Enter the World of Lee Baca
Only Sheriff Lee Baca, it seems, is enjoying the ride up the mountain.
The dirt road, barely wide enough for the bus carrying Baca’s entourage, drops off hundreds if not thousands of feet. It’s getting dark, rain is on the horizon and the driver doesn’t speak English. A scout jumps out every so often to make sure the wheels are still on the road. The Pakistani escort warns of the price on American heads, and road signs declare: “Foreigners Prohibited.”
“I’ve done some stupid things with you, Lee,” says Ted Sexton, sheriff of Tuscaloosa County, Ala., “but this has got to be the stupidest.”
Fellow lawmen on the bus are talking about turning back. Others look too scared to talk. Minutes earlier, Baca had quelled one mutinous sheriff who was screaming, “This is crazy,” by trading places with him and letting him ride in the Mercedes sedan that was leading the way up the pass.
Unlike his compatriots, Baca is smiling.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca is a quirky and enigmatic cop, reading the Harvard Business Review one minute, talking about solving homelessness the next.
Although he presides over the largest sheriff’s department and jail system in the nation, he is often overshadowed on his own turf by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton. It’s not from a lack of energy. Baca is always on the move, but where he’s going is often a mystery, even to his confidants.
What, for example, is Baca doing here in Pakistan?
The plan for the February bus ride to Khyber Rifles -- a military outpost overlooking the Afghan border -- was hatched six months ago in Los Angeles.
Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, was visiting California and was introduced to Baca by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The sheriff told Musharraf that he wanted to learn anti-terrorism strategies from a country dealing with Al Qaeda. Musharraf extended an invitation.
Baca began his nine-day adventure Feb. 11. He took his wife, two top deputies, sheriffs from Sacramento, New Jersey and Alabama and half a dozen members of his Southeast Asian advisory committee. Baca paid for his wife’s trip; his expenses were paid from money raised by private donors.
The money for his deputies came from the department’s tight budget.
In the course of his journey, Baca set up an exchange program between the Islamabad Police Department and his department. He did groundwork for a “terrorism summit” with Pakistani intelligence agents. He received secret briefings about anti-terrorist operations, including the investigation into an assassination attempt on Musharraf.
“We accomplished everything we wanted to do,” he said at the end of his trip.
Whether the Pakistan visit will significantly improve the department’s anti-terrorism strategies is debatable. But the trip revealed plenty about the man responsible for the safety of about 3 million residents of Los Angeles County.
After traveling more than 18 hours across several continents, most of Baca’s delegation is at the hotel in Lahore, sleeping. Baca is running laps at a nearby polo field.
The sheriff likes to run fast -- so fast that guards from Pakistan’s elite police forces can’t keep up. At 61, he runs seven-minute miles, a pace that few people any age can match.
“The body is the vessel of your life,” Baca says. “This is not a dress rehearsal.”
Though impressed by his stamina, some of Baca’s hosts are dismayed: The long-legged sheriff is wearing shorts, which some Muslims consider immodest.
Baca went to Pakistan despite warnings from U.S. State Department officials, who told him it was too dangerous.
But his willingness to take the risk endeared him to Pakistanis who treated Baca like a goodwill ambassador, welcoming him with a red carpet. His comings and goings often made the evening’s TV news and morning papers.
Baca enjoyed the role of visiting dignitary. “Assalam alaikum,” he said when introduced to people. Peace be with you.
Several times, Baca clasped his hands together and gave a slight bow, which in this country can be viewed as a Hindu greeting. But Muslims here did not appear to take offense.
He gave Pakistani greetings, a hug and kisses on the cheek, to officials, including Musharraf. In one meeting after another, Baca called the Pakistani president “a man of vision, a man of character, a man of history,” ignoring the complex political cross-currents that dominate the country.
Baca gave out miniature sheriff’s badges to nearly everybody who crossed his path. He made a small ceremony out of pinning them to the recipients’ lapels. After a while, his hosts lined up to receive the gold miniatures.
