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Problems at the Sheriff's Department will outlive Baca's tenure

The shock of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's resignation is fading and the jockeying among his would-be successors is ramping up.

Two of Baca's assistant sheriffs, a trio of high-ranking retirees and several current and former LAPD officers are considering throwing their hats in the ring; some have already launched their campaigns.

But it's naive to think that electing a new sheriff will remedy problems that have been building for decades.

The institutionalized thuggery in the department began before Baca's tenure and will persist beyond his departure unless something fundamentally changes. Top-ranking insiders who accommodated that culture share responsibility for the department's failures and shortcomings.

The county jail has been considered a cesspool since many of its current deputies were toddlers. A 1992 investigation found rampant abuse of inmates by guards and lax discipline by their commanders — the same problems found by a citizens' commission studying the jail in 2012.

Beyond the lockups, tattooed, gang-like cliques of deputies — like the bunch that embarrassed the sheriff by brawling at a Christmas party a few years agohave been part of the department's culture for more than 40 years, and cost the county millions of dollars in brutality claims.

One of the men who'd like to succeed Baca, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, belonged to the most notorious clique when he was a sergeant in the 1980s at the scandal-plagued Lynwood station. That group, the Vikings, was labeled a "neo-Nazi white supremacist gang" by a federal judge.

Last year, Tanaka retired from the department after the commission investigating the jails blamed him for promoting a culture of favoritism, aggression and misconduct.

Last month, a federal probe led to brutality charges against 18 current and former deputies. The accusations include trying to intimidate an FBI agent and beating up not only inmates but jail visitors.

Now Tanaka, Baca's right-hand man for years, is trashing his former boss and promising "new direction and leadership" if we elect him.

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Baca was the new direction and leadership guy 16 years ago, when he took office after winning election over incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block, who died days before the vote.

Smart and idealistic, Baca advocated for the mentally ill and homeless, promoted education for jail inmates and imagined a department that modeled compassion and fairness. Then he began granting favors to buddies and ignoring claims of abuse.

He still talks about those high-minded ideals, but his department long ago stopped listening.

I'm not among those who demonize the sheriff. He's not cruel or uncaring, but at some point he went blind. Maybe the job was too big, the power too seductive, the poisonous culture too entrenched.

Supporters close to the sheriff say his underlings purposefully kept him out of the loop. They hid the extent of problems; what he didn't know, he couldn't fix.

But I think Baca willfully ceded control. He enjoyed the visionary thing a lot — the nuts-and-bolts, not so much.

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The candidates trying to claim Baca's office will no doubt offer their own narratives of all he did wrong. There's plenty of fodder for them: Last year, a jury held him personally liable for the beating of a jail inmate. The year before, jail investigators branded him such an inept leader that if he were in private business, he'd be fired.

Yet polls suggest that if he'd stuck around, Baca might have won reelection this summer to his fifth term. That's a testimony to the power of his persona and the reservoir of goodwill he built during those years he behaved like the leader he was supposed to be.

This race is not about Baca. He's "the past," as he said in his resignation speech. We need to go forward with a candidate who demonstrates the skills, courage and follow-through to recognize and fix what's wrong.

Maybe it's time to Bratton-ize the department; bring in someone from outside, with no loyalties and debts. At least three products of the Los Angeles Police Department may be on the ballot: Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara and veteran detective Lou Vince.

Candidates from inside the department will have a lot to answer for. With the exception of retired commander Bob Olmsted, who tried to flag wrongdoing, the others, who had power and access to Baca, need to explain what they knew and why they tolerated the dysfunction.

The agency will never be easy to manage or problem-free. It's the nation's largest sheriff's department, with 18,000 employees guarding inmates, protecting courtrooms, policing public transit and patrolling dozens of communities.

But there's a blueprint for improvement now in place, drawn up by jail investigators. And there are changes proposed and ignored over the years that should be enacted, not just studied.

Some are complicated with pros and cons — like creating a separate Custody Division and staffing it with civilian jailers, so that young, impressionable deputies don't spend their first years herding criminals, being hardened before dispatch to communities.

Others are small, but will pay big dividends.

The first step? To raise hiring standards so the department no longer allows thieves and con artists and bullies with badges to sully the reputation of thousands of deputies who do their jobs everyday with honor.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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