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By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Jill Stewart
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Since 9/11 he has been a welcome visitor to Southland mosques and has encouraged Sikhs to become deputies — all the while continuing to enjoy the long-standing support of Jewish groups. The department even entered, of all things, a float in Pasadena’s annual Rose Parade a few years ago; this was a somewhat whimsical gesture tinged with irony since, in 1991, the Pasadena City Council sought to block deputies from the Vikings-tainted Lynwood station from serving on parade duty.
The problem, critics say, is that however noble his programs, Baca has no mandate from either the voters or Board of Supervisors to make sure that county inmates are given, say, employment counseling or that wife beaters receive anger- management counseling in lockup. To them, the department’s job is to run jails, not therapy centers.
“We already have a health department, we already have a social services department,” says one county government insider who wished to remain anonymous. “Why should the sheriff’s department all of a sudden be providing some of the same services when it should be fighting crime?”
How people answer that question invariably determines what side they take in debates about Baca and the direction he has set.
Lee Baca oversees the nation’s second-largest law-enforcement empire but doesn’t wear a sidearm.“A gun isn’t practical when you’re sitting in a car,” Baca tells me one afternoon as we ride in his black Grand Marquis. “Over a period of time it’ll affect your back, and we’ve already got enough worker’s comp problems.”
His discourse on the ergonomics of gunslinging would not surprise anyone familiar with Baca’s persona, which is part professorial, part visionary. L.A.’s 30th sheriff holds a USC doctorate in public administration and sometimes sounds more wonk than cop, as when he explains why he prefers wearing his uniform instead of civilian clothes:
“I believe in marketing the Sheriff’s Department’s brand. The uniform is our brand.”
Baca leads an army of about 8,000 deputies and 7,000 civilians. His department services 41 contract cities, operates the world’s largest jail and polices the county’s transportation systems. This khaki realm covers most of L.A. County’s 4,081 square miles, from Avenue A in the high desert to San Clemente Island’s China Point. Baca often spends much of his 16-hour days helicoptering or jetting to its distant reaches simply to pat a few backs at a Rotary Club. “This county isn’t practical,” he says.
Baca is a vigorous, lean man of 61 who looks like a new $20 bill in his pressed uniform and patent-leather shoes. In personal conversation he is a thoughtful listener prone to giving long answers while rubbing his wrists. His thin, Jesuitical smile resembles Rudolph Giuliani’s and, in fact, until the middle of his campaign against Block, Baca also sported a Giuliani-like comb-over. (He often pats his bald pate as though brushing down the hair that was once there.) His steely vigor and intimate rapport with visitors do not often transfer to the podium, however. He sometimes conveys a Rosenbergs-caught-in-the-flashbulbs stiffness and often speaks slowly and dolorously.
On one Thursday morning the sheriff attends a conference on Homeland Security in the gloomy L.A. City Council chambers. He does not say much, but speaks fluently enough in the overly gracious, Mandarin court language of city bureaucracies. At this conference Baca talks about the new regional crime lab that will eventually open at Cal State L.A., then sits back and listens to the what-if-jets-crash-into-a-Lakers-game presentations. LAPD Chief Bill Bratton sits a few chairs away, wearing his trademark frown. On some levels, Bratton is the Anti-Baca — flashy, sharp-tongued and, above all, a showman.
Baca is publicly fond of Bratton. “It’s as though we’re cut from the same block of wood,” he explains after the Homeland Security meeting. “We both believe in finding the problem before the problem finds us.”
The East Coast Bratton and East Los Baca certainly make for an odd couple, with Bratton’s uptight Officer Krupke playing off of Baca with his more forgiving view of human nature. In a way, their personalities mirror public perceptions of their departments, with the LAPD traditionally being viewed as more distant from the public it serves.
“LAPD cops always believed they were the gold standard of law enforcement and were not subject to the law,” says Rice. “They made no distinctions between judges and doctors in communities they decided were kill zones. The deputies don’t quite have that hypermacho attitude, they’re lower-keyed and make a little more room for who you are.”
Roy Burns, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), the union that represents deputies and investigators for the district attorney, puts it another way: “The LAPD drives with its windows up, where we drive with ours down — we want to hear the sound of windows broken and gunshots being fired.”
Baca twice applied for the appointed position of L.A. police chief, and was twice rejected because of good-old-boy politics and insider-friendly rules governing the accumulation of test-score points. Some have said he was merely using these as dry runs for his eventual challenge to Block, but it is worth contemplating what the LAPD would be like today if Baca had been appointed in 1992 or 1996.