Thousands of felons who would be sentenced to state prison are about to be funneled into county jails — a money-saving measure for cash-starved California, and a
for local law enforcement agencies.
But not here in Los Angeles County, where Sheriff
plans to greet arrivals with a menu of classes and counseling programs aimed at helping miscreants go straight.
If I were one of those inmates, I'd rather take my chances at Folsom than serve a term at the county lockup, where deputies just might jump me on my way to citizenship class.
According to accounts from jail volunteers, the Los Angeles County jail has become a dangerous 'hood, with deputies dealing out blows and attitude.
This week, the
who said they saw compliant inmates beaten and kicked by deputies. And the
is investigating misconduct allegations that it deemed serious enough to probe with an undercover sting — which Baca wasn't told about beforehand.
Which makes me wonder if the sheriff is seen as part of the solution, or the problem.
I believe Baca's intentions are good. We've crossed paths for years at community events, and I've always admired his humanitarian bent.
He's been an advocate for the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless. He reached out to Muslims after
. He went door-to-door in Compton in 2005, apologizing to residents when deputies chasing a car-theft suspect blasted their neighborhood with gunfire.
But a recent series of articles by The Times' Robert Faturechi paints a picture of a troubled agency:
is probing claims that deputies systematically
A Sheriff's Department captain was placed on leave after federal agents thought they heard her voice on a
A brawl between deputies at a Christmas party — involving trash-talking, turf wars and flashed hand signs — led to a lawsuit charging the department with fostering "gang-like activity" among jail employees.
department watchdog Michael Gennaco cited a combination of forces: deputies as young as 18, carelessly screened, poorly trained and assigned for years to coarsening custody routines.
Baca blamed the foolish antics on a few guys who drank too much and forgot, for a moment, the department's core values: fairness, wisdom, integrity, respect, honor, common sense.
But it's time for the sheriff to look deeper. What
is too blatant and broad to be dismissed as a few bad apples in a healthy barrel.
Judging from their affidavits, there was not even a code of silence to breach; jailers beat inmates and bragged about it.
"Yeah we f— these guys up all the time," one jail visitor said a deputy told him, after he witnessed other deputies restrain and Taser a prone inmate.
The visitor was Scott Budnick, producer of the movie "The Hangover." For four years, Budnick was a jail volunteer, teaching writing to inmates. That's the kind of project Baca loves. But Budnick cut back his visits in 2008 "because I became so disgusted with what I saw there," he said.
I know the jailhouse milieu isn't pretty. The county lockup — the nation's largest — is antiquated and overcrowded, with such a diverse range of inmates the management challenge is mind-boggling.
But that doesn't excuse the brutality that witnesses testified they saw: Gangs of deputies beating, kicking, stomping inmates, making light of the damage they'd done. They described an environment that wasn't just violent, but toxic; where complaints of beatings were dismissed.
A chaplain was scared to intervene as he watched a prolonged beating because deputies might "come over and hurt me." He didn't even trust deputies to look through the religious books he loaned to convicts for fear the officers might plant contraband "and say that I put it there."
I know you can't judge an entire department by a few sensational cases. Most deputies do their jobs with pride and poise, but this kind of scandal tarnishes them too.
Baca "has never been a part of that cowboy, warrior-cop culture," said civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. "He was way out ahead of everybody else with his vision of humane, effective policing."
But she signed the ACLU complaint petitioning federal authorities to investigate his jail.
"Having school for inmates, teaching them to read, doing a rehabilitation program. That's fantastic, I think. But can you just keep them from being beaten to death? … He's not seeing what I see," she said.
When Rice sued his department 20 years ago over abuse by gang-like deputy cliques, Baca was so concerned, "he thanked me," she said.
Now Baca seems angry at the intrusion, lashing out at FBI officials for going behind his back with their probe, but saying nothing about indications that a deputy slipped a cellphone to an inmate-informant in exchange for a $1,500 bribe.
"People need to understand how extraordinary he is as a visionary," Rice said. "And he has got to understand that his department is not following him."
Baca's detractors say the sheriff has never been a capable manager, that he's an ego-driven politician. They point to favors he's done for campaign-donor friends and other string-pulling shenanigans as evidence that he pays attention to what matters to him.
Baca's supporters worry that he's ceded control of his department to lock-and-load underlings, commanders who encourage a bunker mentality and marginalize the sheriff by keeping him uninformed.
It's time for Baca to look beyond the programs and platitudes, and behind the headlines making news.
You can be a visionary and let someone else focus on nuts and bolts. You can make security a priority, without giving up on inmate reform. But you can't ignore badge-wearing rogues, or rely on a mission statement to right a department veering dangerously out of control.