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La-La Land Lawman

Tina Daunt is a Times staff writer who covers City Hall and was covering the Sheriff's Department when Lee Baca was elected

Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca strides through the lobby of the boarded-up Hall of Justice at Temple and Spring, his polished shoes crushing chips of old paint that have flaked from the ceiling. A small flashlight illuminates his path as he makes his way to the main staircase in what once was the vibrant hub of the county’s criminal justice system. He kneels and presses his hands against a cold marble step.

“You can actually see the wear,” he says, dusting a layer of soot from the aged stone. “So many thousands, and perhaps millions, of people have walked down these stairs over the years.” The thought seems to leave him in awe. He pulls himself up and leans against the tarnished brass banister, surveying the derelict downtown building, closed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

“Can you believe the mess? To let it go in the manner it is, neglected, is just wrong,” he says of this place where his career began. “Buildings have a life of their own. It’s all tied to humanity.” He laughs: “I know I’m getting worked up here.”

For years, Baca dreamed of this job, to which he was elected at age 56 in November of 1998. Now that he runs the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, with some 14,000 employees and a jail system housing more than 20,000 inmates, he has come up with a glittery to-do list based on his idiosyncratic notions of order and justice, art and history and--one of his favorite words--"humanity.” While other law enforcement leaders talk about ways to keep inmates locked up longer, Baca’s agenda is “humanitarian,” calling for rehabilitation of habitual drug users, counseling of spousal abusers and therapy for young gang members and their parents. His down-to-earth, self-deprecating manner has earned him a measure of admiration in law enforcement circles and the approval of civilians hungry for emotional connection with their leaders. Others, though, dismiss him as “goofy,” rolling their eyes when he launches into one of his already legendary soliloquies or makes a politically incorrect faux pas. And plenty of cops and county government insiders go even further. They call him “Sheriff Moonbeam.” They can’t believe he’s a Republican. They’re appalled at his lack of verbal restraint. At his swearing-in ceremony, gasps and nervous laughter met his off-handed remark about the mistress of ceremonies, Fox News anchor Christine Devine--"the only newscaster where the entire news station was named after her: Fox News.” Some county managers contend that Baca’s seemingly blithe indifference to the cost of his programs could drive the department to fiscal ruin. Critics bristle at his apparent improprieties, such as his decision to take his new Taiwan-born bride to her native land on a business trip paid for by that nation’s government.

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Even allies worry that the novice office-holder is too trusting of the people around him. During his bitter campaign against former Sheriff Sherman Block, Baca often talked about his new friend “the count,” a European emigre who had vowed to help him raise campaign money. The self-described aristocrat seemed like a promising ally--until the FBI identified him as an “international class con man [and] swindler.” It was not a unique incident. In November, Baca disbanded his widely ridiculed “celebrity” reserve unit. This unlikely posse of about 20 influential community members hadn’t stopped a single crime, but two members had managed to get themselves in trouble with the law--one on money laundering charges and the other for a weapons violation. Baca’s staff, it turned out, had failed to do adequate background checks on the people to whom the sheriff was issuing badges and guns.

Even Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who has called Baca’s ideas a “breath of fresh air,” gets nervous about Baca’s associations. “Most people don’t question Lee’s sincerity,” he says. “But there is a lot of concern about the people around him, in and out of the department.” Melekian, president of the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Assn., adds that for someone with Baca’s nontraditional agenda, lining up solid supporters is critical to giving plans credence and making them work. “Someone once told me,” he says, “that there is a thin line between vision and hallucination. That line is defined by the people who carry out your plans.”

Baca’s agenda dates back to his poverty-ridden boyhood in a racially mixed section of East Los Angeles, where he was raised by his Mexican American grandparents and shared a room with his disabled uncle Willy, whom he often had to take care of. The neighborhood was policed by the Sheriff’s Department, which Baca joined in 1965 at the urging of a young man named Mel Block, whom he had met while both worked manufacturing airplane parts. Mel said he had a brother in the Sheriff’s Department. Baca, 23 at the time, had done a brief stint in the Marine Corps Reserves and was looking for a job he could turn into a career. The Sheriff’s Department of that era was an unlikely choice, an institution as inhospitable to Latinos as it was to Jews like the Block brothers. But Baca had grown up in awe of the khaki-clad deputies who kept order on his street and didn’t hesitate to reach for the badge. His friend’s brother, Sherman, then a sergeant, became his mentor. As Sherman Block ascended in the sheriff’s hierarchy, Baca also climbed through the ranks, becoming a division chief responsible for most patrol operations.

