Note: This is a partial list. We are continuing to interview candidates; more endorsements will appear next week and at laweekly.com.
L.A. COUNTY SHERIFF: LEROY BACA
The past four years have not been kind to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who oversees police patrols in 41 cities, scores of unincorporated areas and the buses and trains operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Reeling from the financial fallout caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks, the county Board of Supervisors cut $168 million from Baca’s budget, a move that provoked a terrible chain of events: the closing of jail facilities, reducing the number of deputies and embracing “early release” — a policy allowing inmates convicted of misdemeanor crimes to serve only a tiny fraction of their sentences.
In so many ways, we wish Baca had risen to the challenges of this turbulent period.
After his election in 1998, Baca showed a firm commitment to change the culture of the department, by making it more inclusive and imposing discipline on misbehaving deputies. Unlike so many in law enforcement, Baca talked candidly about the societal ills that complicate police work, from a dearth of shelter beds for the homeless to a lack of services for the mentally ill. Even in his campaign for a third term, Baca billed himself as a bridge between low-income neighborhoods hard hit by crime and affluent communities reluctant to fund public safety fully.
The past four years call into question Baca’s ability to serve as that bridge. He pushed for passage of a $500 million sales-tax hike in 2004 to reverse the cuts in his budget, only to turn off voters with a ridiculous campaign commercial showing a terrified white woman fending off a home-invasion burglar. Jail overcrowding and ghastly inmate deaths — caused by a mix of inadequate funds and poor oversight — turned the county into a fat target for law enforcement watchdogs, civil-rights advocates and an impatient federal judge.
And then there are the corrosive effects of early release on low-income communities. With so many low-level offenders being released soon after they arrive in jail, communities are getting the hint: Why take a risk? Why engage law enforcement in any way, when the criminals will be right back out on the street? Why let police know about a crime at all? Baca himself acknowledged that the effect on low-income communities has been horrendous.
This is the unhappy backdrop for the June 6 race for Los Angeles County sheriff — a five-way contest that has not exactly dazzled the voters. Sheriff’s Sergeant Paul Jernigan has not shown the depth needed to lead such a sprawling department, while retired Sheriff’s Captain Ken Masse lacks the temperament to run a system that serves so many different communities. Sheriff’s Captain Ray Leyva, a 24-year department veteran, shows promise and a keen understanding of the staffing shortages that plagued the system. Yet his own history with the jail system leaves us somewhat wary. The other strong challenger is retired police Lieutenant Don Meredith, who showed his own willingness at the Glendale Police Department to investigate misbehaving officers. Meredith has drawn praise within Glendale for his commitment to addressing gang violence. But Glendale is a small pond compared to the county system.
Furthermore, Baca has made some progress. We know that the department is becoming more responsive to community needs, as shown by Baca’s extraordinary apology to Compton residents after his deputies fired into the homes of innocent families. We saw it again in Compton when he ramped up patrols in an effort to curb a high homicide rate. Now that the supervisors have reversed their budget cuts over the past two years, we see even more reason for hope that Baca can add 1,000 deputies to his department.
So Baca should get a third term, so long as he takes along this to-do list: show the management savvy needed to run the department; forgo the Homeland Security junkets to Pakistan, Jordan and other far-flung locales when the jail system is so overcrowded, underfunded and occasionally lethal; find a more compelling way to convince the voters — and the county supervisors — of the need for the proper level of financial support. And, most important, find a way to become a true bridge between the county’s more affluent communities and the low-income ones — by running a public-safety agency that everyone deserves.
COUNTY SUPERVISOR: GLORIA MOLINA, FIRST DISTRICT; ZEV YAROSLAVSKY, THIRD DISTRICT
We know Angelenos hate politics. And we certainly get that it’s almost impossible to unseat an incumbent supervisor in Los Angeles County. Yet we sometimes daydream about a real opponent somehow scraping together the money and campaign prowess to force a real discussion of the county’s priorities — from foster care to health care, from transit to trauma centers. Just think of Supervisor Gloria Molina, a blunt representative of communities stretching from East Los Angeles to Pomona, squaring off against state Senator Gloria Romero — no shrinking violet herself. Or County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky fielding a challenge from state Senator Debra Bowen, another savvy Westside pol with her own policy prowess and a gift for public gab.