Lee Baca: Social worker

If he was wearing anything but that uniform, you might not recognize him. As the sheriff of Los Angeles County, Lee Baca is, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, one of the best “known unknowns” in Southern California. And what he says may not always be recognizable as a casting director’s idea of a rootin’ tootin’ gunslingin’ Western sheriff. Baca has leveraged his badge and his law enforcement chops into topics many of his colleagues ignore: mental illness, education, homelessness, religion, and how they all affect the community that his department polices.

He’s made fun of himself as “Sheriff Moonbeam,” but with 45 years in uniform, a dozen of them as sheriff, he’s serious as a felony arrest. He’s up for reelection, but his name won’t be on your November ballot — Baca already won his third term in the June primary, running only against … himself.

This may be the first time an incumbent sheriff has run unopposed. Did you scare off the opposition?

I don’t think I’ve scared off anybody. In tough economic times, opponents weigh the fact that if they put that $3,000 filing fee on the table, they might never see the value of that money. I welcome opponents because it offers a more interesting format. But I presume there’re many reasons why somebody would [not] jump in; it’s a big job.

Is this your last campaign for sheriff?

I doubt it. With public trust, you don’t play musical chairs in a political way with a law enforcement job. I’m going to have 16 years or more, [Sheriff Sherman] Block had 16 years, [Peter J.] Pitchess had 24 years, [Eugene] Biscailuz had 28 years. This is the dream job. Every day is like the first day.

Why an elected sheriff versus an appointed one?

An elected sheriff is far more aware of people’s needs. When you’re elected, your solutions have to be crafted with the interests of the public first.

You’ve campaigned for a half-cent sales tax for law enforcement. How much politics should you engage in — like endorsing for governor?

The politicking I do is through relationships. I think it’s important for a sheriff to leverage what clout he or she has in helping the public make a wise decision. We’re around elected officials, and we know who’s capable and who’s not. I’ll support Jerry Brown; it doesn’t mean Jerry Brown is ideal, but I think only a Democrat can reel in Democrats who want to overextend the budget for reasons that are noble but not necessarily feasible in times like this.

You are devoted to another kind of running, the literal kind.

I see running as one of the pillars of why one lives, and that is to maintain your health and show leadership in how you control your own body. I toughen myself every morning to face the day’s responsibility. The deputies are very physically fit as well. I have to suck it in when I’m around them.

You advocate for the mentally ill in jail, on homelessness and other concerns. Are you a sort of social worker in uniform?

I’m not “sort of a” social worker, I am a social worker. Helping people to be the best they can be keeps [the public] safe. The whole idea of crime control is not merely a cop with a gun and a stick. It’s getting people to comply with what’s best for them. Wherever there’s a problem in Los Angeles County, public safety should be part of the solution.

I’m building leaders with deputy sheriffs. [Our] core values say it all: “As a leader in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, I commit myself always to perform my duty with respect for the dignity of all people, the integrity to do what is right, fight what is wrong, the wisdom to apply common sense and fairness in all that I do, and the courage to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms.”

This is the type of human being that the public deserves.

You also do religious outreach with your Interfaith Council, including being at fundraisers for Scientologistsand Muslims. The latter got you a chewing-out from an Indiana Republican congressman a few months ago, and you chewed him back. How is faith work part of your job?

Society needs to be comforted by the police, not only protected by the police. I think religion offers comfort to people. Religion answers the mystery of life for most people, and faith keeps society moral and doing the right thing for the most part, and law enforcement needs the army of goodness behind it.

You and Sen. Dianne Feinstein are working against Proposition 19, to legalize marijuana. Why?

Let’s face it — we created a mess over narcotics. [But the proposition would] just say, let’s have a legalized mess.

My alcoholic grandfather had his weekend binges, and Monday he was ready to go to work. He was responsible in spite of his affliction, and all I’m asking is that if you’re going to have an affliction, be as responsible as you can be, because we all depend on each other. I’m saying, make a little sacrifice. Don’t smoke a joint today. What’s going on in Mexico and South America is because of America’s voracious appetite for illegal drugs.

Hollywood brings with it scrutiny when you handle cases like Lindsay Lohan’s and Paris Hilton’s.

The stars who come to jail are not the problem. It’s the public who’s fascinated by the idea that they’re in jail and all the commentary surrounding the fact that they’re in jail. Lindsay Lohan was an excellent inmate. So was Paris Hilton.