Baca had been a C student at Franklin High School, but his new ambitions drove him to plunge into college at night. He eventually earned a master’s and a doctorate of public administration from USC. “I pushed and pushed and pushed,” he told one group of teenagers during a leadership conference last year. “Set your goals high. And set your goals with the idea in mind that you will not quit on yourself. No matter who criticizes you, you are not going to let any of that get in your way.” He graduated from college with honors. Listening to professors one hour and standing over dead crime victims the next had changed his perspective on police work. He came to view the job as a way to study human nature, a laboratory for examining society’s ills. A Republican who says he “doesn’t subscribe to the party line,” he began to reevaluate his positions on political issues. He renounced his membership in the National Rifle Assn. and launched a personal campaign against gun violence. He also began to talk about leading the nation’s largest county law enforcement agency, talk that angered Block, who by then had been sheriff for 16 years and who, at age 74, had no intention of giving up his post.

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Twice Baca had been a finalist for chief of the LAPD, but his heart was with the Sheriff’s Department. Although he idolized Sherman Block, Baca believed it was time for him to retire. His mentor’s final years had been marred by bad publicity stemming from chaotic conditions in the jails. And it had become increasingly apparent to people within the department that Block, who was undergoing kidney dialysis three times a week, no longer was up to the job’s physical rigors. Still, the Sheriff’s Department values loyalty as an inviolate virtue, and no good soldier there would think of stepping up to challenge the leader.

On Jan. 22, 1998, Baca stood on the steps of the county Hall of Administration and announced that he was running for Los Angeles County sheriff. He hired Jorge Flores, a 32-year-old Jewish/Mexican political consultant, to run his campaign and asked Democratic power-broker Robert M. Hertzberg of Van Nuys, a longtime friend (and newly elected Speaker of the Assembly), to co-chair his campaign committee. He then went to work seeking $100 and $500 donations from an ethnically diverse coalition of supporters, including Republican ex-state Treasurer Matt Fong and his wife, Paula.

During the campaign debates, Baca told Block that it “wasn’t too late” to step aside, offering the ailing sheriff a car, an office and the title of sheriff emeritus if he’d give up the fight. Block scoffed, and it quickly became clear that Baca was not emotionally prepared to face down the man he’d once referred to as his “professional father figure.”

“It was the old King Lear phenomenon,” says Flores. “They had known each other for a long time. Everything Lee knew about the department, he was taught by Sheriff Block. [Baca was] torn between his affection for the sheriff and his own agenda, his own mission to become sheriff.” About a month after declaring himself a candidate, Baca met a reporter at a Starbucks in Pasadena. He seemed edgy and recounted a dream he’d had: Block was in the hospital and Baca was sitting at his side. Block was very sick, maybe dying. Baca told the sheriff he would take care of him, and Block gave Baca his blessing to run for sheriff, something Baca so desperately wanted.

That blessing remained a dream. As the campaign continued, Block questioned Baca’s character and judgment. He even took issue with Baca’s tendency to ramble in conversation. Baca fought back by carrying around his personnel file to show that he’d received high marks for his performance--that Block, in fact, had expressed confidence in his abilities. But in the midst of the race, Baca became morose, melancholy, stirring concern in those around him. To the horror of his campaign staff--pros accustomed to hard-chargers who never waste a second showing doubt--Baca made comments to reporters that sounded as if he was thinking of bailing out. Associates set up conversations with other politicians, who tried to assuage Baca with tales of their own trials. Finally, friends urged Baca to slip off to Hawaii, where they hoped the tropical sun would effect a cure. “He internalized a lot of things that the sheriff said about him,” says Fong. “He started reflecting on some of the harsh words that were said and wondering if they were true. It depressed him.”

Baca came back from Hawaii looking tan and happy. He was full of fight. Many who had despaired at his previous behavior were now impressed by how enthusiastically he dove back into the race. In the final days of the campaign, Block’s health took a turn for the worse, and on October 29, 1998, he died at USC University Hospital, three days after surgery to remove a massive blood clot from his brain. Block loyalists, contemptuous of the challenger, urged voters to reelect the dead man. But Baca won more than 60% of the vote, becoming Los Angeles County’s first Latino sheriff in more than 100 years. His coalition brought together a stunningly diverse group of campaign workers and donors. And Baca went to work to educate the troops and the public.

