Controversy greets city's new sheriff, DA
by Matthew S. Bajko and Seth Hemmelgarn
Hours after George Gascón was sworn into a full four-year term as San Francisco's district attorney, news broke that his first controversial decision would be whether to file domestic violence charges against the city's newly elected sheriff, Ross Mirkarimi.
The former District 5 supervisor is accused of allegedly grabbing his wife, Eliana Lopez, during a New Year's Eve incident that reportedly left marks on her arm. A neighbor called police to report the incident last week, and police inspectors obtained a search warrant and confiscated a video reported to contain evidence of Lopez's injuries as well as a cell phone with text messages confirming what occurred.
The explosive allegations surfaced in the press two days ahead of Mirkarimi's Sunday, January 8 swearing in. The couple used the occasion to portray a loving, happy family and held a news conference afterwards to deny theirs is a troubled marriage.
"I don't have any complaint against my husband," Lopez, a former Venezuelan telenovela star, told reporters.
When asked about the images of bruises, however, Lopez refused to comment. And Mirkarimi declined to go into details about what happened the night in question.
"This is a highly sensitive matter, a private family matter," he told reporters.
When asked if there had been any physical or verbal abuse, he simply said, "No."
"I trust in the system," he said. "We will allow the system to sort this out."
Omid Talai, a spokesman for the D.A.'s office, said Tuesday, January 10 that no decision had been made yet to press charges.
"We are currently in the process of reviewing all that information. For obvious reasons, we do not want to rush to a decision," he said.
Given the nature of what allegedly happened, it's possible that Mirkarimi could face a misdemeanor charge. A decision could come as soon as today (Thursday, January 12).
Asked about how the matter may impact the D.A.'s relationship with the sheriff's office, Talai said he didn't know.
"Wherever the facts and the law take us, we will go," Talai said.
The controversy has also created a potentially acrimonious nature between Mirkarimi and the police department. Police Chief Greg Suhr and Gasc—n were no shows at Mirkarimi's swearing in, as was Mayor Ed Lee, who took his oath of office just hours prior.
"I would like to believe there aren't forces at work trying to stop me from being sheriff," said Mirkarimi, alluding to rumors that the police who leaked the investigation to reporters were upset he had defeated their candidate, Chris Cunnie, a former undersheriff, police officer and head of the police union.
Rick Galbreath, a gay man who was a City Hall aide for Mirkarimi, questioned not only the timing of the revelations but law enforcement officials' handling of the matter.
"I find it very curious the police and D.A. are commenting on an ongoing investigation, which they never do or haven't done in the past," he said.
A number of LGBT officials sat prominently in the front row watching Mirkarimi take his oath of office, including District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, city Treasurer Jose Cisneros, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), and state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who married the couple.
Leno told the B.A.R. he couldn't comment on the allegations but did say his thoughts go out to the couple and their son, Theo.
"It's a beautiful family," said Leno. "If everyone takes a deep breath, it will all unfold."
Reminders of the controversy were evident throughout the swearing in ceremony, foremost with the fact that presiding San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein recused herself from administering the oath of office to avoid a potential conflict of interest should charges be filed. Former Mayor Art Agnos presided instead.
Soprano Raekka Shehabi-Yaghmai told the packed audience, which several times gave Mirkarimi a standing ovation, that her song selection from the opera Madama Butterfly – "Un Bel Di" – was about the title character's "beloved husband who will come back and everything will be fine."
A smiling Lopez, wearing a sleeveless dress, stood by her husband with her left arm wrapped around his waist as he recited his oath. He hoisted his son into the air four times before addressing the packed theater.
"Believe it or not, this is one of the happiest days of my life. I am sorry a cloud hangs over what should be a wonderful day for me, Eliana and Theo," said Mirkarimi. "They and you deserve better. But you know what? Clouds break and the possibilities shine through."
He vowed to focus on reducing the number of African Americans locked up in the county jails, whose incarceration rate is at 50 percent despite being only 6 percent of the city's population.
"While the old Jim Crow laws may have been repealed, they have been repackaged and redesigned into the criminal justice system," he said.
Mirkarimi also wants to provide more mental health services to prisoners and reduce the city's recidivism rate, while lower than the state average is still above 60 percent.
"The job of sheriff is not to lock up people and throw away the key," he said.
One cost-saving idea he promoted is for sheriff's deputies to transfer and enter prisoners into jails rather than police, and direct more special event staffing toward his department, as sheriff's deputies are paid less.
"There are a lot of underutilized assets in the sheriff department," he said.
Gascón lays out his vision
Gascón, the city's first Latino D.A., was sworn in during a Thursday, January 5 ceremony at Mission High School.
He said that he'd continue working to make San Francisco the safest big city in the country and would aggressively prosecute crimes such as homicide and rape. He also mentioned the high costs of imprisoning people, and spoke of not locking people up just because they're addicted to drugs or mentally ill.
"I will not measure my success by the number of faces behind bars," but by the safety "of every street corner and alley of this wonderful city," Gascón said.
Since he took office in January 2011, he's reduced the homicide backlog by 36 percent, and his homicide team's conviction rate is 91 percent, Gascón said.
One of the biggest topics during the race for DA last year was realignment.
As part of efforts to close the state budget gap, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law to send some California prisoners to county jails.
Gascón said he "wholeheartedly" supports realignment. He said former prisoners must be given a real chance at reintegration, emphasizing the importance of employment, education, and housing.
One of the projects Gascón often touted is the development of neighborhood courts and prosecutors' programs to address incidents such as public intoxication and graffiti. He said that system has seen almost 400 cases, each of which are handled for about $300, as opposed to the $1,400 it would cost to hear them in a regular courtroom.
Last January, former Mayor Gavin Newsom, in one of his last acts before becoming the state's lieutenant governor, appointed Gascón, who was the police chief at the time, to the D.A.'s position due to Kamala Harris's election as attorney general.
In November, Gascón defeated several other candidates, including former Police Commissioner David Onek and longtime Alameda County prosecutor Sharmin Bock, to hold on to the job.
Newsom and Harris were among the speakers at Gascón's swearing in Thursday, along with former Mayor Willie Brown, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), and retired state Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, who administered the oath.