Zen and the Art of Sheriffing | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Zen and the Art of Sheriffing 

Lee Baca’s Khaki Revolution

Thursday, Sep 25 2003
Illustration by Travis Chatham

Father Gregory Boyle knows the story’s been told many times, but he still enjoys passing it along. It’s about the time some inmates of L.A.’s Twin Towers jail were having their possessions searched before entering chapel. A sheriff’s deputy made a habit of throwing their sad bundles to the ground after poking through the stuff — one of those demeaning little gestures that guards and trustees make to remind prisoners who’s got the power. One Sunday, however, Sheriff Lee Baca happened to be around and wordlessly stepped over, knelt down and gathered one inmate’s bundle. Baca personally handed it back to the man, and the next thing the deputy dropped was his attitude.

Many parables like this are told about Leroy David Baca, sheriff of Los Angeles County and of Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands.

“I was at a big conference on the future of the city, and Baca was there,” recalls civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, had sued the sheriff’s department over the brutality of a gang of white-supremacist deputies called the Vikings, who operated out of the department’s Lynwood station. “I didn’t know who he was — he wasn’t in uniform. Baca came over to me and said, ‘Thank you for that lawsuit. We’ve got a lot of work to do.’ I looked at him and thought, Who is this crackpot?

Selling the brand: Baca and allies in compton Photos by Ted Soqui

Rice eventually became an ally of Baca’s and served as a campaign adviser during his 2002 re-election run. Her conversion came after hearing him, Rice says, define his deputies’ role as being “the supreme de-fenders of civil rights. He had me right there! Baca’s 30 years ahead of most cops.”

Even Stephen Yagman, the Venice lawyer whom most cops regard with visceral disdain, looks upon Baca as a friend. “He is as good as any lawman could be in that job,” Yagman says. “He’s intelligent and he’s got a good heart and he works hard. There’s nothing more anyone could wish for.”

There is, naturally, another point of view among Baca watchers, one that says it’s no coincidence that civil rights lawyers and clergymen happen to be in a room when Baca says nice things about civil rights lawyers and clergymen. To his critics, the sheriff is an opportunist, a social reformer in cop’s clothing, a mismanager of budgets and programs. Even his admirers will admit there’s something goofily New Age about Baca, who freely acknowledges his “Sheriff Moonbeam” reputation.

“I’ve been an observer of Leroy Baca for a long, long time,” says David Dotson, a former LAPD assistant chief. “He has never been mainstream — he was always considered a nut, a weirdo. But he had the courage to express his beliefs even when they weren’t popular.”

Pro or con, intentionally or not, Lee Baca anecdotes all tend to make the same point — that he is a new kind of cop, and as if to clear up any doubts, one of the first things the sheriff hands to interviewers is a laminated card labeled “Our Core Values,” a much-quoted card ordering all deputies to “to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms.”

L.A. has had smart cops, crooked cops and colorful cops — now, with Baca, it has a humanist cop. In his nearly five years in office, Baca has proposed more reforms than were ever dreamt of in the philosophies of predecessors Sherman Block, Peter Pitchess and Eugene Biscailuz. Baca backs California’s Three Strikes law and is a registered Republican and Bush supporter, but his efforts to attack the social foundations of crime in the 21st century — poverty, homelessness, substance abuse — snugly fit Marx’s definition of radicalism as the ability to go to the root of a problem.

Badge of humanity: Swearing in hearing-impaired students

“He really gets the idea,” says Father Boyle, the founder of East L.A.’s Jobs for a Future and Homeboy Industries, “that people are more than the worst thing they’ve done and believes in the redemption of the individual.”

The list of Baca’s initiatives reads like a Rooseveltian New Deal for law enforcement, a two-front revolution against traditional cop attitudes and for a compassionate embrace of society’s most helpless. One of his first acts was to rehab the old Biscailuz Jail in Monterey Park and turn it into a minimum-security facility housing and treating only addicts and domestic abusers. (One early inmate was actor Robert Downey Jr.) The Biscailuz Recovery Center epitomizes Baca’s belief that in the long run the pre-emptive education of potential criminals will relieve pressure on law-enforcement resources as well as ease the burden on other county resources. According to a department report, “inmates who have not participated in the program are re-arrested four times more often than non-participants.”

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets