Too Much Mr. Nice Guy: How Lee Baca Let Paul Tanaka Run Amok in County Jails | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Too Much Mr. Nice Guy: How Lee Baca Let Paul Tanaka Run Amok in County Jails 

How did progressive L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca end up running some of the nation's most violent jails? By letting Paul Tanaka do whatever he wants.

Thursday, Dec 13 2012
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Shortly after he was made captain of the Men's Central Jail, Robert Olmsted picked up on a disturbing pattern. Many of the guards had broken right hands.

The threat of violence permeated the facility. Mouthing off to a guard could lead to a beating. Sometimes, when inmates would expose themselves to female guards, the male guards would march into the cell to defend the women's honor.

Olmsted wanted to put a stop to all that. He knew that Sheriff Lee Baca wanted inmates treated with respect and compassion. It was right there in Baca's stated "core values": Deputies were called to uphold "the dignity of all people."

click to flip through (4) TED SOQUI - “You ever see a liberal mom or dad who lets - their kids do everything? That’s what Baca - is,” Robert Olmsted says of Sheriff Lee Baca, - pictured.
  • Ted Soqui
  • “You ever see a liberal mom or dad who lets their kids do everything? That’s what Baca is,” Robert Olmsted says of Sheriff Lee Baca, pictured.
     
 

Olmsted held briefings with every shift: "We can't be doing this type of stuff," he said. He instituted new practices, and over the course of a year, he saw progress. Uses of force declined.

Then he was promoted to commander, and a new captain took over — Dan Cruz. Cruz was a favorite of Paul Tanaka, the hard-ass assistant sheriff who had Baca's ear.

Soon after Cruz took over, Olmsted heard that violence was on the rise again. In one shocking case, a paraplegic inmate was mouthing off, so the deputy retaliated by searching his anal cavity. In the ensuing struggle, the deputy broke the inmate's eye socket.

Olmsted began tracking the use of force systematically. He attempted to get Cruz to address it head-on — but Cruz was more interested in finding out who had leaked to Olmsted.

Olmsted took the issue to his boss, who told him it was impossible for anyone to change the culture in the jail. "Let him fail," he was told.

Instead, Olmsted went over his boss's head to the assistant sheriff for custody, who gave Olmsted the impression that he couldn't do anything without Tanaka's support. So Olmsted went to Tanaka.

Tanaka was a longtime assistant to Sheriff Baca. He also served as mayor of the city of Gardena, and aspired to be sheriff one day. Tanaka had been amassing power within the department by placing loyalists in key positions.

After looking into Olmsted's complaints, Tanaka agreed that Cruz had failed to manage the jail. But he didn't want to reassign him. Instead, he told Olmsted to work with him and help him develop the skills that would get him promoted to commander.

Olmsted felt he had no choice but to take his concerns all the way to the top. As he would later testify, Olmsted tried to buttonhole the sheriff twice. Both times, Baca promised to talk to him, only to wander off.

Within months, the troubling situation erupted into a massive scandal. The American Civil Liberties Union documented scores of brutal attacks on inmates and called on Baca to resign. The FBI launched an investigation, even going so far as to smuggle a cellphone in to a jailhouse informant. It was only then that Baca agreed to sit down with Olmsted.

He gave Olmsted 10 minutes, which he used to tell the sheriff that Tanaka was undermining his authority and his values.

"Do an informal survey on the department. Find out how you get promoted on the department informally," Olmsted told the sheriff. "Here's what they're going to tell you. You're going to have to give campaign contributions to Mr. Tanaka. You got to smoke cigars with Mr. Tanaka. You gotta go to City View restaurant with Mr. Tanaka. You got to belong to the cigar club with Mr. Tanaka. It's not Baca. It's Tanaka."

Baca's response: "Sometimes I need to hip-check him every once in a while."

Olmsted was dumbfounded that Baca wasn't more concerned by Tanaka's out-of-control behavior.

"You ever see a liberal mom or dad who lets their kids do everything?" Olmsted tells the Weekly. "When the kid acts up, he says, 'He's just growing up. He's being a boy.' That's what Baca is."

The jails are just one symptom of a more general decline affecting the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Discipline is lax. Revelations of cronyism are routine. Investigators and plaintiffs' lawyers are combing through every facet of the department's operations.

"It troubles me deeply to see the reputation of the department where it is now," says William T. Sams, a retired sheriff's chief. "It's a pariah in a lot of ways."

Two men bear the greatest responsibility for the department's low standing: Leroy D. Baca and his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka.

