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
“There’s meaning in everything here,” Baca tells me as I sit in his Monterey Park office. “This office is a place where the public should be relaxed when they meet me for the first time. It should reflect tranquillity and not be some mausoleum dedicated to law enforcement.”
A picture of his second wife, Carol Chiang, sits on his desk, turned outward to visitors; a pair of autographed electric guitars (gifts from Buck Owens) stand on the floor, a menorah gleams from a sideboard. Mostly, though, the room, with its Chinese urns, Buddha statue and framed ideograms, exudes the ascetic stillness of a Zen sanctuary.
“I was baptized Catholic, but I find God in every religion,” Baca told me earlier. “I believe in maximum human balance — that’s my sub-religion.”
Baca tries to be law enforcement’s FDR, although, as L.A.’s economy wobbles, he increasingly finds himself without a treasury to finance sheriffing’s New Deal. The only time I hear Baca raise his voice is when he discusses the budget battles that have forced him to close some facilities as well as curtail his vaunted Deputy Leadership Institute, and to move the Biscailuz Recovery Center to Lynwood. He has also been forced to reduce his department by 1,114 sworn and civilian positions and to kill such popular outreach initiatives and at-risk youth programs as COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) and VIDA (Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives). I ask Baca about his support for the tripling of car registration fees, his 2002 proposal to raise county sales taxes by half a cent (the supervisors summarily shot it down), and his controversial early release of county jail inmates, a cost-cutting move that alarmed his critics and supporters alike.
“I’m out of steps,” he says wearily. “I don’t have any more ways of saving money for the sheriff’s department, save close the doors. The sheriff has no power to generate revenue or even decide how revenue is allocated, but I’ll take the political heat for all the consequences of the scarce dollar.”
People who have no opinion on the sheriff often ask, “Is Baca for real?” By this they mean, are his programs heartfelt, or is his humanity a mask for political ambition?
The answer is that Baca is very much real, but so is the LASD’s paramilitary bureaucracy, which at best has functioned as a model of Mediterranean efficiency and whose lapses have cost the county a fortune. Baca grew up in this organization that didn’t teach its captains and commanders how to articulate policy visions — indeed, didn’t encourage them to even have policy visions. Its self-perpetuating leadership cultivated celebrities and politicians, rode horses in parades and looked good in dress uniforms but regarded much of the civilian world it was sworn to protect with suspicion. Baca embraces that civilian community and shuns the ornamental displays of sheriffhood, but he also tends to speak from the podium, as it were, even in private conversation. When I ask him about his break with the culture of the old LASD, the one that was widely perceived as racist and recklessly violent, his answer sounds like a press release that airbrushes the past.
“The LASD in the 1960s was relatively free of scandal,” he says. “Deputies tended to use more force than today because of less accountability. My approach to sheriffing developed under the tutelage of sheriffs Block and Pitchess, two very distinct, different leaders. You will never hear Baca blame or disparage the LASD’s past and its leaders. This filial loyalty to the department is commendable in one sense, but in another probably contributes to what critics claim is his feeling of messianic infallibility.
Yet Baca is no hologram, and his humanity can be glimpsed at the funerals for his murdered deputies, when he’ll choke at the podium; in his angry insistence that Mexico extradite the accused killer of Deputy David March; and in those moments, just outside his office, when he might be surrounded by a crowd of young deaf students whom he’ll solemnly swear in as deputies.
The question, then, isn’t is Baca for real but, can he pull off his program? Can he repair his relationship with the Board of Supervisors, will he ever be able to tame the Dantesque jail system and curtail the endless line of lawsuits that stem from it? Time is the one thing on Baca’s side — he shows no other political ambition than to be sheriff, a job the voters will probably allow him to keep into his 70s, even with term limits.
“I see the panda,” Baca remarks, “as a rare species of animal life that is playful but dangerous nonetheless. They’re not cuddly.”
The sheriff then identifies some Korean masks, adding, “People have to take their masks off and be real. There are no masks in here.”