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
However, his most radical innovation has been the creation of the Office of Independent Review (OIR), a six-lawyer panel comprised of civil rights lawyers, headed by former U.S. Attorney Michael J. Gennaco, that investigates officer-involved shootings and use-of-force complaints. OIR lawyers roll to crime scenes as soon they are contacted by watch commanders . This unit was the first of its kind in the nation, reaching far past the civilian commissions that many cities use to investigate police brutality cases. Lawyers speak of the OIR’s creation — by the very man whose work it is intended to evaluate — with awe.
“It’s unprecedented to have such a self-critical report in law enforcement,” USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky tells me. “It shows Baca cares about the integrity and the way discipline is conducted in his department.”
“When you catch a criminal,” Baca says, “you’ve caught a human failure. Our job is to stop human failure the best and most humane way possible.” Baca’s humanism is not, to put it mildly, shared by all the rank and file. “He’s a behavioral scientist, and in my mind we don’t need someone like that as sheriff,” says Sergeant John Stites, a 23-year department veteran. “His problem is that he believes he should use law enforcement as a vehicle to solve all the world’s social problems.”
Stites is an affable man with a laconic manner who, along with Sergeant Patrick Gomez, ran against Baca in the 2002 election (Gomez, who’s been with the department for 22 years, also ran for sheriff in 1998); both men stressed that, for this article, they were sharing private observations as former opponents of the sheriff.
“He’s a politician,” says Gomez one afternoon amid the bustle of the Eastside Market, a sandwich shop near Chavez Ravine that packs in law-enforcement and fire department personnel at lunchtime. “He tells you what you want to hear.”
Stites claims that years ago Block promoted Baca to play the Latino card and to have a feel-good emissary to dispatch to community meetings.
“Block would send him to these organizations like Women Against Gun Violence because he would always say whatever they wanted to hear,” says Stites. “Sometimes Baca’ll endorse both candidates during an election. He withdrew his support from [mayoral candidate] Nick Pacheco and threw it to [Antonio] Villaraigosa.”
Stites believes the department has lost both the respect of hoodlums and the Board of Supervisors.
“Baca projects an aura of superiority, and that puts him in a bad light,” he says. “You’re dealing with some very headstrong members on that board. He’s consistently reminded the supervisors that they have no control over him — but they do have control over his money.”
Another complaint against Baca is that he’s made his executive bureaucracy top-heavy and that the fleet of LASD take-home cars available to his staff has doubled from 300 to 600, further straining an already cash-strapped department.
“We have cars with 120,000 miles on them,” says Sergeant Gomez of the deputies’ own black-and-whites. “We’re salvaging parts from other cars, some of which we’ve bought from LAPD. Our maps were printed in the 1970s, and our cars’ computers are no longer even manufactured.”
When I mention this to Baca he shrugs, “Our equipment is aging, but we cannibalize it and keep it going.”
Other men and women interviewed for this article held similar views to those of Stites and Gomez, though most declined to go on the record with their complaints. Some accuse the sheriff of vindictiveness and of encouraging the organizing efforts of the new, Baca-friendly union called the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Professional Association, after ALADS and the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA) that represents sergeants came out against him in the 2002 election. Others allege Baca has meddled in the promotion process to reward his friends, especially in the Sergeants exams — a charge the sheriff denies.
“He mostly speaks from the heart,” says one 22-year veteran, who claims to have had run-ins with the sheriff and who requested anonymity. “If Baca sees someone is salvageable he will try to redeem that deputy’s career.” But in the next breath this same sergeant exhales the frustration heard from other LASD personnel.
“What the hell is our mission? We’re not supposed to be acting as surrogate parents for kids in afterschool programs. I would quit tomorrow if I had the money — so would a lot of deputies.”
Baca is not the first reform-minded cop to come along in California. More than 30 years ago, even before Joseph McNamara became San Jose’s police chief, Richard Hongisto was elected as San Francisco’s radical sheriff and later, police chief. Hongisto quickly made headlines by, among other things, aggressively promoting gays, women and minorities within his department; he even spent five days in his own jail for ignoring a court order to evict elderly residents of Chinatown’s International Hotel.
“Mr. Baca ran on a platform that suggested to people what he was going to do,” Hongisto tells me. “And the people of Los Angeles spoke — this man had a mandate. For some deputies in Los Angeles to now say his department is not supposed to be a social service agency shows how retrograde their thinking is — it’s a typical redneck attitude.”
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city