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Above the Law

L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca's Muslim Supporters Say He's Not to Blame for Inmate Abuse

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Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 1:00 PM

click to enlarge "Group of religious leaders gather @ Men's Central Jail in support of Sheriff Lee Baca in midst of inmate abuse scandal" - @RSANTIAGOJR VIA TWITTER
  • @rsantiagojr via Twitter
  • "Group of religious leaders gather @ Men's Central Jail in support of Sheriff Lee Baca in midst of inmate abuse scandal"
What a strange moment, outside the Men's Central Jail downtown today, when angry protesters calling for L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's resignation were offset by a throng of Baca supporters who came to sing his praises.

City News Service reported yesterday that civil-rights activists planned "to chant and carry signs" outside the jail, "unhappy about what appears to be a facility that has gone haywire ... with supervisors allowing junior deputies to beat up detainees at will."

But at 10 a.m. this morning, the overwhelming presence on the sunny side of the bars...

... was that of "religious groups and people Lee Baca works with out in the community," according to PR rep Jean Dale Glass. Among those in attendance, she says, was Sheik Qazi Asad, a Pakistani-born leader who has worked with the Sheriff's Department since 9/11 to help law enforcement better understand the Muslim community.

"This is what the man does," Glass says of Baca. "For 10 years, he's been working with the community to try and improve the situation." (The "situation" being Middle-Eastern relations in the U.S., not rampant inmate abuse.)

Glass estimates "hundreds" of rally-goers showed up, though the Los Angeles Times put the crowd at "several dozen."

From a foreshadowing Times article in May 2006:

In his seven years at the helm of the nation's largest sheriff's department, Baca's quirky, innovative approach to crime fighting has endeared him to those who traditionally mistrust the police and made him one of the county's most successful politicians.

He has tirelessly wooed the ethnic and religious groups that make up his potent power base. Despite four challengers, he is expected to win a third term so easily on June 6 that he has not sought endorsements or campaigned actively.

But within law enforcement -- where he is sometimes referred to derisively as "Sheriff Moonbeam" -- many see him as an ineffectual manager ill-equipped to lead his vast organization out of the deep troubles it faces.

click to enlarge Sheriff Lee Baca
  • Sheriff Lee Baca
A growing number of L.A. County inmates have recently come forward and told of alleged beatings by their supervising deputies. A shocking ACLU report last month detailed much of the same -- triggering an FBI investigation and widespread fury against head sheriff Baca.

In the wake of all these allegations, though, there has been some debate over whether Baca should be held solely responsible for the abuse.

Last week, the L.A. County Office of Independent Review released a report saying that while some deputies have been punished for their violent behavior, many others "get away" with such misconduct -- due to seemingly intentional higher-up decisions such as "lackluster... slanted and insufficiently thorough" investigations.

Though Baca initially denied that these allegations had any footing, he came forward in an insane Times profile over the weekend and finally admitted the situation has gotten out of control.

"I should've known," he told the Times.

Though he's probably playing dumb, the off-chance that he really had no awareness of this brutal (and blatant) hazing culture within his department might be even more deplorable.

And, ironically, it would have a lot to do with his tendency to politic, on both a local and national scale, instead of keep internal tabs on the jail system over which he presides -- the nation's largest. (Remind you of anyone?)

Earlier this year, Baca travelled to a highly publicized meeting in Washington, D.C. on the evils of fighting terrorism through racial profiling. Cheered on by Muslim leaders back at home, he spoke up on behalf of their people, saying individuals of Middle-Eastern descent are no less likely to commit a terrorist act than the next guy.

click to enlarge Inmate Shawne Fletcher alleges he was beat unconscious by sheriff's deputies in 2006. - COURTESY OF DAWN FLETCHER
And just last week, at the height of the abuse scandal, he was back at the round table, bonding with L.A.'s Muslims over how they can work together to create a safer community.

All fine and dandy. But one young man in an L.A. County jail, lest he forget, just died after an especially bloody deputy beating, under Baca's watch. Can the feel-good photo ops not be put on the back-burner for a second, while this seeping corruption is finally addressed?

The Times interviewed members of Baca's support group outside Men's Central Jail this morning:

"I agree heads should roll, but not the sheriff's," said Celes King IV, vice chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality of California.

King blamed mid-level management for allowing the abuses in the jails.

The Baca supporters called the sheriff a humanitarian and praised what they described as his open-door policy with a wide swath of the community.

"He's not going anywhere! No where! No where!" shouted the crowd.

Some local journalists have similarly argued, but for different reasons, that booting Baca isn't the right thing to do. Their rationale speaks instead to the lead sheriff's incompetency -- this time, in appointing a frighteningly underqualified second-inc-command who has been aware of the abuse, and yet has done nthing to stop it. Get rid of Baca, and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, the Cheney-like dude in the control room, would be in charge. According to Witness LA:

Until an election could be held, one of the members of his command staff would be tapped to replace him. The most likely candidate is his second in command, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is reported to want to run for Sheriff in the future.

As Matt Fleischer reported, in 2006 the commanding officer at Men's Central Jail (CJ), a Captain Clark, became so concerned about by abusive cliques of deputies at CJ -- like the now infamous 3000 Boys -- that Clark attempted to institute a shift rotation system that would split up these deputy "gangs" who were causing most of the problem.

Unfortunately, that attempt at reform was aggressively shut down by then-Assistant Sheriff, now Undersheriff Tanaka--i.e the guy who would be most likely to replace Baca.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]

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