In a searing self-critique, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged that he was out of touch about problems in his jails and had failed to implement important reforms that could have minimized deputy brutality against inmates.
Faced with an FBI investigation into the jail system and mounting criticism over his handling of the crisis, Baca said in a long interview with The Times that his command staff has at times left him in the dark about the jails' woes.
"I wasn't ignoring the jails. I just didn't know," Baca said. "People can say, 'What the hell kind of leader is that?' The truth is I should've known. So now I do know."
He noticed only during a recent visit to Men's Central Jail that video cameras purchased more than a year ago to help monitor deputies and inmates had not been installed. The 69 cameras are still in boxes in a captain's office. Baca has since committed to installing them by the end of the year.
"I am the ultimate authority here," he said. "There's no excuse for such a major project as this going undone."
Baca's statements offer a marked contrast to his reputation as an energetic and progressive-minded executive. They also provide a rare window into Baca's struggles to run his sprawling department. The Sheriff's Department operates the nation's largest jail system, with custody facilities across the county, and provides police patrols for scores of communities and security for L.A.'s mass transit system.
Baca said his subordinates have insulated him from "bad news." He said he scolded the subordinate responsible for overseeing the camera project.
"Everyone wants to handle it; they believe it's their job, but handling it and not telling me leaves me vulnerable," Baca said. "I have to be informed."
Interviews by The Times with sheriff's and county officials suggest that Baca's management problems at times extend beyond jail matters.
Those who know him well say he's succeeded in areas in which he is most engaged, such as immigrant outreach. Violent crime has fallen in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department, notably in Compton, where Baca has focused extra resources. He takes calls from members of the public, even entertaining rants from a group he calls his "habitual callers."
At public events, he will hear out complaints against deputies.
His willingness to listen and reach out to others has made him a popular figure in some quarters. Voters have reelected him by large margins three times. But even Baca's supporters say he runs into trouble when he fails to take a close interest in important matters.
For example, Baca recently boasted that there were no citizen complaints alleging racism by his deputies in the Antelope Valley. He spoke at a news conference at which federal authorities were announcing a massive civil rights investigation into allegations of discrimination by deputies.
In fact, residents had been complaining for years. A sheriff's spokesman later had to say his boss was wrong.
Some say Baca, after 13 years in office, must take more responsibility for his bureaucracy's failings. County Supervisor Gloria Molina criticized the department's failure to carry out numerous reforms suggested by two watchdogs over the years.
"I'm sure that he's frustrated by his bureaucracy. But there's a point in time when it all lines up and it tells you that you've got to step in and take some action. And that's today. He's the only one who can do it," said Molina, who described Baca as a "sweetheart." "I think he needs to be much more aggressive."
Among the reforms Molina says the sheriff needs to make: putting new limits on when deputies can use head strikes against inmates, intensifying supervision by having sergeants regularly walk the jail floors and requiring nurses and other medical staff to report suspicious inmate injuries. She said the recommendations had previously been made by the county's Office of Independent Review and Merrick Bobb, a special counsel to the Board of Supervisors on sheriff's issues.
The FBI is investigating reports of abuse and other misconduct. The U.S. attorney's office more recently demanded a large volume of documents on deputies and others working in the jail, including reports of force used on inmates, since 2009. The FBI probe includes allegations that deputies carved racist initials into one inmate's head and broke the jaw of another inmate.
Baca was initially defiant. Facing calls for his resignation, he insisted that all misconduct complaints were thoroughly investigated. Since then, the Office of Independent Review has faulted some of the department's investigations as "lackluster, sometimes slanted, and insufficiently thorough."
In the last two weeks, the sheriff has adopted a more conciliatory tone that coincides with his taking a more active role in the jails. Baca has held town hall-style meetings with inmates to hear their complaints and plans to similarly meet with jail deputies.
Baca now says that some deputies are prone to using excessive force and that he is reconsidering proposals he had long rejected. One area that might be changed is the department's practice of starting rookies in the jails, which critics say can teach young deputies to treat everyone like criminals. Baca now says it is worth considering a two-track career system as a way to develop a core of veteran, experienced jailers who genuinely want to work in custody.
At 4 a.m. on a recent morning at home, Baca crafted what he called a force prevention policy, which he scrawled on the back of 10 junk mail envelopes. The sheriff said it is an important part of trying to change the culture within his jails.
Baca repeatedly told The Times that he deserves the blame for the jails' problems. But he also didn't hesitate to point the finger at his command staff.
"I think the younger deputies are not prepared to use sensible force in certain situations. Is it their fault alone? No. Is it my fault? Yes," Baca told The Times. "But my accountability is diffused within the chain of command to those that I entrust to do this job of managing deputy behavior."
Baca expressed regret that he hadn't instituted regular floor assignment rotations at Men's Central Jail earlier, a reform that watchdogs say would reduce the possibility of deputies forming gang-like groups in the jail.
A proposal to begin the rotations was panned before it reached his desk, he said. It wasn't revived until after The Times began reporting on a group of deputies who were identified as members of a clique that had formed on the lockup's third floor. The deputies were accused of assaulting three fellow deputies last year at an employee Christmas party.
"That one flew over my head," Baca said of the rotation plan. "No one told me it was a way to get rid of the cliques."
Some serious brutality complaints also never reached him, he said. Earlier this year, a chaplain who in 2009 reported seeing three deputies beat an unresisting inmate approached Baca to discuss the outcome of the investigation. He was surprised to learn that the sheriff had never heard of the incident.
"This happened two years ago," Baca said to his executive staff, according to two people in the room, "and I'm only finding out about it now?"
And he said he was taken by surprise when the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California publicly accused deputies of systematic abuse and called for his resignation.
Baca faulted the ACLU, a court-appointed monitor of jailhouse conditions, for not reporting allegations of abuse to his department directly. But he admitted that he should have reached out sooner to the civil rights organization to understand its concerns.
"I got my butt beat by the ACLU pretty good, and I deserved it," Baca said. "The key is, I got the message."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times