By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Although Baca, in an initial, five-page response concurred with only five of the report’s eight recommendations, he did, in the end, relent on the timecard issue — even if deputies are now logging their hours into a new computer system and not merely punch-ing cards.
Besides financial mismanagement, much of the criticism leveled at Baca centers on his judgment calls and private associations. Some of these complaints are rank-and-file gripes against the executives he has chosen for his expanded command staff, while others involve the creation of the now-disbanded Asian Crime Task Force, which some saw as political payback to San Gabriel Valley Asians, a Baca constituency that strongly backed his campaign against Block. Some of these issues were extensively examined in previous L.A. Weekly articles, including one about Baca’s no-downpayment purchase of his San Marino home. There have been other grumblings: his $2.4 million purchase of a plane for his own use; his early support of President Clinton’s pardon of convicted cocaine wholesaler Carlos Vignali; and his 1999 fact-finding junket to Taiwan, his then-bride’s homeland, which was paid for by the government — the Taiwan government, that is.
Baca owes part of his immense personal prestige to the fact that he won more votes than anyone in L.A. County in 2002. While only the sheriff and D.A. are elected countywide, there is no doubt that the Republican Baca must stand a little taller when he walks into a government meeting knowing that he received more votes than anyone in the room. (Baca’s 646,556 votes in the 2002 election easily eclipsed the countywide total for his party’s gubernatorial candidate, Bill Simon.)
“Without the voters he would have been crushed into oblivion,” says Connie Rice. “The supervisors would have run him out long ago.”
Baca’s California Form 460s (campaign donor lists) for his 2002 re-election read like a star chart of Hollywood and business constellations and include Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, film director William Friedkin, Paramount chairwoman Sherry Lansing, the Walt Disney Co., Univision CEO Jerry Perenchio and developer Donald Sterling. It also includes less colorful donors like tow-truck operators and the California Commerce Club casino, and power-lobbyists like Frank Michelena — all of whom, nevertheless, may have had a more direct fiduciary stake in the sheriff’s good will.
“I don’t enjoy the power of this job,” Baca says. “I enjoy the fact that the people who need protection are part of my life. If you don’t enjoy the gift of office the people have given you, what can you enjoy?”
Later, when I leave his office, Baca hands me a keepsake to remind me of my visit — a sheriff’s department key chain that was, it turns out, manufactured by a campaign contributor.
Daryl Gates’ LAPD was ultimately called to account by the Christopher Commission, so too was Sherman Block’s violence-prone sheriff’s department reined in by the Kolts Commission. This independent review panel convened in late 1991, following the exposure of the Vikings deputy gang, to investigate the runaway use of force by deputies operating in what were then considered minority communities. Consequently, every two years an independent panel headed by special counsel Merrick Bobb releases a report card on the LASD.
This year’s was particularly hard on the department and zeroed in on three areas. Bobb’s report accused the LASD of inadequately utilizing the Personnel Performance Index database that tabulates complaints. It also criticized the policy on foot pursuits, claiming that far too many involve lone deputies following suspects they have lost sight of. Finally, after a surprise discovery, Bobb (who declined to be interviewed for this article) scolded the department for its officers’ over-reliance on flashlights as impact weapons. (It turned out the flashlight’s popularity among officers easily tops a list of force options that includes batons, nightsticks and saps.)
Baca has little enthusiasm for Bobb’s latest findings.
“The day we tell police officers to stop chasing criminals,” Baca tells me, “is the day we don’t need police departments.” But one also senses an over-defensiveness in Baca’s response, especially when he adds, “I think Mr. Bobb, as a paid critic, hears rumors and uses anonymous observations — then I have to respond to them.”
Richard Hongisto, the former San Francisco sheriff and police chief, agrees.
“I was the most liberal law-enforcement leader the city had,” he says, “but I didn’t forget to catch bad guys. I should think an officer should be given an amount of discretion — we’re here to catch people.”
The Bobb report, in fact, is perhaps the one thing that momentarily unites cops of all viewpoints behind Baca — even his critics within the LASD.
“I don’t believe I should be restricted in the tools I have to successfully do my job,” says Sergeant Stites of the report. “This is not a polite job. I’m not there to be polite, I’m not there to seek approval. I’m there to find out if someone’s been involved in criminal activity. It’s not like we’re running around with flashlights looking to beat someone.”