“Is he running for office,” asked one Pakistani, “in this country?”
Members of Baca’s delegation are eating breakfast before another day of back-to-back meetings. They’re chuckling -- and fretting -- about the newspaper story announcing their arrival. They fear that they are an inviting target for Al Qaeda. But the story identifies Chief Sandra Hutchins, who heads Baca’s Homeland Security division, as the leader of the group. Baca is not mentioned, but he is hardly concerned.
“You’ve been promoted,” he says to Hutchins.
Baca was elected sheriff six years ago, beating an incumbent who died just days before the election.
Although Baca has spent his entire 38-year career with the department, he doesn’t fit any stereotype. He has a doctorate from USC in public administration and considers himself an intellectual. He supports gun control, and the sight of homeless people “deeply saddens” him. He is a Republican stalwart who supports Arnold Schwarzenegger but is not too happy with the governor’s proposed budget, which will take money away from counties.
“I’m not going to kiss up to him,” Baca said in Pakistan.
Over the years, Baca has earned a reputation as a touchy-feely sheriff who sometimes draws the scorn of more traditional deputies. Comparing him with former California Gov. Jerry Brown, they call Baca “Sheriff Moonbeam.”
Baca does sometimes say things that are difficult to follow or downright off the wall.
In Pakistan, for example, he advised his fellow travelers that “you have to be a universal person to keep up with the demands of a modern world;” and, later, “You have to have the consistency of the now.”
After seeing horse- and mule-drawn carts side by side with automobiles on the roads of Lahore, he remarked: “These donkeys are very dutiful animals. They’re saying, ‘I don’t screw with you and you don’t screw with me.’ ”
Chaudhary Tanvir Ahmed, a top official with the Federal Investigation Agency -- Pakistan’s equivalent of the FBI -- is host to an outdoor barbecue for Baca’s delegation at his expansive ranch. Many of the country’s power brokers are here to meet the L.A. County lawman. Baca gracefully works the crowd, engaging many in prolonged conversations.
William M. Howe, an official at the American Consulate in Lahore, has been monitoring the sheriff’s activities. Baca “has been well received,” he says, basing his judgment on reports he’s heard.
“He’s a seasoned politician,” Howe says. “He’s not a loose cannon. He’s a good representative of the United States.”
Minutes later, Baca walks by a military band playing a Pakistani song, and the 6-foot-1 sheriff spontaneously breaks out in dance. He grabs his wife and, arms up over his head, saunters and twists, Zorba-style, across the yard. They’re the only ones dancing, and people are staring, laughing and clapping.
“It’s very nice to see a police official dancing,” says one Pakistani to another guest. “Most of the times they are making other people dance.”
Back on the bus, Baca seems energized by his dance.
“That’s what I do. I celebrate the different cultures of the world,” he says, sitting back in his seat. “I don’t just celebrate. I participate.”
Within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, Baca met with members of his Southeast Asian Advisory Committee. He assured them that his department would protect them from hate crimes directed at Muslims or other minority groups. He asked for a list of local mosques and Pakistani-owned businesses and sent patrol cars to guard them.
That meant a lot to Lahore-born Bob Din and other members of the advisory committee, who have since been devoted supporters of Baca.
“He was the first, highest-ranking official to assure our community that we didn’t have to worry and we’d be protected,” Din told Pakistani leaders as he introduced Baca at several meetings.
Din and other committee members used their connections to open doors for Baca’s delegation. For example, Din persuaded the head of Pakistan International Airlines to charter a flight from Lahore to Islamabad to spare the delegation a five-hour drive.
Din said he doubted that Baca and his team had learned everything they wanted about Pakistan’s anti-terrorism efforts during the short trip, but he thought the experience had been valuable in other ways.
“They saw for themselves how law enforcement and government work here. They saw that Pakistan is an ally of the U.S.,” said Din, the chief executive of an El Segundo-based technology company. “The sheriff was able to build relationships with the leaders of Pakistan, and they with him.”
Throughout the trip, Din seemed always on his cellphone.
“More good news, sheriff,” he said after one call. “The mayor of Lahore wants to meet with you.”
Baca and his delegation are running late. It’s 6:30 p.m., more than three hours past the appointed time for their tour of the Shalimar Hospital, a 350-bed clinic that provides free medical care for Lahore’s poorest residents.
Everybody on the bus is tired and wants to forgo the trip. Baca drops them off at their five-star hotel and continues without them.
A banner reading, “We Welcome the Distinguished Guests,” hangs over the facility’s entrance. The hospital officials are waiting by the front door, clearly expecting a bigger group. But they seem pleased that Baca, the head of the delegation, is there. They usher him to a conference room and proceed with a PowerPoint presentation about the hospital’s work.
Instead of being in a hurry to get back to the hotel, Baca asks questions and goes on an extended tour that eventually includes nearly every room in the hospital. He talks to doctors, nurses and patients and asks several officials to pose for pictures with him.
Ninety minutes after his arrival, Baca boards the bus and heads back to the hotel.
“Did you see how proud they were of the hospital?” Baca says. “It would have been rude not to come.”
Baca’s delegation was nearly always flanked by guards carrying assault rifles. When the members drove somewhere, police motorcycles and squad cars cleared the way.
At first, delegation members were apprehensive about terrorists. But soon they worried more about the casual way their guards pointed their assault rifles, sometimes in the direction of guests. A lack of training, one U.S. lawman whispered.
Pakistani law enforcement officials downplayed safety concerns, saying terrorism was not such a problem in their country. The terrorists, they said, were on the run.
Pakistani leaders touted their government’s crackdown on extremist organizations and said more than 500 suspected terrorists had been turned over to the United States in the last several years. They spoke about a new anti-terrorism law that had helped their efforts.
But Baca and his delegation were not told, nor did they inquire, about provisions in the law that allow police to detain people for as long as a year without filing charges.
Nor did the delegation delve too deeply into questions about civil rights abuses and torture, which are reportedly common tactics of police here.
At times Baca seemed as much a booster for Pakistan as the Pakistanis were. He pronounced his intention to lobby the State Department to lower the threat advisory that discourages U.S. travelers here “so all Americans can enjoy the culture and the wonderful people.”
After Baca made a similar remark at one dinner, a U.S. Consulate official quietly grumbled that the comments were naive. “I’ve seen the reports,” the official said. “They come across my desk every day. There are people here who want to kill Americans.”
On its last full day in Pakistan, the delegation goes sightseeing: a drive through the old Peshawar open-air market, known as the Qissa Khawani Bazaar. The streets are bustling with people buying tea, spices, meats and other goods.
Baca wants to experience the scene up close.
“Pull over,” he says to his police escort. “Pull over. I want to get out.”
“Right here. Here’s good,” Baca says as the driver pulls to the side of the road.
About two dozen police officers divert traffic and stop pedestrians as Baca goes window shopping.
He eyes a pair of green shoes that he says would look good on his wife, Carol. He stops by a flower stand. He jumps on a horse-drawn cart carrying a load of rice and poses for a picture with Carol.
He walks to a store that sells decorative plates. The owner is honored that a U.S. official is in his tiny shop. The man pulls out a photo album and, page by page, shows Baca the autographed photos of the famous people who have shopped in his store. Among them are Jacqueline Onassis and former President Bush.
Baca smiles. He takes off a pair of presidential cufflinks he received from former President Bush, and gives them to the man, who is obviously thrilled.
For the rest of the day, Baca’s unfettered cuffs flap as he gestures. They flap during a meeting with the chairman of Pakistan’s parliament; they flap during an hourlong interview on Pakistani television.
Baca is too busy to notice -- or if he does -- to care.
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