By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
David Dotson, the former LAPD assistant chief, believes Baca’s emphasis on creating leadership courses and allowing middle managers to initiate changes within their stations is the only model that works, though he adds that the sheriff needs to clear the department of deadwood obstructing his programs.
“You don’t need a reign of terror,” he muses, “but if everyone has agreed on the vision that needs to be embraced, then you have to kick ass and send people to Siberia. But in civil service, which has tenured positions, it’s hard to find crappy places to send people.”
For years, Los Angeles lawyer Barry Litt tried to get the Los Angeles Sherrif’s Department to change the way it released inmates from custody after court appearances. In the days of the Block regime, any prisoner who was ordered released by a judge would be forced to return to jail to be strip-searched and processed out. Unfortunately, once back at the jail, many — an estimated 40 percent — would get lost in the system and spend one or two additional days (or weeks) locked up. Besides wasting money on additional incarceration costs, the process was unconstitutional — in 2001 the Board of Supervisors agreed to a $27 million court-ordered settlement of class-action lawsuits for holding inmates beyond their release dates and illegally strip-searching them.
“The settlement got Sheriff Baca’s personal attention and the policy was revamped within 90 days,” Litt told me, amazed that anyone in the ossified LASD would — or could — act so swiftly.
Perhaps no area of the sheriff’s jurisdiction causes the department more problems than the county jail system. Baca sees L.A.’s pandemic homeless problem lying at the root of it all. He may be sheriff in a state considered to be on the edge of tomorrow, but he’s also the de facto mayor of a medieval village of the homeless, paroled and deranged. His deputies spend far too much time encountering and arresting homeless people for misdemeanors that arise solely out of their itinerant conditions, and they have become a growing segment in the Twin Towers jail. Worse, for most of the homeless, jail is their only health care provider — Baca, as he often says, runs the country’s largest mental hospital.
Homelessness is one of the scars that distinguish contemporary America from “old America” — the America of consensus that existed before the Vietnam War era. Then, there were relatively few panhandlers and vagrants; now, they form a vast but powerless lumpen subcontinent that American society handles the way it deals with its most shameful problems — with a shrug.
Baca has taken the issue head-on. Last September he and City Councilwoman Jan Perry hosted a Summit on Homelessness at the Central Library. The sheriff proposed establishing an open-air homeless shelter outside Twin Towers that would serve as a counseling center and short-term residence for released prisoners who have no other place to sleep but L.A.’s streets.
The summit did not attract many high-profile politicians but earned the sheriff praise from homeless activists, even while they criticized his proposal to build a tent city within Twin Towers’ shadow as a kind of transitional gateway to the world.
If nothing else, a highly readable report came out of the meeting that, among other things, pointed out that Los Angeles County (minus Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach) has a homeless population of 84,300 (the nation’s largest) yet budgets only $520 in services per homeless person, while San Francisco spends $12,000 on each of its 8,640 homeless.
“Three NIMBYs can override 300 people who are for a solution,” Baca tells me, a rare growl of disgust in his voice.
For Baca, Los Angeles County is a Wagnerian stage, one on which homelessness and other social dragons are fought, and it’s not unusual to hear him use theatrical phrases to describe a crime scene or public gathering.
“Wherever we’re putting on a show, meaning, providing services,” he says, “it’s literally in the hands of the people doing the work — the participants who are on the stage of performance.”
Never one to think small, Baca looks at the long term, and his LASD2 Strategic Plan is a 30-year program to overhaul his department, a blueprint covering everything from community policing to hate-crimes identification to establishing a publishing unit.
One of the programs dearest to the sheriff’s heart has been the creation of the LASD University and the Deputy Leadership Institute, which allows deputies and civilian employees to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees through five affiliated universities, and trains officers in higher management skills. Again and again Baca’s recollections of his early career as a deputy return to the low level of formal education that marked the department when he joined it in 1965, and he is clearly proud of the fact that 900 officers and civilians are now seeking secondary degrees.
“Do I want a rigid culture that doesn’t take interest in the broader forms of knowledge,” he asks rhetorically, “or do I want a culture that believes not only in the diversity of the people we serve but believes in the diversity of knowledge that creates the people we serve?”
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