The report issued Friday by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which lambastes Sheriff Lee Baca’s management of the county jails and suggests that he probably would have been fired for incompetence had he been working in the private sector, should come as a surprise to no one. In recent months, the public has been barraged by reports describing violence against inmates, gang-like cliques of deputies, lack of meaningful oversight and an institutional culture of arrogance and impunity.
The report includes 63 recommendations that could serve Baca as a blueprint to help overhaul the nation’s largest jail system. But they are, in the end, just that — recommendations. Baca is an elected official, not subject to the authority of the commission or the Board of Supervisors or anyone except the voters when his term comes up in 2014.
Some of the recommendations provide practical and immediate solutions, such as appointing an experienced corrections expert to run the jails, establishing harsher penalties for dishonesty or misconduct, and creating separate patrol and custody career tracks for deputies. Indeed, those seem like things that any effective manager would have done long ago. But as the report notes, Baca was detached and disengaged for years, even as the problems mounted.
The commission’s report is thorough, and many of its proposals seem sensible. But even if all 63 were implemented, it’s not clear they would be sufficient. Ultimately, they will amount to little unless accompanied by more fundamental change.
The sheriff has repeatedly said he is committed to reform, but we have yet to see anything beyond tinkering. No one in his command staff, for example, has been disciplined, including the top managers he blames for keeping him in the dark. That includes Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who the commission says derailed efforts to crack down on excessive force and encouraged deputies to work in an undefined “gray area” that contributed to the culture of violence.
The report’s recommendations need to be carefully digested. One that deserves serious consideration would create an office of inspector general, capable of far more robust and independent oversight than is currently done by either the Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors or the Office of Independent Review.
Next week, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas will ask that the county consider establishing a citizen review board, not unlike the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD. That plan also merits serious consideration.
For too long, some deputies have been allowed to abuse inmates with impunity. Voters have kept Baca in office, and he has taken that to mean he can ignore the problems that have cost the county money and public embarrassment. These recommendations offer a chance for a fresh start. Now it’s up to Baca.