Soon after he was sworn in as L.A. County’s 30th sheriff in 1998, Lee Baca began to express a philosophy of policing that was radically different from anything that had ever come out of the Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department. He spoke of his police force being an “enemy” of bigotry in all its forms and of the necessity of his deputies to revere the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Communities, declared Baca, should tell his department the solutions to their problems, not the other way round.
Then last July, Baca unveiled a plan that embodied his unconventional approach to law enforcement. It called for civilian oversight and supervision of his department’s investigations of officer-involved shootings, abuse and misconduct. What made Baca’s proposal even more groundbreaking was that the civilians chosen to head and staff his new Office of Independent Review would be civil rights attorneys, traditionally anathema to overzealous police officers. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky hailed the plan as an “unprecedented [leap] in the history of law enforcement.”
Baca, 58, has spent nearly 36 years in the Sheriff’s Department. Working his way up through the ranks from deputy sheriff trainee through commander of numerous sheriff’s stations, he now leads a force of 13,000 deputies and civilian personnel who police 2.5 million people and run the nation’s largest urban jail system. Yet, he looks and sounds more like a well-prepared systems analyst than a veteran cop.
A native of East L.A. who grew up in a poor, troubled family, Baca attributes much of his empathy for the impoverished and marginalized to that experience. After graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School and East Los Angeles College, Baca joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1965. Nearly 30 years later, he earned a doctorate in public administration from USC.
Married for two years to the former Carol Chiang, Baca has two grown children from a previous marriage, one of whom is a police officer in Rancho Murieta.
In an interview in his Monterey Park headquarters, Baca spoke about his involvement in the recent furor over President Bill Clinton’s commutation of the prison sentence of Carlos Vignali, a convicted drug dealer from Los Angeles, and about his vision for the department.
Question: Should a law-enforcement officer be writing any kind of letter on behalf of someone who is serving time for a crime?
Answer: Let me set the record straight. The only letter I’ve ever written involving a person who had committed a crime was when I was a chief in 1996. I asked the Federal Department of Probation to consider moving [Carlos Vignali] closer to his family. I believe that when people are in prison, their families are an integral part of their rehabilitation.
Q: You say you have never written a letter “involving a person who had committed a crime” other than Vignali. Why did you do it for him?
A: Because I believed that Vignali’s father is a good man and a good father who wanted to see his son more frequently, so he’d go no further into the world of crime. I believe that’s an important thing.
Q: Horacio Vignali made $11,000 in political contributions to you. The appearance is that those contributions could have prompted you to write the letter.
A: [The contributions] had no impact on my decision. And I wouldn’t rule out [writing a letter] again to help someone get closer to an offspring in prison. What the public doesn’t know is that this was not an unusual request. Large prison populations are best managed when you have an inmate population that is not going off the deep end. All this spin over contributions is convoluting the essence of good management of jails.
Q: Could you elaborate on your contacts with Hugh Rodham in the Vignali matter?
A: I have issued a press statement that defines what my contact was, which is, he contacted me. I never sought him out. He called and told me that I would receive a call from the White House. It’s a mystery to me why he called.
Q: You wrote a second letter last year at the request of Horacio Vignali. What did he ask you to do?
A: Prepare a letter about his son’s status, and I refused to do so. I don’t believe that I am in a position to ask anyone to consider the commutation of a sentence. That’s something that requires a review and knowledge of the details of the offense, knowledge I do not have. I wrote a letter [instead] saying that I knew [the elder] Mr. Vignali, that he is a good man and father and that he was helpful [to the department] in regard to a deputy sheriff who was committing a crime while on duty.
Q: Let’s shift gears. What’s the status of your proposal to create an Office of Independent Review, headed by civil rights attorneys, to conduct and supervise the department’s investigations of police shootings and other deputy misconduct?
A: A team of civil rights attorneys and others, led by the county counsel, have screened 140-plus applicants. The applicant pool is down to 12, and they have selected a top candidate. The Board of Supervisors is now reviewing that person’s qualifications.
Q: Civil rights attorneys investigating cops for a police agency is a radical departure from the old system of cops investigating cops. Why did you decide on this approach?
A: Because the culture that we in the Sheriff’s Department are promoting is that we are the defenders of civil rights; we are the ultimate caretakers of these cherished laws, and that we are no longer operating in some form of isolationism when it comes to the most fundamental of American rights.
Q: In his December 2000 semiannual report, Merrick J. Bobb, who monitors the Sheriff’s Department for the Board of Supervisors, wrote that the Baca administration “appears not to be consistently and single-mindedly focused on keeping [the use of force by deputies] in check as [was] its predecessor, and our concerns are beginning to mount.” What’s your response?
A: In looking at statistical data, Bobb arrived at a conclusion that is important, but unwarranted. There was half a percent increase [per 100 cases] in the use of force. I don’t see that as alarming. In fact, we have fewer lawsuits today, and complaints regarding use of force have not gone up. Is the force justified should be the overriding issue.
Q: In that same report, Bobb also wrote about the medical care of inmates in county jails: “It is dispiriting to find . . . that acute problems persist.” He credited the department with making some progress but at a--to quote the report--"wearying pace.” What’s your reaction?
A: The problem is that the security culture interferes with the medical-treatment culture. Inmates cannot receive medical care upon demand because of the security controls in place. I need to reconfigure our system. I tried to get USC Medical Center to marry into my existing medical services, but it refused. So did a number of Presbyterian hospitals. There has been progress. The computerized medical tracking system that we started five years ago is 80% complete. But what is really required is bringing in public and private hospital expertise to overhaul the whole system. I was looking for a sweeping solution, and I failed.