Baca finds significance in common things: the eight-mile runs he takes each day from his home in San Marino; the old oak tree down the street. “Oak trees symbolize endurance and long life,” he says. “They have a haunting power to them. . . . My whole love for trees is based on the fact that they were here before we were here, and they are here after we are gone.”

He considers himself a “spiritual” man but doesn’t worry much about how that spirituality is defined. He was raised Catholic but did not object when his first wife decided to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to bring up their children as Mormons (they had twins, a daughter and son, now in their 30s--the son works for the Sheriff’s Department). Last year, when Baca and Carol Chiang married, it was in an Armenian Orthodox church in Glendale, picked because several of his close friends and supporters are parishioners there. His comfort with difference--one of the hallmarks of his life and his politics--is accompanied by an insistence that others listen to what he has to say and accept him for what he is. Almost everywhere he goes, he talks about his ambitious plans--constructing a complex of little cottages, for instance, complete with flower and vegetable gardens, to house the county’s female inmates. He even wants a day care center at the complex because he believes women--even if incarcerated--should not be separated from their young children.

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With $3 million he secured last year from the Board of Supervisors, Baca opened a drug and alcohol treatment center for inmates at the old Biscailuz jail in City Terrace. He promotes its potential with zeal. “We need to do something to get into their minds and souls,” he told one audience. He also talks about financing college classes for deputies who want them. And he is adamant that deputies adhere to a clear code of conduct prohibiting sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. “I listened with great interest to Sheriff Baca’s agenda once he took office,” Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael Judge told the crowd at the Biscailuz Recovery Center dedication. “I became concerned that he was trying to take on too much. . . . It’s unbelievable he got this done. This is a triumph of the will to do the right thing.”

Baca’s confidence in his own good intentions--and in his own virtue--drives him to take positions other elected officials avoid as incendiary. One recent afternoon, for example, he, LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and Assemblyman Hertzberg met with reporters at a luncheon to talk about a ballot measure that would rehabilitate crime labs across the state. They ended up discussing their plans to limit the sale of assault rifles in the wake of the shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. “Have you ever seen what a real murder scene looks like?” Baca asked the journalists. “Would you like to be invited to one every day? . . . It’s not something [where] you can just say, ‘Well, the 2nd Amendment says we can have as many guns as we want, any kind we want, and therefore we are just operating on a constitutional freedom.’ The reality is the Constitution requires change for the sake of society.”

His companions offered general nods of agreement. Then, in classic Baca fashion, he took things a step further. Twisting his napkin under the table, sending bits of paper snowing to the floor, he announced that he would like to make the spouting of hateful comments a crime against the “psyche of a society.” No official at the table seemed prepared to second this addendum.

Longtime friend Daniel Bryant, a real estate agent in Pasadena, says Baca “moves to his own drum beat.” Again, critics aren’t so generous. One of Baca’s own staffers describes the sheriff’s lengthy list of promises as the whims of a “Disneyland Dad.”

That’s not the sort of criticism Baca shrugs off, and when it is repeated, he says that if he finds out who said it, he’ll tell the person to leave his badge at the door. “Anyone who wears the uniform, who feels my goals are not realistic, is an individual who should start finding another job,” Baca once told reporters.

For much of his first year in office, he was defensive. Sherman Block used to hold monthly open-houses to chat with reporters. Baca does not, in part because some members of his administration are afraid their boss will be indiscreet. Baca would not sit down for an interview for this story, perhaps for the same reason.

There are some issues he can’t avoid, however, like his decision to offer guns to his celebrity reserve unit. When asked about that, Baca said he started the unit too quickly. “If I were going to whack myself for something,” he said, “it would probably be that.”

In the months since he took office, the department has buzzed with rumors that the FBI is probing some of Baca’s campaign supporters for a variety of alleged misdeeds. Even if such an investigation proved unfounded, it again would raise among allies the question of Baca’s blind spot for unscrupulous characters. “His staff calls and says, ‘Hey Michael, you’ve got to get him away from this guy,” says longtime friend Michael Yamaki, a criminal defense attorney and former Los Angeles city fire and police commissioner. “I say, ‘You know Lee. He sees the best in everyone.’ ”

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This trusting nature is Baca’s greatest weakness. It’s also his strength, what makes him unique. Take the evening he stopped by a Mexican restaurant to meet with Pasadena’s Young Republicans. “I want you to hear this very clearly,” he told some 20 people who had gathered. “People in jail, for all the crimes they committed, are, first and foremost. . . . human beings. One thing is clear to all of us here: Serving county time means you are going to serve one year or less in the county jail. One thing is sure: They are all coming out. . . . They will either come out worse for their stay in jail, or they’ll come out a little more pulled together as human beings than when they got in.” So why not give inmates a little counseling while they are in custody, he asked. “Forty percent of the people we arrest are illiterate. They can’t read or write in any language. This in itself is a social crime. The failings of the school system and whatever else that contributed to this are on my shoulders.” There he was, all worked up again. “I believe that the county jail is the simplest place to identify the treatment,” he continued. “It’s very, very important to get people out of jail the right way so they don’t come back the wrong way.” He talked for another 20 minutes, then caught his breath. “Do you get the point here?” he asked. The Young Republicans, who in the past have cheered calls for stiffer sentences served under harsher circumstances, broke into rousing applause.

Baca beamed. “This is kind of like the grand vision,” he said, “of taking human beings and giving them another sense of hope about things.”

Baca’s speech, as usual, was of an optimistic future rooted in fond memory, a vision symbolized by the most controversial of his first-year projects: entering a float in the Tournament of Roses parade, a “giant genie who grants wishes.” The idea stemmed in part from Baca’s belief that the float would give the department good exposure as it enters the new millennium, but he also did it because the parade brought back childhood memories. To Baca, this is not a frivolous thing. “There is a child in every one of us,” he said. “The child in me is still alive. Anyone who destroys the hopes and dreams of a child destroys civilization.”

The float came at a price, however. It cost $230,000 to build, money Baca and his staff struggled for months to raise privately; at one point, the float builder complained to tournament officials that the Sheriff’s Department was late paying its bills. Making matters worse, members of Baca’s staff were bickering constantly with Tournament officials over such details as whether the deputies riding on the float should wear their uniforms.

Come Jan. 1, the two-story contraption with its flowery purple and gold magic carpets was positioned near the end of the procession. By the time the friendly genie lumbered onto Colorado Boulevard accompanied by a caravan of camels, the television networks were rushing to finish their broadcasts, and Baca failed to get his beloved department the national exposure for which he had hoped. Television audiences heard nothing about the department’s Medal of Valor winners or deputies killed in the line of duty. Adding insult to injury, the float broke down before the parade ended and had to be towed.

The pundits laughed. “There are many questions about his focus and judgment in terms of law enforcement,” says Joe Scott, a consultant who assisted with Block’s reelection campaign. “The fact that he has unconventional ideas is not necessarily wrong. The fact that they appear to consume the majority of his time and energy is troubling. He should be spending 100% of his time on law enforcement issues, not sidebars such as building the Rose Parade float or fixing up the Hall of Justice.”

Scott sums up the sheriff’s agenda as “new age law enforcement.”

Again, though, Baca stands firm. The float, and its less colorful cousin, the Hall of Justice project, are more important than people with prosaic world views understand, he says. He associates the 15-story building with two towering predecessors--Block and Peter Pitchess, who between them ran the Sheriff’s Department for four decades. Their second-floor office had seemed so big and plush to the youthful Lee Baca. Now all he’s really doing, he says, is bringing his department home, back to where it all began, to a place the pragmatic Block abandoned five years ago for the department’s modern new hillside compound in Monterey Park. So what if it will cost an estimated $100 million to make the move back? The new sheriff says he wants to reestablish Los Angeles’ connection to its past and to leave something hopeful for the future. “It offers stability to life-believers like myself,” he says, using one of those terms that maybe only he understands. “Future generations can benefit from our past.”

It is, he says, all part of “a romantic adventure.”

His advocates believe that the sheriff’s heart is in the right place. The small stuff, the political bumbling, will work itself out as he settles into the job, they argue. More important, in this view, is the refreshing change the new sheriff has brought to an area of government never known for compassion or innovation or inclusion.

“Lee Baca can learn to be a good politician,” says his friend Michael Yamaki. “But no one has to teach this man how to be a good man.”


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