Baca’s gone but the problems remain
After months of deepening federal investigations, damning news exposes and a scathing county commission report that decried his “failure of leadership,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca finally took the hint Tuesday and announced that he would step down at the end of the month rather than seek a fifth four-year term. It’s the right decision, and one we hope will enable the department to reverse some of Baca’s many mistakes and begin to fix the many problems that have plagued it during his nearly 16-year tenure.
Baca’s resignation will close the books on one man’s political career, but the people of Los Angeles County must fight the temptation to end the discussion about the nearly unfettered power of the sheriff’s office, the evidence of institutionalized thuggery in the jails and the urgent need for both a leader capable of revamping the nation’s largest sheriff’s department and a structural framework for vigorous oversight and lasting reform.
Make no mistake: Baca’s tenure was troubled, to say the least, and his departure is welcome. Even during his first three terms, the quirky sheriff got himself into trouble by handing out official-looking law enforcement credentials to elected officials and financial supporters. He broke state law by appearing, in uniform, to endorse other candidates for office. No doubt there are political realities for an elected sheriff that police chiefs and other law enforcement officials can ignore, but Baca was all too comfortable with the campaign aspects of his office and repeatedly crossed the line of propriety.
Throughout his tenure there were lawsuits over the physical abuse of jail inmates, excessive force in the field and injuries caused by deputies driving drunk on duty. There were complaints about lazy or inept budget oversight, unwillingness or inability to crack down on secret deputy cliques and evidence of poor management.
Through it all, Baca paid lip service to a progressive vision of law enforcement and corrections, with a department of deputies committed to professionalism and respect for human rights, and a policy of education-based incarceration and mental health care that could make Los Angeles County jails a model for the nation. That vision, which Baca spoke of often, made him all the more maddening, because in practice his leadership fell so far from the standard that he himself set. It was often hard to tell if he really believed his talking points and just couldn’t give them flesh or if, instead, they were lines designed merely for public consumption.
It was in his fourth and final term, to which he was elected without opposition in June 2010, that public scrutiny finally caught up with him. At issue in Baca’s current term was the degree to which sheriff’s personnel felt free, or even compelled, to use unnecessary force on inmates, and also whether Baca directed that conduct or was so out of touch as to be unaware of it. In 2012, a county commission on jail violence faulted him for inept management and asserted that if he were the chief executive officer of a private business instead of the elected sheriff of the nation’s most populous county, he would have been fired.
Last October, a jury found him personally liable in the 2009 beating of a jail inmate by deputies. In December, 18 deputies were criminally charged, some for conspiracy to obstruct a federal probe of the jail in an alleged department scheme to keep an informant from speaking to the FBI. Baca was not named, but U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. made it clear that the problems in the department were pervasive and that the investigation was ongoing.
Even the most honorable deputies in a department struggling with a corrupted culture need to know that the old ways will not be tolerated. They must see persistent attention to the department’s problems, not the intermittent public focus that comes with elections or verdicts, or the occasional critique or initiative offered by the Board of Supervisors. Deputies must know they are working under a sheriff with the highest integrity, subject to a workable system of oversight.
Baca’s departure will allow for a more sweeping revamp of the department. But county leaders and the public should not view a change at the top, by itself, as sufficient. Baca was a problem, but he was not the only problem. He may not have been up to the task of balancing politics and law enforcement, and he may have been too flawed or tired or incompetent to imbue his entire force of deputies with his stated vision, but for any Los Angeles County sheriff to do better in a strange job that combines elected politics with jail management, mental health care, inmate rehabilitation and law enforcement, there must be a system of oversight that doesn’t rely merely on federal probes and periodic elections.
Exactly who the new sheriff will be and just how an effective oversight system will be structured should become the central debate of the sheriff’s race over the coming year. Candidates should make clear not merely how they would eliminate inmate abuse and misconduct by deputies but how and where they would draw the line between their own independence as sheriff and their accountability for reform.
The Board of Supervisors, in the meantime, should focus on oversight but not control. It should consider an interim, short-term appointment as Baca’s successor — someone who is committed to not running in the November election — and let candidates who are vying for a full term make their case to voters.
Next December, for the first time in a decade and a half, there will be a new sheriff in town. The people of Los Angeles County must have a chance to choose one with ability and integrity, who will serve under a workable system of oversight that prevents the kinds of abuses that reportedly took place under Baca from being repeated.
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