LOS ANGELES — With a flick of a pen Wednesday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva breathed new life into a recall effort against District Attorney George Gascón, who was elected on a promise to reform the office but who has been criticized by crime victims and law enforcement officials.
Supporters of the recall rallied outside the district attorney's office in downtown Los Angeles to kick off signature-gathering ahead of the October deadline. Organizers must collect 597,000 verified signatures, about 10 percent of registered voters in Los Angeles County, by Oct. 27 to qualify for a recall election.
The first three signatures included Villanueva's. The sheriff, who attended the rally in plainclothes and declined to speak with reporters, has come under fire recently for his handling of allegations about deputy gangs and accusations of excessive force, retaliation and other misconduct in the sheriff's department.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom also faces a recall attempt. Organizers have collected enough signatures to qualify for an election, for which state officials have not set a date.
The effort against Gascón, who ran on a campaign to reform the district attorney's office, has been in the works since he took office in December. Crime victims and some law enforcement officials have spoken out against his early directives, including ending the reliance on sentencing enhancements and reorganizing the hard-core gang unit, and they have blamed him for rising crime across the region.
"You, George Gascón, have put criminals before victims. I truly believe you have confused your role as a district attorney and a public defender," said Desiree Andrade, whose son was murdered and thrown off a cliff in 2018. "This is not political. This is a fight for what's right and what's wrong. You don't have to be a victim to understand the importance of this."
In the last month alone, at least 14 city councils in Los Angeles County have issued votes of no confidence against Gascón, the Los Angeles Times reported. But the pushback started within weeks of Gascón's issuing his first directives.
The union representing Los Angeles County deputy district attorneys sued at the beginning of the year claiming that some of Gascón's orders defy state law and force prosecutors to violate their oaths. The lawsuit centers on Gascón's directive to forgo sentencing enhancements, which are used to lengthen defendants' prison sentences under some circumstances, such as membership in gangs or having criminal histories.
Gascón's initial directive ordered that more than 100 enhancements be dropped, including one that elevated a hate crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. He eventually backpedaled and reinstated enhancements in cases involving children and people targeted because of their race, sexual orientation or disabilities, but not before his own deputies took him to court.
Since then, the district attorney's office has been on the defensive, touting Gascón's commitment to reform and arguing that his progressive policies are born out of "research, science and data."
"Where I am today is an evolution based on being critical of myself, being retrospective and looking at a system that is so wrong at its base — a nation that incarcerates people based on race, and we do that," he said in an interview on "NBC Nightly News."
Gascón, the son of Cuban immigrants, started his career in law enforcement as a Los Angeles beat cop before he became police chief in Mesa, Arizona, and then San Francisco. He later became San Francisco's district attorney when Kamala Harris, now the vice president, left the post to become California's attorney general.
In November, he unseated Jackie Lacey, the first Black woman to lead the Los Angeles County prosecutor's office. Lacey's predecessor, Steve Cooley, was among those who gathered at Wednesday's rally to kick off the recall effort.
Gascón did not respond to the recall effort directly. In a statement Wednesday, he offered comments from supporters who back his reforms, including Service Employees International Union Local 2015.
"Proponents of this right wing recall are engaging in a deceptive and devious appeal to fear and emotion in their desperate effort to restore the harsh sentencing practices of the 1980s and 1990s," April Verrett, president of the local, said in the statement. "This recall is about upholding policies that have devastated black and brown communities for decades, policies that continue to perpetuate over criminalization. Voters elected George Gascon to change these policies."
Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, is also throwing the organization's weight behind Gascón after having protested Lacey's leadership for more than three years in part because she rarely prosecuted law enforcement officers for brutality.
"LA finally has a District Attorney willing to stand up and hold law enforcement accountable, and it's no surprise that the leader of one of the most rogue and deadly agencies in America is behind the effort to undermine LA's movement for black lives," she said in a statement, referring to Villanueva's support for the recall.
Gascón is among several reform-minded prosecutors who have faced similar backlash in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Baltimore and Chicago, among other jurisdictions. A recall effort is underway against Gascón's successor in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin.