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Editorial: Lee Baca’s trials aren’t over yet

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A mistrial was declared Dec. 22 in the corruption case against former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

Lee Baca presented himself as a reform-minded sheriff who brought education programs to his jails and campaigned for improved human relations in Los Angeles County and around the world, yet he presided over a jail system in which deputies brutally beat inmates and formed cliques that fostered a culture of violence and contempt of outsiders. Under Baca, discipline was lax or non-existent. He ignored the official monitors and department whistleblowers who tried to warn him of the problems. He mishandled department finances. He was a poor administrator.

If hypocrisy, mismanagement and detachment were crimes, Baca would surely be staring down a long prison term.

But they are not, and they do not warrant criminal conviction or incarceration. Inept managers should be fired and fumbling elected officials voted out of office, not hauled before a judge, although Los Angeles County is such a huge and virtually ungovernable county that any sheriff may be found wanting as a manager.

The actual crimes Baca was charged with — conspiracy and obstruction of justice for orchestrating, or at least accepting, a scheme to thwart an FBI investigation into jail brutality — are harder to prove. On Thursday, the jury announced it was deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial.

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Baca’s long career in law enforcement and politics ended in disgrace. His role in promoting the use of jail time to educate inmates and direct them to more responsible, productive lives is all but forgotten. He is 74 and suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. He poses no danger to the public and will never again be in a position to commit the offenses for which he was convicted. Any other sheriff who might also consider obstructing an FBI investigation would think twice because of the ordeal Baca has already undergone. So should he really face a prison term?

If there is a new trial and he is ultimately convicted, yes.

Baca was accused of violating a position of double-trust: He was a public safety officer, sworn to uphold the law, carrying his authority in the form of a badge and a gun; and he was an elected official, put in office by voters four times. He was in a position that relies on public confidence and demands the utmost integrity. He was charged with using that position to undermine, rather than uphold, a criminal investigation.

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If Baca ultimately is to be punished, it would not be for being the top man at a time of runaway inmate abuse, but for abusing that position to prevent another law enforcement agency, and by extension the public, from learning what was happening on his watch. The fact that an official with such a middling record of management was in position to impede an FBI investigation is a commentary of the inadequate systems of oversight under which Baca worked. But being in that position, if he actually tried to undermine the FBI — that would be Baca’s crime, and Baca alone should answer for it.

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