Baca is a nice guy. Even his critics tend to begin by saying, "I like the man." Now 70, he has always been quiet, introverted and a little strange. When he was first elected sheriff, in 1998, supporters hailed him as a Zen mastermind. He was overflowing with ideas about how to make policing more humane.

Detractors called him a social worker with a badge, or Sheriff Moonbeam. But progressives adored him, and so did voters. Scandals that would have scarred others' reputations glanced off him. He got another nickname: the Teflon Sheriff.

But Baca was beset by insecurities and self-doubt, which made it hard for him to see his own flaws clearly, much less confront them. He seemed to resolve his self-doubts by banishing them, closing himself off from anything that might disturb his sunny aura.

Early in Baca's tenure, his deputies learned not to express reservations about his ideas — no matter how impractical they were. Eventually, the doubters retired. "Lee has surrounded himself with people who are going to say yes to everything he says," Al Scaduto, a retired chief, says.

Tanaka has become his most trusted aide. In many ways the men are opposites. Tanaka is an accountant, good with details. He's also a cop's cop — aggressive and wary. Unlike Baca, his critics do not claim to like him. In their telling, he's a full-metal asshole, a shouter, a "little Napoleon."

"He's got a terrible temper, and a little-man complex. If he doesn't like something he'll start yelling at you," says Chuck Jackson, a chief who retired, in large part due to Baca's increasing dependence on Tanaka. "It's really mind-boggling to understand the attachment."

In the judgment of the independent Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, Tanaka is largely responsible for the sadism that goes on behind bars. "Tanaka should take his retirement," says Jerry Harper, who was undersheriff for Baca's predecessor, Sherman Block. "The department would be much better off if he did that."

But Baca has refused to entertain any doubts about his No. 2 man.

By now, Baca has been told he's a genius so many times that he believes it. As criticism has mounted, he has buried his head further into the sand. In a KCRW interview last week, he cited dubious statistics to contend that the problems were overblown. "Where's all this massive abuse going on?" he asked.

That doesn't bode well for the prospects of jail reform.

"Either Sheriff Baca wants to do it," says former DEA chief Rob Bonner, who served on the jails commission, "or it's not going to happen."

Baca did not get his boundless self-esteem from his parents. They split up before his first birthday. His mother, a seamstress from Mexico, had another child. That was more than she could handle, so she decided to give Leroy up for adoption when he was 7 years old. When his father's parents volunteered to take him in instead, she packed him off to his grandparents' house in East L.A.

Each day, he thought his mother would return to pick him up. Finally, his grandmother broke the news: "Mom's not coming. You might as well settle in."

Leroy shared a room with his disabled Uncle Willy, whose IQ was in the 30s, and who required constant care and attention from his young nephew.

"If I get a little off-center with some of my thinking," Baca told an audience at USC in 2010, "I probably got it from my uncle because he and I spent a lot of time together."

When he was 14, he went to live with his father, a factory worker. The old man had taken offense when his brother accused him of being a bad parent, so he told Leroy to grab his things and move in. At the time, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with his new wife, so he made space for his son to sleep in the cellar.

In high school, Leroy ran track and played backup tight end. He was not a gifted athlete, but he tried hard. He wasn't much of a student, either — he got C's and D's — but he was popular, despite his shyness. He was elected president of his senior class.

"He was not your typical, outgoing glad-hander," recalls Stan Friar, Baca's close friend since the age of 15. "He's a little reserved and shy. He has some of these thoughts and qualities that make him seem like he's on a different plane."

In the late 1950s, Highland Park was mostly white and working-class. Daryl Gates graduated about 15 years before Baca. "Franklin High didn't turn out movers and shakers," recalls Richard Nemec, a classmate of Baca's. "They turned out firemen, policemen and teachers."

No one figured Baca for a cop, but at 18 he took LAPD's cadet test. He failed. He took the bus home, where he found his father sitting on the front porch drinking a beer. "Well," the old man said, "I didn't think you'd pass it anyway."

Baca went out to the backyard, where he "had a good cry." It was, he told the audience at USC, "the lowest point in my life."

But that moment gave him something to prove. He began to get serious, to work hard and set goals. A few years later, he joined the Sheriff's Department.

He'd been recruited by a family friend, Sherman Block's brother, Mel, and that association with the future sheriff helped propel him through the ranks. In the early 1980s, Baca was given command of the Norwalk station — which made him that city's police chief.

