Six convicted: What the L.A. Sheriff's Dept. needs now

6 Sheriff's Dept. convictions won't cure what ails the department

The convictions Tuesday of six Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, sergeants and lieutenants for obstruction of justice fail to bring any closure to the department's period of turmoil or to instill confidence in its management.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Jurors found that the defendants conspired to hide a jailed informant from federal agents and in so doing interfered with a federal investigation into misconduct at Men's Central Jail, and that two of the defendants tried to intimidate an FBI agent outside her home, lying to her and making threats.

But whose idea was this whole scheme in the first place? Was top management at the department so lax or vague that deputies felt entitled to come up with such a plan on their own? Or, as the defense argued, were they instead following direct orders from their superiors, including, perhaps, then-Sheriff Lee Baca? And if they were following orders, did they believe that their only possible courses of action were to commit crimes or give up their careers?

Any of those possibilities, and a dozen more besides, underscore the central problem at the Sheriff's Department: not deputies committing crimes, although that is one especially troubling manifestation of the problem, nor deputies beating inmates, although that's one result of it, but rather that unaccountable management of a paramilitary organization embodied in an elected sheriff with no effective civilian oversight and few limits on his powers is an invitation to abuse.

Defenders of the department's structure might well argue that the problem was mostly solved when Baca resigned under pressure early this year, and that the job will be completed in November if voters defeat sheriff candidate Paul Tanaka, who served as undersheriff at the time the defendants blocked attempts by federal authorities to get in touch with jail inmate and informant Anthony Brown. And there is no doubt that the people at the top make a difference.

But any sheriff, no matter the degree of his or her integrity or ability, must operate within a structure that creates an incentive to act wisely. And legally. Criminal prosecution of officials should not be considered one of the basic checks or balances on power, but rather an indication that those safeguards have failed and need repair.

The six convicted sheriff's personnel might not have brought their misgivings, if they had any, to an oversight commission, if one had existed, so it's impossible to demonstrate that such a panel would have prevented the crimes. But they might have. And either way, its presence would have reminded the sheriff that he and his command staff would be held accountable, in a public forum, for their actions.

The continuing absence of such an oversight commission is an invitation to continuing problems at the Sheriff's Department, regardless of the outcome of the November election.

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