Can the Supervisors Exploit a Politically Weakened Block?

<i> Joe Domanick is author of "To Protect and to Serve: LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams."</i>

When L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block was forced into a November runoff last Tuesday, it was a watershed event. For the first time in more than 80 years, the job of sheriff is actually in play, and the election that made it so was not the mocking formality it has been most of the century.

Few people know that the last race for sheriff in which an incumbent did not run (and win) was in 1914. Since then, the sheriff has been ingeniously replicating himself by anointing his successor. The system has worked wonderfully well for the close-knit culture and leadership of the sheriff’s office, producing and keeping in power just four sheriffs in the past 77 years. The rite of succession was simple: The person deemed to have the rightist stuff by the department’s elite would be selected, and the Board of Supervisors would quietly go along. Then, before or just after an election, the sheriff would resign. The designated heir proceeded on to run as an incumbent.

Eugene W. Biscailuz, for example, was appointed by his predecessor in 1932 and then later ran as an incumbent. Biscailuz, who ran unopposed for six terms, was thoroughly a man of his time. He had the support of the downtown establishment, broke the unions for them, kept the Okies and immigrants in their place, and, in general, ran a department that pleased his white, Protestant constituency.

When Biscailuz retired in 1958, he named Peter J. Pitchess to succeed him. Pitchess, like the Los Angeles Police Department’s William H. Parker, ushered his department into the 20th century, making it more professional and efficient but keeping the department closed and conservative and virtually unaccountable to any one.


Then, in 1982, after 23 years of easy campaigns, Pitchess anointed Block. It wasn’t until last week that the time-honored system of choosing successors ran head-on into an election, and four-term incumbent Block was forced into a runoff by Lee Baca.

Sixteen years earlier, Block had inherited a department that was fast becoming the largest police force in L.A. County, one that had domain over one-third more people than did the LAPD and that policed more than 40 cities, in addition to the county’s unincorporated areas. Block’s affable, low-key personality enabled him to market the department skillfully, keeping all the mayors, city councils and the five county supervisors smiling. He became the most powerful elected official in the county.

But like Daryl F. Gates, Block was slow to recognize the extraordinary demographic changes taking place all around him. Largely as a result, his tenure grew tainted with complacency and mismanagement. From 1987-1992, for example, the county was forced to pay out $32 million in settlements involving excessive use of force. (Just last month, the county was ordered by a court to pay another $23 million in the 1991 beating of a Samoan family.) The Board of Supervisors then named the Kolts commission to investigate the department. Its report was a scathing indictment of Block and his department. Nevertheless, four years ago, after the release of the commission report, Block still faced weak opposition in his run for reelection.

Block’s subsequent term was no less tainted by scandals, among them cost overruns and lax fiscal management at the Twin Towers correctional facility; racial strife in the county’s jails; murder suspects being mistakenly freed while other inmates are kept months beyond their release date, and alleged assaults of child molesters at the bidding of guards.


Yet, this November, voters will be faced with choosing between the man who has overseen the department during a time of seemingly endless scandal and one who, to Block’s great fortune, has turned out to be weak, indecisive and lacking in credibility. Clearly, this is no way to chose a sheriff.

True, Baca has challenged Block, but only because of an unprecedented confluence of events: A general feeling that Block is too old, tired and ill for the job; a print press aggressively reporting on his department, and the fact that Baca has been able to stitch together law-enforcement endorsements and gather the backing of a Latino community that has finally emerged politically.

Replacing the current way of choosing a sheriff requires a near-impossible state constitutional amendment, so what else can be done? First, local television, the source of most people’s information, should start paying attention. Second, the print media has to continue its hard look at the department. Finally, the Board of Supervisors no longer needs to be intimidated by a powerful sheriff. No matter who the ultimate winner of the runoff, he will be a politically weaker presence across the table. Maybe then the supervisors can summon the courage to hold the Sheriff’s Department accountable.