At his last news conference before heading out to lead the San Francisco Police Department, Mesa Police Chief George Gascon said today that "political pressures" made his time in Arizona more challenging.
That's sort of an understatement. In fact, the political realities in Maricopa County and Mesa may very well have spurred the highly experienced chief to leave. Gascon's focus on human rights put him at odds with Sheriff Joe Arpaio on the hot-button issue of immigration enforcement. The Cuban who talked like a liberal scholar rather than a cop managed to tick off many residents in the town that backs illegal-immigrant foe State Senator Russell Pearce.
But it was Gascon's April participation in hearings before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C. that was the final straw for some Valley leaders.
Gascon, who spoke at the hearings against the concept of having local cops try to enforce federal immigration law, flew to Washington D.C. on the dime of the Respect/Respeto, an activist group that supports taking the "il" out of illegal immigrants. Mesa Town Manager Christ Brady told the East Valley Tribune the mini-scandal created "perception problems, and [Gascon] stepped up and he dealt with it."
Indeed, he did -- by applying for another job less than a month later.
Gascon said today he had felt a "moral and legal obligation" to answer the call of Congressman John Conyers, and that if Congress asked him to testify again, he'd do it.
However, his activist-funded flight to D.C. and Congressional testimony made some people in the community -- he wouldn't name names -- "very unhappy," and made them fearful of political retaliation, Gascon explained. Ultimately, the challenges made him a better leader, he says.
Political pressure "forced me many times to analyze myself, look at what I was doing," he says. "And that has made a great deal stronger as an individual."
Gascon regretted not taking an even "more vocal, more visible stand," he says. Yet he's buoyed by the shift in attitude by Washington that may affect how cops -- or deputies from the sheriff's office -- interact with undocumented residents.
"We're on the side of history," he notes.
Gascon used most of his time at the news conference to emphasize the drop in crime over the last couple of years in Mesa. Statistics show the city has achieved the lowest per-capita rate for violent crimes since 1963, he says.
Huge bales of marijuana and several seized firearms served as props for the meeting.
Violent crime rates in San Francisco are higher than they should be, he says in answer to a question about his upcoming challenges.
Gascon says he'll keep the Valley house he owns for a while and "occasionally" visit here. But he won't have any input on who the next chief will be.
Vicki Myers (right), the department's commander of operations, will take the reins as interim chief starting Friday.