Q: The number of women in jails and prisons throughout America has increased exponentially since the war on drugs. What are you doing about that increase in county jails?
A: We are redoing Sybil Brand Institute [the women’s jail]. I want the new institute to have a campus-like atmosphere. That means that the only time there is a lock-down is at night, when people are asleep. Other than that, the focus is on rehabilitation. We average 45 days per offender. It’s not enough time to fix a major problem, but if a person is serving time, I’d rather get them involved in learning to read and write, learning conflict resolution, communication and parenting skills. [At another] minimum-security compound, we’ll have a nursery for women who are pregnant or give birth while in custody, and for children under age 5.
Q: The Los Angeles Police Department is finding it extremely difficult to recruit officers. Are you having similar problems?
A: No. And I think the primary reason is that I’ve tried to make it clear to the public that the Sheriff’s Department belongs to them. Minority people traditionally see law enforcement as a power institution that has an aura of an elite culture. What I am trying to do is to eliminate the elite aura and define the culture of the department to reflect the entire community of L.A. County.
Q: What are your core values?
A: Respect the dignity of all people; the integrity to do what is right and fight what is wrong; the wisdom to apply common sense and fairness in all that I do; and the courage to stand against sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and bigotry in all its forms. All recruits must remember these core values by heart. Otherwise, they don’t graduate from the academy. I’m also focusing on developing people’s leadership at the Deputy Sheriff Leadership Institute. We’ve trained over 700 people thus far.
Q: What kind of training do they receive?
A: I want to empower people to create a vision that involves solutions and participation. This is an important new way of doing law enforcement. The old basic principle of “Do what I say because I tell you to do it” works during a bank robbery or in arresting a felon. But the population today is more sophisticated, and Americans don’t respond well to blind authority. They want to be treated with respect and dignity.
Q: How can you ensure that your deputies treat people with respect?
A: By establishing the right mechanisms. By building teams of people in the community to work hand in hand with us, and by focusing on the things that they, the community, prioritize. We do surveys of neighborhoods. We knock on doors of residences and businesses, and we ask them, through a survey model, “What do you want us to do?” Community policing is not listening to the community and then us telling them the solutions. It’s listening and then engaging them in helping to find the solution.
We now have 4,000 volunteers working with the Sheriff’s Department. Our showcase is the VIDA--Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives--program. It’s for kids between the ages of 11 and 17 who are involved with small amounts of drugs, aren’t doing well in school, are tempted by gangs, not obeying their parents or engaged in truancy. We sign up 500 kids every month, and about 250 make it through the whole 16-week program. Those who can’t make it can come back for a second try. A deputy came up with [the idea] for this program, and I made him a hero in this department, because the peer group is critical to how the core values that I’ve talked about come into a reality. This is a learning organization. We we don’t have to behave in a predictable, autocratic way.
Q: What influenced you to adopt this kind of management style?
A: My own life experiences and my education. I am proud of my doctorate in public administration from USC. . . . The theoretical world is unlimited, while law enforcement is a self-limiting culture. My goal is to erase the cultural lines and blend the culture of law enforcement into the culture of society at large.
Q: How did you come by your identification with people on the margins of society?
A: Growing up in East L.A., I had a lot of exposure to kids who weren’t making it. I was also raised by grandparents who were taking care of my mentally ill uncle, whose IQ was probably 30 or 40. We struggled financially and emotionally. My grandfather was an excellent railroad worker but a weekend alcoholic. So growing up, I just felt that people in the lower economic strata of society were still good people. I was one of them.
Q: Why did you become a cop?
A: I felt that being in law enforcement would be a great honor. But I also brought with me the realization that people carry deep scars when we use force that’s unreasonable and [when] we treat people verbally as less than human beings. The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights are important ingredients that every law officer must respect. And that’s why I got in. I wanted to do it better and different.
Q: How did growing up as a Mexican American in East L.A. affect your view of law enforcement?
A: First of all, [Immigration and Naturalization Service] sweeps can be very scary to the innocent. The guilty will also have a reaction. That’s why our Safe Streets Bureau doesn’t utilize sweeps. We’ve made a point of knowing our clientele, not by virtue of chasing them, but by how we interact and communicate with them.
Q: Several weeks ago, you spoke before a coalition of grass-roots anti-poverty and homeless organizations. Why?
A: I went to learn about what other speakers had to say. I also wanted to express my views about some of these social problems that this particular group of people has been dealing with for years.
Q: Why do you think you received a spontaneous standing ovation?
A: The audience was emotionally relieved to hear a law-enforcement official speaking at a certain level of humanity. Law-enforcement officials do not [normally] express their passion for the downtrodden, the homeless, the poor and the mentally ill. But that’s not acceptable to my core values.
Q: What are doing about it?
A: How do you get mental-health providers, the Veterans Administration, the Volunteers of America, the Salvation Army, the Sheriff’s Department, the LAPD and the Public Works Department to support a system that knows how to deal with the homeless? That’s a job I have taken up myself. I don’t think that there is anyone more suited to do this. Because when I come to the table, I don’t come empty-handed. I bring the [Sheriff’s Department’s influence], planners and designers.
Q: What specifically are you working on?
A: A public safety center for the homeless. This will be a place where people can live and sleep outdoors, but with proper heating, sanitation and food. We already have a blueprint for the center.
Q: When will it be operational?
A: If I get the funds--$8 million from the state--it could be in a year.
Q: Your vision of a humane, community-orientated Sheriff’s Department sounds awfully good--almost too good to be true. How should we gauge your adherence to your promise? How should we hold you accountable?
A: The measure of our success will be the level of community involvement, which will ultimately lead to the growth and effectiveness of [our] community-based programs.