There, Baca tried some unusual methods. A group of families had lodged a series of complaints about abusive deputies. Baca befriended them and brought them into the station to hash out their grievances with the deputies themselves.

"It was a little strange for us," recalls Richard Castro, who was a sergeant at the time. "But it calmed a lot of people down."

He told the officers to get out of their patrol cars and walk around, Mike Mendez, a longtime Norwalk councilman, says. Baca was doing community policing before it had that name.

"People had the greatest respect for him in the community," says U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), then a Norwalk city councilwoman.

Baca had told subordinates he was going to become sheriff as early as the mid-'80s. To further that ambition, he sought a doctorate in public policy at USC.

His thesis, which is sitting in the stacks at Doheny Memorial Library, concerns father-daughter incest.

"It's a strange topic," acknowledges Catherine Burke, who sat on his dissertation committee. "He had seen some pretty tragic things. He wanted to learn more about it."

His conclusions were stranger than his subject. Baca was troubled that only 15 percent of fathers were convicted for their crimes. He also was concerned that prosecution would only add to their daughters' trauma.

So he proposed that incest should be "decriminalized."

For more on Lee Baca's thesis, see "Why Did Sheriff Lee Baca Want to Keep Fathers Who Molest Their Daughters Out of Jail?"

"The emphasis should be shifted from a criminal-punishment approach to one of treating sick fathers, treating severely damaged victim-daughters, and salvaging shattered families that have experienced incest," Baca wrote.

He envisioned "halfway houses" for the accused. "Non-penal father placement centers should be developed," he wrote.

As academic work, the dissertation is not much. His research had almost no bearing on his conclusions, and he did not consider the more obvious objections to his decriminalization plan (e.g., why treat molesting fathers any better than other molesters?).

"He's an outside-the-box thinker," Burke says. "These are probably the most hated people there are. He was trying to see if you could start working with people like that, that are utterly despised, could you save families?"

Baca declined to discuss his dissertation with the Weekly. He also declined requests for a sit-down interview for this story. (He did accept a challenge to a game of chess — he is a casual player — but later backed out without explanation.)

Through a spokesman, Baca said he believes the focus of this story should be the programs he has championed, not him. The spokesman also denied that there was any connection between the subject matter of Baca's thesis and his own troubled childhood.

If Baca tended to favor the softer side of policing, Paul Tanaka was aggressive from the start. Tim Mizuo's most vivid memory of him is from second grade, when they took swimming lessons together.

"He was mouthing off, and the instructor picked him up by the arms. He starts screaming, 'Hey, let me go!' " Mizuo says. "There was always a bit of spunk in him."

He also could be ruthless. Ernie Muraoka remembers running against him for president of Key Club at Gardena High. Muraoka had a part-time job at a market. Tanaka used it against him, telling classmates that Muraoka would not be able to give his full attention to the Key Club.

"It was, like, 'Jesus, man, give me a break,' " Muraoka says. "That's when I noticed his aggressiveness. He used everything to win."

As a young sergeant, Tanaka was one of five deputies who shot and killed a Korean immigrant after a chase. The case was notorious because a Long Beach police officer testified that the young man had been driving away and posed no threat when the deputies opened fire. The officer called it an "execution," and the county paid the victim's family $999,999 to settle the lawsuit.

Mizuo remembers seeing Tanaka at a reunion sometime later and giving him a hard time about the shooting. Tanaka blamed the controversy on "a liberal writer" at the L.A. Times.

Tanaka, who is Japanese-American, was a member of the Vikings, a group of Lynwood deputies accused of terrorizing Latino and black residents. In 1991, a federal judge called the group a "white supremacist gang." Some sheriff's officials have said the group was little more than a social club. But Baca himself denounced the group, and in recent years Tanaka has distanced himself from it.

In the late '90s, Tanaka was reassigned to West Hollywood station. A retired sheriff's official says he'd been transferred for chewing out a deputy, although the captain at the time, Richard Odenthal, says he didn't ask for a reason. Tanaka was given a spot as a watch commander, which was below his experience level. A week later, he went on an extended personal leave. His career was stuck.

But then Lee Baca announced he was running for sheriff against Sherman Block. Tanaka — who had worked under Baca — handled his campaign's finances and did fundraisers.

"Lee went to every disaffected, alienated person, who [had been] disciplined, and put together a ragtag bunch of malcontents," says Bill Mangan, a chief who supported Block. "Tanaka was one of the malcontents. The guy had some checkered things happen to him, and he got on [Baca's] leg and saw he was going to go somewhere."