I’m creating an education-based incarceration model because every inmate [should] come out a little stronger and they won’t repeat their offenses. There is no special treatment. I’d invite any citizen into one of my cells and see how “special” it is in when you don’t have any control over your environment, you don’t get to choose when you eat, what you eat and who you talk to.

I’d like to ask about two fellow sheriffs — first, Joe Arpaio, Arizona’s Maricopa County sheriff who, among other practices, set up “tent city” jails.

I know Joe well. Joe has a good political shtick, and that’s his way of staying in office. But Joe runs a nursery school compared to what I run. He uses summer camp environments. I couldn’t — inmates wouldn’t stay confined.

And there’s former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, convicted of federal witness tampering in a corruption case.

You’ve got to be careful; your friends will hurt you more than your enemies in politics. You have to be accountable in what you do as an individual, [and] that it’s never for yourself; it’s always for the public.

You have been praised and criticized for generating so many ideas for the department. Do you mean just to float some of them into public consciousness and gauge the reaction?

I’m not looking for entertainment here; I’ve got a serious job. Orville Wright and his brother were wacky when they decided they wanted to fly. My ideas that I throw out there take a lot of work. It isn’t something that’s just pie in the sky.

I’m thinking of your idea for a unit for pregnant women behind bars.

I have a design for a women’s facility that I think will turn around one of the great problems: incarcerating women as though they are men. There’s a difference. Women aren’t plotting to murder another inmate, women aren’t plotting through gangs in state prison to take over a society within the jails. I think 90% of the males [behind bars] are [not either]. But that 10% of predator inmates, they disrupt the entire environment.

I love the historic downtown Hall of Justice, scene of some great courtroom dramas. You’re dedicated to restoring it, and moving the sheriff’s office back there from Monterey Park. But why fix an old building when the money could go for other things?

We build expensive new buildings that are not as attractive and enduring. I’ll hold my tongue on what’s built in the name of modern architecture in downtown Los Angeles! It’s important for me to be closer to the policymakers.

[The restoration money] will be borrowed under a bond program and will be part of the [federal] stimulus package. We’ll save the county about $60 million or $70 million. We’re going to have a museum there, a jail that’s been saved. We even have a great pressroom!

You had been in uniform for about five years when Ruben Salazar was killed in 1970 during the Chicano Moratorium protests. Do you have any ambivalence about what happened, given that you’re Mexican American and grew up in East L.A.?

Two things go through my mind when I look back at the quote-unquote Chicano Moratorium. First, the demonstrators were largely from outside East Los Angeles. I think because I was raised in East Los Angeles, went to some of the finest schools that the L.A. Unified School District had, and my neighbors were Polish, Irish, Armenian, Russian, Japanese, and my teachers were basically Jewish and some Hispanics and others, that East Los Angeles was not the litmus test of injustice.

[Then], the moratorium was essentially against the Vietnam War. The most patriotic ethnic group that fought for America were Hispanics, but the wave of that imagery — college students who quite frankly owe our nation more than a demonstration — all that created an opportunity for a few anarchists to start a riot. Then a very important man was killed because of those conditions, and the reports will bear that out.

I was appalled that Hispanic society was carrying on in a violent way. This is not what this country is built on — violence. It’s built on education, it’s built on tolerance and community and responsibility. It’s easy to march and yell and scream and throw rocks.

We all had our issues with Vietnam; I served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. It’s not East Los Angeles’ responsibility to be the launching platform for civil unrest.

Now when it comes to Mr. Salazar, I’ll account to any member of his family who’d like to hear what I know, and what I do know, even without the [current] inquiry being complete, is that they’re owed an apology, and they will get one from me, because we did not train our individuals properly at the time. There are a lot of things that we didn’t anticipate and that I think is part of the tragedy as well.

Who are your influences?

Besides my grandparents, a kid named Stephen Tuenge, who taught me [the game of] Go, chess, all about electricity, model airplane building. He was an eccentric oddball nerd, and I was blessed to have him to play with. That’s how I spent my time. No TV!

I have a little workshop; I don’t have time, but someday I will get back to [airplane] modeling.

What about books?

The public should read “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker. The idea of faith and heroic behavior [is] the summation of the book; my belief is that faith and heroicism are companion tools for success as human beings.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is at