When Lee Baca took over the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department in 1998, he publicly pledged to end excessive use of force and brutality by deputies, noting that if he didn’t fix the problem someone else from outside the office might well do it for him.
Nearly 14 years later, however, little has changed. Baca’s jails are the subject of multiple investigations. The FBI is examining allegations of deputy misconduct and violence. Internal affairs is investigating a secret clique within an elite anti-gang unit whose members allegedly sported tattoos of gun-toting skeletons. On Monday, two retired supervisors became the latest ex-employees to describe a department in which deputies beat prisoners and ignored higher-ups. Complaints about this behavior went unaddressed by Baca’s top commander.
And earlier this month, a report by Merrick Bobb, who serves as an independent monitor of the department for the Board of Supervisors, concluded that Baca has ceded too much authority to underlings, who in turn have allowed problems to fester.
Baca is an elected official and therefore cannot be easily removed from his job. But as the investigations yield troubling new allegations, he is beginning to seem hopelessly out of touch and dangerously impotent within his department. If he intends to regain public confidence, he must assert control. He mustn’t continue to leave oversight and reforms to his command staff — some of whom may be part of the problem.
The two former supervisors told a county commission created to investigate problems in the jails that a 2006 proposal to help break up deputy cliques was undermined by then-Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, who has since become Baca’s second in command. Retired Lt. Alfred Gonzales and former Sgt. Daniel Pollaro testified before the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence that Tanaka met with jail supervisors and told them to “coddle” the deputies rather than crack down on them.
Such reports aren’t isolated. Last year, Robert Olmsted, a 32-veteran and former commander, said he had tried alert Baca and his bosses in the jails about violence and cliques but was told the culture within the jails couldn’t be changed.
Since the jails scandal broke last year, Baca has moved too slowly to address the problems he initially denied and later blamed on his command staff. He has established a task force to investigate misconduct and has met with critics, whom he once eagerly dismissed. But that’s not enough. The sheriff needs to reassert his authority.