Is 'Teflon' L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca the Next Sheriff Joe Arpaio?
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has become the posterboy of tough, rogue immigration policing in the age of Bush/Obama. (And don't think for a second that conditions have improved for America's huddled masses under the "HOPE" banner of the latter. In fact, they've gotten worse.) Today, a three-year investigation of Arpaio's office by the U.S. Department of Justice has resulted in a scathing report in which he's found guilty of "civil rights violations against Latinos, including a pattern of racial profiling and discrimination," according to the AP. (Here's the report in full.)
But we knew that already. And Arpaio is likely proud to hear it -- he's long embraced his reputation as Latino terrorizer, bragging about presiding over nearly a quarter of the nation's deportations, pushing out aliens by any means possible. But L.A. County comes in second...
Sure, that's also because it's the largest county in illegal immigrant-heavy Southern California. But combine the deportations of our (far more conservative) surrounding counties -- Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego, whose populations add up to about the size of Los Angeles -- and you're still a couple hundred thousand short of L.A. County's numbers.
What distances L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca from Arpaio is his calm, collected front and firm denial that his department would ever knowingly violate the civil rights of an Angeleno, citizen or non-citizen.
All bad press seems to slide right off the slick-talking lawman -- and for that, LA Weekly has nicknamed him the Teflon Sheriff.
"The interesting thing about Baca is that he's a very careful sheriff and politician," says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, communications director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "However, he is not above the law."
Immigrants rights activists have become increasingly suspicious of Baca's support of alien round-up program Secure Communities. CHIRLA, along with a couple other legal groups, are suing the L.A. sheriff for refusing to hand over "confidential" stats on the department's collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When Baca tried to resist their requests, a judge quickly blocked that motion. Cabrera now says the ruling seems to have "tested his stubbornness."
Baca has recently been called out by the ACLU for rampant civil-rights violations of L.A. County jail inmates. Read their scathing report from September, full of bloodbaths and power games: "Cruel and Usual Punishment -- How a Savage Gang of Deputies Controls L.A. County Jails." And a brand-new LA Weekly piece by reporter Chris Vogel, following his breaking story on the beatings, finds that those abuses have extended to handicapped prisoners, forced to drag themselves across their cell floors and rot in their own filth.
But it's been more difficult to pin Baca for immigrant abuse.
"My fear is that violations have occurred" without going reported, says Cabrera. "Anyone who would have objected to treatment may have already been deported."
Until Baca is forced to release all the department's deportation stats, we won't know the full extent of the damage. In recent days, though, a few horrifying accounts involving the sheriff's department have made their way to the pressline. We wrote about Adi Zinder, the Israeli immigrant held in a sheriff's detention center for over a year, amid allegedly sub-human conditions. And the ACLU just revealed the cases of two U.S. citizens put on immigration hold through the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, so eager were deputies to nab Latinos living here unlawfully.
Though actual deportation numbers have dropped slightly in L.A. County over the last few years (as has the alien influx), arrests have not:
In recent immigration enforcement efforts, more individuals are arrested but less of them are "deportable," according to Ahilan Arulanantham of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Which would suggest deportation efforts on the law-enforcement end are beyond the call of duty. Why, in a crowded, underfunded system, is Baca so intent on isolating every last ice-cream vendor, many of them longtime residents with families back at home, from the rest of society?
"There's no way that so many people without a criminal background have been caught in such a sting operation without some of their rights having been violated," says Cabrera, whose organization fields dozens of frightened calls each day from immigrants who feel they've been denied due process. "Especially given the level of enthusiasm which the sheriff seems to express about [Secure Communities]. It's almost like a sport to him."
Yet Baca, in his suit of teflon, continues to deny all responsibility.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is an easier villain. Our sister paper, the Phoenix New Times, has run story after story about the unabashed militance with which he targets Arizona's immigrants and petty criminals.
But even if Baca is as ignorant as he feigns -- and even if undersheriff Paul Tanaka is the Cheney-esque puppeteer to blame for the department's culture of cruelty -- does that make him any better than a loud-and-proud Arpaio?
At least Maricopa County's racist pig-in-chief openly embodies the Tea Party-fueled spirit of his local government and law enforcement. L.A. County's just deflects it, so that when the Department of Justice comes around, all it finds are smoke and mirrors.
CHIRLA's official statement today, regarding the DOJ report on Arpaio, sends an ominous warning to Baca:
"Let this report be a red flag to other sheriff departments throughout the nation that erroneously think they can get away with stepping over the civil and human rights of Latinos and immigrants."
What do you think? Could Baca be the next Arpaio, albeit in sheep's clothing?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Hot in the City Tonight: DUI Crackdown Hits L.A.
Sun., Oct. 11, 1:00pm
Sun., Oct. 11, 3:30pm
Sun., Oct. 11, 6:30pm
Mon., Oct. 12, 7:00pm
- Historic Marijuana Dispensary Legislation Signed Into Law
- L.A. Officials Approve Raising Your Rent in the Name of Earthquake Safety