Now, Baca promises to "repurpose the jail," to turn "jail cells into classrooms," to enlist deputies to model for inmates "the principles of living a positive life."
"I do have some deputies who have done some terrible things," the sheriff acknowledged. "But you can't judge the whole by the few."
The most important thing, he said, is helping inmates learn to make good decisions.
Did it ever occur to him that a young deputy trapped on jail duty might need help with that same thing?
For years Baca has been carried by his reputation as a caring, enlightened intellectual; a humanitarian lawman with a Zen mind-set and progressive bent.
His public reservoir of goodwill is uncommonly deep. More than half of voters recently polled disapprove of the sheriff's job performance, but fewer than one-quarter said they have an unfavorable view of the man.
Even at county Board of Supervisors' sessions, where his department has been savagely dissected, speakers preface criticism of him with some version of "I really like the man…"
I really like the man too. But it's time for all of us to stop playing "Let's pretend."
Reforming the system will not be easy. The deputies' union has already challenged the sheriff's efforts, calling the violence a "perceived problem" that doesn't require broad solutions like Baca's new force prevention policy, stepped-up supervision and insistence on better inmate-deputy relations.
The changes have led deputies "to feel that they have largely 'lost control' of the jails," a letter from the union contends. That's what you get when you let dysfunction flourish in private for so long.
Prisoners' rights are not up top on many priority lists. So Baca's commitment will be tested.
This is not just about inmates with black eyes and broken bones, but about those core values the sheriff likes to recite and promised to uphold: honor, respect, integrity, wisdom, fairness, courage. It's time to make them more than words.
Don't disappoint us, Sheriff Baca. Your legacy is on the line. And in case that's not enough, this time your back is against the wall.