October 6, 2012
Sheriff Lee Baca said this week that he's ready to shoulder the blame for years of unchecked deputy-on-inmate violence in Los Angeles County jails.
And he promised to carry out all the reforms outlined in a scathing jail report by an investigative commission that laid the problem at the sheriff's door.
But it's hard to know what to make of a leader — nationally respected and locally beloved — who ignored a decade's worth of brutality complaints and rarely visited the jails he runs, except to play sheriff-sage to the inmate-students in his Education-Based Incarceration program.
Baca tends to be a glass-half-full kind of guy; he's clearly bothered by all this focus on the negative in the jails he runs.
Brutal deputies, injured inmates, cover-ups, high-level misconduct, spiking jailhouse violence. "What good does it do to talk about it now?" Baca asked the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence when he testified before the panel this summer.
"We know we screwed up in the past," he said. "I'm a guy that says let's go forward."
So forward we are going — with a raft of changes endorsed by Baca and aimed at making the nation's largest system of county jails more like community college and less like Guantanamo Bay.
Deputies will be better trained, more closely watched, more frequently counseled and more consistently disciplined for violating use-of-force rules. Oh, and there will be rules, a "comprehensive and easy-to-understand Use of Force Policy in a single document," according to the commission recommendations.
Moved aside as custody overseer is Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, Baca's right-hand man, who is lambasted in the report for advising underlings that deputies "should bend the rules and go over the line as long as they do not get caught."
The new custody head will probably be an "outside expert," Baca said; someone with experience running custody systems and respect for inmate education.
That new custody chief will be tasked with bringing what Baca calls "the nobility of policing" to a complex with thousands of inmates, hundreds of deputies and $25.6 million paid out to settle brutality claims.
The citizens' commission report, released last month, is damning in scope and force:
Training is poor, complaint tracking inaccurate, discipline inconsistent and lax. The department doesn't teach deputies appropriate use of force and doesn't honestly catalog misconduct.
Absent strong leaders or positive role models, the dysfunction is not surprising. Rookie deputies assigned to jails are often unprepared for the pressure-cooker of custody. Some manage inmates by yelling, cursing, threatening or applying unwarranted physical force.
Baca is good at condemning that. "Humanity and violence are incongruent," he told reporters at a news conference Wednesday in the jail chapel. "The communication between deputy and inmate should always be respectful.... If you don't have common sense and fairness in what you do, you won't be in this business."
But he's not so good at explaining why common sense and fairness didn't prevail; how the jail got so out of control that visitors were routinely harassed and arrested, and some floors were run by gang-like cliques wearing uniforms and badges.
For nearly two decades, outside reviewers have been studying the department. The special counsel charged with monitoring reforms has issued 15 reports on county jail problems, with 100 detailed recommendations on training, assigning, supervising and disciplining deputies, going back to 1992.
The ideas Baca has just embraced? They have been explicitly proposed and pointedly ignored by department brass for years.
Now, Baca says, "I couldn't have written them better myself. I'm impressed with the level of thoughtfulness." So impressed that he's created his own management task force to study them — and requested $10 million for that.
Now, Baca's hosting private sessions with deputies and town hall meetings with prisoners. Now, he's reading every one of the ACLU's 150 inmate brutality complaints.
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.
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