Sheriff Block had promoted Baca to the rank of chief in 1992, despite concerns from some within the command structure that Baca would use it as a platform to run against Block. There also were concerns that Baca was too scatterbrained to handle the job.

"It was chaotic," Mangan says of the time he spent working for Baca. "Things would get deferred and delayed. He drove some of the administrative offices nuts. He'd make decisions, and they'd write it up, and then he'd say, 'That's not what I agreed to.' "

Block didn't believe Baca was cut out to be sheriff. But Block grew older and sicker without choosing a successor, which left the door open to a challenge from Baca.

Baca did not make a strong first impression in the 1998 campaign. Veteran journalist Joe Domanick wrote that he appeared "weak, indecisive and lacking in credibility." He also showed poor judgment in people, famously befriending a wealthy count who turned out to be a con man.

Block attacked Baca relentlessly throughout the 1998 primary. When Baca persevered, forcing Block into a runoff, Baca should have celebrated. Instead, he had a crisis of confidence. He had to flee to Hawaii to regather himself.

When Block died days before the runoff, Baca was elected almost by default.

The new sheriff set about winning over the rank and file. He did a tour of the stations, asking deputies to give him their wish lists. He promised everything they wanted — new squad cars, radios, computers, helicopters. His promises got him a new nickname: Disneyland Dad.

"The deputies were looking forward to a lot of stuff," Scaduto says. "Then those hopes were dashed. When it didn't come to pass, there was a lack of confidence that when he said he was going to do something it was going to happen."

Baca also sought popularity by doing away with the department's risk-management meetings. The meetings were rigorous, statistical performance reviews. Captains and commanders were forced to account for their arrest figures, use of force rates and liability issues. As a chief, Baca had overseen one of the toughest divisions, and had been called on the carpet.

"No one likes to get slammed monthly on these points," Sams says. "After '98, that went away."

Baca was much more interested in flashy public relations stunts — like a disastrous foray into sponsoring a Rose Parade float — and new programs that would transform the culture of law enforcement.

"The theoretical world is unlimited," he said in a 2001 interview, "while law enforcement is a self-limiting culture. My goal is to erase the cultural lines and blend the culture of law enforcement into the culture of society at large."

Baca wanted to create a dormitory for pregnant inmates. He wanted to send inmates out on work crews to clean up litter. He wanted new educational opportunities for deputies, and a leadership training institute. He wanted infrastructure upgrades, a rebuilt crime lab and a legislative liaison in Washington with a county car and an expense account.

(One thing he did not change, however, was the department's approach to incest cases. Decriminalizing incest, and placing abusive fathers in therapeutic, "non-penal" settings, proved too theoretical even for Baca to carry out.)

Baca's command staff placed all his ideas on large whiteboards — they called them "Baca Boards." There they listed who was responsible for each request and how far it had progressed.

While the theoretical world may have been unlimited, his budget was not. In 2001, Baca overran his budget by $25 million. The Board of Supervisors was outraged, especially because Baca had defied it by spending $2 million on a new airplane. Baca turned to his accountant, Paul Tanaka, to bail him out.

Hastily promoted to commander after Baca's election, Tanaka was assigned to look over the department's books. Baca's budget staffers came up with a plan to "pay back" the $25 million over two years. Baca didn't sign off on it until Tanaka gave his blessing.

The next year, Baca reassigned his budget manager and promoted Tanaka to chief. Just four years earlier, Tanaka had been a lowly watch commander in West Hollywood. Now he was in charge of a $2 billion budget.

Tanaka stayed on a fast track. In 2005, he was promoted again, to assistant sheriff. That spring, he also was elected mayor of Gardena (pop. 59,000). His opponent, Terrence Terauchi, says he recruited 300 deputies to walk precincts. Many in Gardena saw it as Tanaka's preparation for running for sheriff. Indeed, Tanaka has told several people that he plans to become sheriff when Baca retires.

Nowadays, says Chuck Jackson, "Paul's got his people spaced all over the department."

Witness L.A., a blog that has reported extensively on the jail abuse scandal, tallied up $42,500 in contributions to Tanaka's mayoral campaign from employees of the department. The majority of the contributors, the site found, was promoted.

Those favored for promotions are said to be "in the car." According to a declaration from one sheriff's commander, obtained for an employment discrimination lawsuit against the department, Tanaka and his allies would hang out on a patio at the sheriff's headquarters, smoke cigars and discuss who should be "in the car." According to the declaration, Tanaka issued numbered coins, known as "challenge coins," to favored employees.

