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Editorial: Don’t let the Baca saga obscure the need for ongoing reform at the Sheriff’s Department

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca makes a statement announcing the withdrawal of his guilty plea.
(Los Angeles Times)

The plea deal under which former Sheriff Lee Baca was to serve six months in federal prison looked like it might be the final act in the long-running drama of abuse and corruption in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. But when Judge Percy Anderson rejected the deal as too light, the disgraced former sheriff insisted that he would go to trial instead, adding that the proceedings would “set the record straight.” Federal prosecutors are now seeking more charges against Baca beyond simply lying to investigators about his role in a scheme to thwart an FBI investigation into the abuse of jail inmates.

To the ex-sheriff’s critics inside and outside the department, a trial leaves open the prospect that Baca could escape justice by depicting himself to a jury as a hapless man whose only offenses were vesting too much trust and authority in others — such as former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was recently sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the abuse and coverups — and losing control of a department that may be too large and too complex for any one person to manage.

It is certainly Baca’s right to present his case to a jury and to seek acquittal, the same as any other criminal defendant. But the possibility that the elected official in charge of the jails could be acquitted and escape any accountability for knowingly or ignorantly overseeing the brutalization of inmates by his deputies is a reminder of the barriers — structural, political, legal — that inhibit rational and effective oversight of the sheriff’s department, a law enforcement agency that has a profound impact on millions of people.

Baca resigned his office in early 2014 before completing his fourth term, and the election to replace him was won handily by Jim McDonnell, a talented and honorable man who appears to be doing his best to set the department on a better course.

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But changing the players won’t be enough to change the game.

Consider, for example, McDonnell’s continuing attempts to weed out of the department those deputies who have shown themselves to be unsuited to carry weapons and to wear the badge and the tan and green uniform.

Under the Los Angeles County system, fired deputies can be, and indeed have been, reinstated by a civil service commission that has no expertise in law enforcement or public safety and that makes its decisions based in part on the precedent set by previous sheriffs and commissions. So as McDonnell is attempting to raise standards of performance, the commission is judging deputies based on previous, lower standards. McDonnell then is compelled to take back — and to keep paying — deputies he and his command staff have deemed unfit for their jobs, completely undermining his power to set high standards of performance. It is an untenable system that has nevertheless become the envy of law enforcement officers in other agencies who would like to enjoy similar leniency.

Switching out the man at the top was a solid step but it will not be enough to correct the Sheriff’s Department

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Or consider the end, this year, to McDonnell’s short-lived practice of publicly posting on the Internet determinations of whether a deputy shooting or other use of force did or did not comply with department policy (as first reported by KPCC).

Sharing those decisions with the public was a cornerstone of McDonnell’s push for transparency, but it was scuttled by pressure from the deputies’ union and a strong recommendation by county lawyers not to fight the union pushback.

Or consider the failure this year of SB 1286, a package of reforms in the state Legislature to return to the public the power it once had to readily learn when an officer has been found to have lied during an investigation or was disciplined for misconduct. The bill faced strong and organized opposition from police unions. But it is noteworthy that when the same opposition emerged to a similar attempt a decade ago, the bill won strong and vocal support from Los Angeles elected officials like then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and law enforcement leaders like then-Chief William Bratton. This time around, no such L.A. leadership emerged.

The county Board of Supervisors voted this year to establish an oversight commission to keep tabs on sheriff reforms, but the panel has yet to be appointed or to convene. The board agreed to consider asking voters to grant that commission subpoena power, but with deadlines approaching to put measures on the Nov. 8 ballot, there has been no move forward on that issue.

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A Los Angeles County Commission on Jail Violence recommended a number of steps in 2012 to improve oversight of the department, such as creating an inspector general and eliminating oversight bodies that it deemed ineffective or insufficient. Many of those recommendations have been implemented.

But basic structural problems remain, including the role of civil service and county lawyers (and sometimes county supervisors) who are oriented more toward limiting the county’s liability for misdeeds than improving the quality of policing. The sheriff’s status as an independently elected official may serve to shield him from accountability rather than subject him to it; yet the thought of him being appointed by and reporting to the Board of Supervisors offers little comfort.

Switching out the man at the top was a solid step but it will not be enough to correct the Sheriff’s Department, and Los Angeles cannot rely on criminal prosecution of sheriffs, command staff and deputies as a substitute for oversight. Baca’s failed plea deal and his looming trial may be among the more compelling chapters in the story of the Sheriff’s Department, but the most important pages are those that lay out how we make sure that a similar meltdown does not occur again — and those pages haven’t yet been written.

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