Each Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy is supposed to carry a card at all times that sets forth the department's core values, embodied in a single sentence pledging respect, integrity, wisdom and "the courage to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms."
The card has been variously called inspirational and plain silly, but if it's silly, its silliness lies not in the values expressed but in the notion that words on a card could, by themselves, imbue deputies with values that they do not already hold or that are not instilled in them in training and reinforced each day on the job.
News reports and anecdotal tales of inmate abuse, the hazing of new deputies and disrespect paid to the communities it is supposed to protect suggest that the department has a long way to go to make its core values more than words on a card. On Friday, NBC News reported on a lawsuit brought by a deputy who alleges that female trainees in the East Los Angeles station were expected to fulfill the "sexual needs" of training officers associated with a clique known as the Banditos. The allegations are being investigated.
Also on Friday, The Times reported that Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold, a candidate for sheriff, was recorded disguising his voice with a South Asian accent in a mock complaint call to a watch commander. Whether the call was a prank or, as Hellmold and the watch commander assert, a rehearsed skit, it was more the sort of thing expected from a drunken and clueless fraternity member than a law enforcement officer pledged to display the courage to stand against bigotry.
There is a danger that the departure of Sheriff Lee Baca under a cloud created by his own mismanagement could be taken by those vying to replace him as an invitation to throw out everything he brought with him — the good as well as the bad, the vision as well as the often-sloppy implementation, the values as well as the card.
The sheriff is one of only three officials elected countywide to represent 10 million people, and the only one with uniformed officers acting as ambassadors to every corner of the county. They will be emissaries either for a system of gang-like cliques and frat-like pranks or for a culture of dignity and respect. It will be interesting to hear the candidates for sheriff explain not merely which set of values they choose, but how they embody them, and how they intend to ensure that their deputies do the same.