"Only the deputies that have the special coin are allowed into the patio area to smoke cigars with Tanaka," the commander stated.

Baca was asked about the coins at a deposition last year. He said he was aware that Tanaka was part of the group, but that the coin was the brainchild of someone else.

"I'm not one who cares about smoking and coins," Baca said.

Tanaka declined to comment for this story.

As he consolidated control of the department, Tanaka began attending staff meetings in the jails and at patrol stations around the county, where he shared his hard-nosed philosophy.

In a meeting at the Norwalk station in 2009, he told a group of supervisors, "You need to let deputies do their job out there, they have a tough job," according to testimony from Patrick Maxwell, the station captain, before the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence. "You need to allow the deputies to work in the gray area."

As Maxwell understood it, Tanaka was encouraging his staff to go "outside policy and outside the law." He gave the same speech in other stations. "Working the gray" became his signature phrase.

In a briefing at Century station, Tanaka told deputies they needed "to function right on the edge of the line," according to a memo by Stephen Roller, the station captain. He also said they "need to be very aggressive in their approach to dealing with gang members."

Tanaka said that some supervisors were "hasty" in putting misconduct cases on their deputies. He said he would be checking to see which captains put the most cases on their deputies and "he would be putting a case on them."

He also expressed hostility to the Internal Affairs Bureau. In one meeting, according to Maxwell's testimony, he noted that the department had 45 internal affairs investigators. "In my opinion, that's fucking 44 too many."

In his own testimony before the jails commission, Tanaka gave a rather tortured explanation of his "gray area" remarks. But he did not shy away from his criticisms of Internal Affairs. Most of his testimony was controlled and defensive, but when talking about the plight of accused deputies, he showed rare empathy.

"You leave a cloud hanging over somebody's head. They become less than functional, less than productive," he said. "They are treated in a less-than-respectful manner, in a manner we don't allow our people to treat people in our jails."

That would be pretty bad, judging by the findings of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence. The commission's report, issued in September, identified a "disturbing mindset" among deputies that promoted inmate assaults as a way of demonstrating "who is running the jails."

That mindset went back to Block's tenure. Baca's new-age bromides had done nothing to stop it. In Men's Central Jail, deputies formed ganglike cliques, which promoted a culture of aggression toward inmates and impunity from supervisors.

Lt. Alfred Gonzales tried to get his bosses to do something about it. "We need to break these deputies up," he told his captain, John Clark, according to his testimony.

In early 2006, Clark agreed and issued a rotation plan. The plan caused an immediate uprising from the deputies. They did not want their assignments changed, and they sent emails protesting the decision all the way up the chain to Tanaka. Without consulting with Clark, Tanaka canceled the plan.

About a week later, Tanaka held a meeting at Men's Central Jail and blasted the supervisors who'd attempted reforms. "How dare a lieutenant refer to deputy sheriffs as gang members!" he screamed, according to Gonzales' recollection. "You supervisors will stay off those floors and let those deputies do what they have to do."

Sgt. Daniel Pollaro, who worked in the jails, was devastated. "I felt like I might as well take my stripes off," he testified. "We hung our heads. It was hurtful, very hurtful, that the Sheriff's Department was coming to something like this."

Captain Clark soon was reassigned, replaced by Robert Olmsted, the captain who would later try to warn Baca about Tanaka. The situation improved.

But when Tanaka promoted him and put Capt. Dan Cruz in charge, things deteriorated again. In 2008 and 2009, statistics showed a spike in violence. Internal reviews of those incidents were often cursory, and often delayed. Michael Bornman, a lieutenant who was assigned to the jails in 2009, said he once opened a drawer and found 32 uncompleted performance reviews dating back a year and a half.

Cruz was the sort of person who wanted to be liked by his deputies. At a Christmas party in 2009, Bornman testified, Cruz toasted his deputies by saying "What do I always tell you?" The deputies answered, "Not in the face!"

"Not in the face!" Cruz repeated — meaning guards shouldn't hit an inmate where it will leave a visible mark.

At one point, Bornman suggested to Cruz that they inform Olmsted, who was Cruz's boss, of the issues they were having in the jail.

"Fuck Bob Olmsted, I don't work for him," Cruz said.

He elaborated: "Lee Baca is my sheriff, but I work for Paul Tanaka."

The jail scandal began to come into public view in December 2010, after a group of Men's Central Jail deputies got into a brawl at their Christmas party. That episode was a surprising breakdown in discipline, and it focused attention on deputy gangs.

