than ever. The police oppose his candidacy, largely due to his co-authorship of Proposition 47. Police say that law, which reduced many felonies to misdemeanors and retroactively downgraded convictions for as many as 10,000 felons, was sold to voters misleadingly as “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.” Law enforcement agencies and associations statewide blame Prop 47 for increased crime, addiction, and homelessness (there is evidence for their position).
Regardless of any legalities, the fundamental issue remains that Mr. Gascon’s campaign went out of its way to give the impression of police support. Mr. Gascon obviously is aware of their opposition, and more to the point he’s aware of the law. Nevertheless his campaign appears to be trying to fool voters into thinking otherwise: Based on the totality of factors – the uniform, badge, sidearm, and apparent police cruiser – the picture seems carefully crafted to lead voters to conclude that Mr. Gascon has police support.
Angelenos should ask themselves if they want to entrust enforcement of the law to someone who seems determined to deceive them.