In an advertisement touting Carmen Trutanich as the next district attorney of Los Angeles County, Sheriff Lee Baca proclaimed that Trutanich was the best candidate for the job. “He’s not afraid to sacrifice,” the sheriff said, adding that “Carmen Trutanich is about [the] values” needed to serve effectively.
Baca is an elected official and entitled, like anyone else, to support candidates for office. But just because he can does not mean he should. And if he’s so inclined, he should at least consult the law. He is, after all, a sheriff.
California law prohibits law enforcement officials from engaging in politics while in uniform. And yet, there was Baca in the advertisement, his badge prominently featured on his khaki sheriff’s uniform, engaging in politics. His endorsement thus violated the law. He’s since admitted it, and the clip is no longer running on the Trutanich website. All in all, that’s a fairly embarrassing miscue in a campaign by the city’s top lawyer, who’s seeking to become the county’s lead prosecutor. One would have hoped that between the sheriff and the city attorney, at least one would know the law.
But the misjudgment goes beyond reading the statutes. Los Angeles has waged a historic struggle to decouple law enforcement from politics. Those with long memories will recall that there was a time when the Police Department ran rackets for the mayor. In the 1980s, Chief Daryl F. Gates irritated some civic leaders when he endorsed Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian in 1984 and City Councilman Hal Bernson a few years later. In the years since, some chiefs have avoided politics while others have participated. Chief William J. Bratton, for instance, took some criticism for supporting the candidacy of Jack Weiss for city attorney.
Baca is not a police chief, and unlike a chief, he was elected to his position, making him a politician as well as a law enforcement officer. Nevertheless, he and his office would be better served if he were to depoliticize it as much as possible. He’s done just the opposite — not just by endorsing Trutanich but also by agreeing to serve as the honorary chairman of his campaign, as well as that of Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who is running for city attorney. Baca properly apologized for breaking the law in his Trutanich appearance; he should go further and scale back his attempts to aid his political friends.