The scandal was slow in building, but by September 2011 it was too big for Baca to ignore. His first reaction was to lash out. He accused the FBI of breaking the law in its investigation, and he accused the media of focusing on a few bad apples. He wanted them to pay attention to his "innovative" effort to teach inmates life skills. But all the media wanted to talk about was broken jaws.

Baca realized that he had a serious PR problem. So he reached out to Jeffrey Schwartz, a nationally recognized prison expert who has reformed jails across the country. Schwartz's motto is that prisons should be "clean, quiet and constitutional."

Schwartz was alarmed by the conditions in L.A. County.

"The situation is very bad and very much needs change," Schwartz tells the Weekly. "This is not something that the media created."

At their first meeting, Schwartz found himself encouraged by the sheriff's personality. He was no redneck. Baca's office was decorated with Persian art, and Schwartz saw a copy of Plato's Republic on the same shelf as a self-help book by Suzanne Somers.

Baca seemed a mixture of street cop and philosopher, with good values. He was, Schwartz believed, completely sincere in his compassion for inmates. So Schwartz couldn't understand how Baca had presided over a hall of horrors.

"At some point there's some disconnect between who he is as a person and as a leader and what's gone on in the jails," Schwartz says.

As Schwartz started to work, he began to understand the disconnect. He drew up a new force policy but quickly ran into resistance from a group of five commanders Baca had assigned to clean up the jails. Most were loyal to Tanaka, and all of them had contributed to Tanaka's campaigns. One commander told Schwartz they would incorporate some of his language into existing policy. Another claimed that his proposals were no different from existing policy.

"It was pretty obvious that I'm getting reactions from people who don't know what they're doing," Schwartz says.

He complained to Baca, but the sheriff didn't respond. Instead, a commander called and asked, "Why are you bringing negative stuff to the sheriff?" Frustrated, and facing more roadblocks, Schwartz quit.

He never heard from Baca again.

In October, Baca called a press conference in the Men's Central Jail. The media were herded into the jail chapel. Behind pews reserved for the press were rows of inmates in blue jumpsuits. There, Baca unveiled a new organizational chart. It showed Tanaka moved off to one side, out of the line of responsibility for patrol and custody functions.

"I had to revise the chart to establish that I'm the one calling the shots," Baca explained.

But it soon became clear the new chart was mostly for PR purposes. Under follow-up questioning, the sheriff admitted that no lines of authority had changed — he just wanted to correct the misimpression that Tanaka was in charge.

Department insiders don't buy it.

"Tanaka runs the department like his personal sandbox," says one sheriff's administrator. "Now the sheriff is trying to take it back from him, but the damage is done. All those people he promoted are extremely loyal to him."

Under intense outside pressure, assaults on inmates have begun to drop. But Baca still has not reckoned with the brutality in his jails. He continues to doubt the ACLU's allegations, claiming they were based on unreliable inmate accounts. When he was called to testify before the jails commission, he said he was more interested in the future than the past.

As he often does, he deflected criticism with gnomic pronouncements.

"The vehicle of change is not the provable past exclusively," he told the commissioners. "The vehicle of change is the vision of human behavior and where it can change."

Asked why he hadn't done something sooner about the jail situation, Baca replied: "A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. And I'm one who tries to see more than is able to be seen."

The commission issued a scathing report in September, faulting Baca for a "failure of leadership." It called for 63 reform measures, including setting up an independent inspector general, revamping the discipline process and hiring a civilian assistant sheriff to supervise the jails.

At the press conference, Baca made a surprise announcement. He agreed with all of the recommendations. It was clear he did not agree with the commission's harsh criticism, but he took it without hitting back. "I deserve all criticism, whether it's fair or not," he said. "Whether it's accurate or not doesn't matter to me. ... It's not necessary for accountability to be derived only through factualness."

Baca seemed to believe he had outsmarted his critics again. "I don't lead with my ego," he said. "I lead with my intellect."

Two weeks later, he informed a skeptical Board of Supervisors that implementing the reforms would cost $69 million.

By agreeing to them at all, Baca may well have been treating the commissioners the way he treated his deputies when he was first elected: trying to win them over by promising them everything they want, only later to discover that he can't deliver.

Whether he succeeds or not, he is functionally accountable only to himself. A golfing buddy recalls asking Baca if he would ever retire. Baca asked him to define retirement. The friend said: "You can do what you want to do, when you want to do it, as long as it's what you want to do."

"In that case," Baca said, "I've been retired for years."

Photos by Ted Soqui

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