By Eric W. Siddall
On June 14, 2022, El Monte Police Officers Santana and Paredes were brutally murdered by Justin Flores. In their final sacrifice, the officers boldly rushed towards danger where others would not. No words will satisfy the debt we owe to these two men, nor will any give comfort to the two families left behind.
Under California law, Flores should have been in a state prison cell on the day he murdered the two officers. Instead, because of George Gascón’s policies, he was in a hotel room in El Monte beating his girlfriend until two officers responded for the call for help. Now two officers are dead.
To the fallen officers, Gascón offered his “thoughts and prayers.”
This hollow expression belies Gascón’s actions. Nineteen months earlier, George Gascón issued an order that all strikes offenses that were charged by the prior district attorney were to be stricken. He ordered that all cases eligible for probation should be given probation. Those were his orders.
On February 10, 2021, Flores – a gang member charged with felon with possession of a firearm, possession of methamphetamine, and illegal possession of ammunition – was the beneficiary of this policy. Under California state law, Flores was ineligible for probation and faced a minimum sentence of 32 months in state prison. Instead, because of Gascón policies, he received probation.
As word spread of Gascón’s role in this killing, Gascón’s press operation attempted to misdirect the media about the consequences of his bad policy. His spokesperson—not an actual prosecutor—stated that “the sentence he received in the firearm case was consistent with case resolutions for this type of offense.” Later, the same spokesperson said, “experienced managers in the office have reviewed the facts of the case and the criminal history of Mr. Flores and determined that this [plea deal] offer was on par with offers in previous administrations.”
I challenge these “experienced managers” to come forward and explain why a career criminal gang member, who under the law is required to serve a state prison sentence, served ten days in county jail. Further, I am curious how they can explain why Flores served less time on illegal possession of a gun, ammunition, and drugs than he did for petty theft or a suspended license violation.
Gascón’s spokesperson continued the misdirection: “The sentencing directive is presumptive. We empower DDAs to rebut that presumption if they believe extraordinary circumstances exist … No such request was made in this case.”
These claims are false. First, Gascón’s policy had no exceptions regarding strikes. In relevant parts, his policy stated: “Any prior-strike enhancements (Penal Code § 667(d), 667(e); 1170.12(a) and 1170.12 (c)) will not be used for sentencing and shall be dismissed or withdrawn from the charging document.”
There was no appeal process nor exceptions to this policy. Another part of the same policy stated, “if the charged offense is probation-eligible, probation shall be the presumptive offer absent extraordinary circumstances warranting a state prison commitment…Extraordinary circumstances must be approved by the appropriate bureau director.” On a practical level, this meant no exception.
A brief analysis of the office makes it clear why this was the case. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office is the largest local prosecutorial agency in the nation. It is charged with prosecuting every state felony and almost all misdemeanors within Los Angeles County; with approximately ten million residents, it is the most populous county in the country and more populous than forty U.S. states. Historically, the DA’s office files between 30,000 to 50,000 felonies and 100,000 to 135,000 misdemeanors per year. There are 32 branch and area offices, not including the downtown courts.
Handling an operation of this size requires delegating decision-making at the court level. This is precisely why most offers on cases were made by experienced line-prosecutors or their immediate supervisors. Bureau directors, historically, were rarely involved because they had other duties, including approving more complicated requests, like leniency or immunity, structuring their respective bureaus, and implementing policy. Requiring that five bureau directors manage the individual case settlement of approximately 50,000 cases would be an absurd proposition.
Yet, this is exactly what Gascón did when he required bureau director approval on non-probationary offers. Five bureau directors were now responsible for making offers on all cases if the trial, calendar, deputy-in-charge, or head deputy sought a deviation from the presumptive probationary policy. Effectively, this meant probation was given on many troubling cases—including Flores—because requiring bureau director approval is the same as not giving an exception to the policy.
This absurd requirement was purposeful. In an office with this volume, if deputies made deviation requests, the entire system would collapse. Decisions normally made within an hour would take months.
June 14, 2022 was the end result of this policy. A career criminal who should never have been out murdered two officers who were trying to help a vulnerable victim. Bad policy mixed with bad facts resulted in an unforgivable consequence. We must do better.
Eric W. Siddall is Vice President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.