Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s decision to resign rather than seek a fifth term in the June 3 primary closes the books on one man’s political career but must not end the discussion about the position’s nearly unfettered power, the evidence of institutionalized thuggishness in county jails and the urgent need for both a capable leader to revamp the nation’s largest Sheriff’s Department and a structural framework for vigorous oversight and lasting reform.
At issue in Baca’s current term was the degree to which sheriff’s personnel felt free, or even compelled, to use unnecessary force on inmates — and also whether Baca directed that conduct or was so out of touch as to be unaware of it. In October a jury found him personally liable in the 2009 beating of a jail inmate. In December, 18 deputies were criminally charged, some for conspiracy to obstruct a federal probe of the jail. Baca was not named, but U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. made it clear that the problems in the department were pervasive, and that the investigation was ongoing.
Even the most honorable deputies in a department struggling with a corrupted culture need to know that the old ways will not be tolerated. They must see persistent attention — not the intermittent public focus that comes with elections or verdicts, or the occasional critique or initiative offered by the Board of Supervisors. They, and the public, must know that they are working under a sheriff with the highest integrity, subject to a workable system of oversight.
Exactly who that sheriff will be and just how that oversight system will be structured should become the chief topic of free and considered discussion over the coming year. Candidates for sheriff should make clear not merely how they will eliminate inmate abuse and weed out misconduct but how and where they would draw the line between their independence and their accountability for reform.
The Board of Supervisors, in the meantime, should keep its place, focusing on oversight but not control. They should consider an interim, short-term appointment as Baca’s successor, and let candidates who are vying for a full term make their case to voters.
For the first time in 16 years, there will be a new sheriff in town. The people of Los Angeles County must have a chance to choose one with ability and integrity, who will serve under a workable system of oversight that prevents the kinds of abuses that reportedly took place under Baca from being repeated.
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