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Zen and the Art of Sheriffing

Illustration by Travis Chatham

Father Gregory Boyle knows the story’s been told many times, but he still enjoys passing it along. It’s about the time some inmates of L.A.’s Twin Towers jail were having their possessions searched before entering chapel. A sheriff’s deputy made a habit of throwing their sad bundles to the ground after poking through the stuff — one of those demeaning little gestures that guards and trustees make to remind prisoners who’s got the power. One Sunday, however, Sheriff Lee Baca happened to be around and wordlessly stepped over, knelt down and gathered one inmate’s bundle. Baca personally handed it back to the man, and the next thing the deputy dropped was his attitude.

Many parables like this are told about Leroy David Baca, sheriff of Los Angeles County and of Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands.

“I was at a big conference on the future of the city, and Baca was there,” recalls civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, had sued the sheriff’s department over the brutality of a gang of white-supremacist deputies called the Vikings, who operated out of the department’s Lynwood station. “I didn’t know who he was — he wasn’t in uniform. Baca came over to me and said, ‘Thank you for that lawsuit. We’ve got a lot of work to do.’ I looked at him and thought, Who is this crackpot?”

Selling the brand: Baca and allies in compton

Photos by Ted Soqui

Rice eventually became an ally of Baca’s and served as a campaign adviser during his 2002 re-election run. Her conversion came after hearing him, Rice says, define his deputies’ role as being “the supreme de-fenders of civil rights. He had me right there! Baca’s 30 years ahead of most cops.”

Even Stephen Yagman, the Venice lawyer whom most cops regard with visceral disdain, looks upon Baca as a friend. “He is as good as any lawman could be in that job,” Yagman says. “He’s intelligent and he’s got a good heart and he works hard. There’s nothing more anyone could wish for.”

There is, naturally, another point of view among Baca watchers, one that says it’s no coincidence that civil rights lawyers and clergymen happen to be in a room when Baca says nice things about civil rights lawyers and clergymen. To his critics, the sheriff is an opportunist, a social reformer in cop’s clothing, a mismanager of budgets and programs. Even his admirers will admit there’s something goofily New Age about Baca, who freely acknowledges his “Sheriff Moonbeam” reputation.

“I’ve been an observer of Leroy Baca for a long, long time,” says David Dotson, a former LAPD assistant chief. “He has never been mainstream — he was always considered a nut, a weirdo. But he had the courage to express his beliefs even when they weren’t popular.”

Pro or con, intentionally or not, Lee Baca anecdotes all tend to make the same point — that he is a new kind of cop, and as if to clear up any doubts, one of the first things the sheriff hands to interviewers is a laminated card labeled “Our Core Values,” a much-quoted card ordering all deputies to “to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms.”

L.A. has had smart cops, crooked cops and colorful cops — now, with Baca, it has a humanist cop. In his nearly five years in office, Baca has proposed more reforms than were ever dreamt of in the philosophies of predecessors Sherman Block, Peter Pitchess and Eugene Biscailuz. Baca backs California’s Three Strikes law and is a registered Republican and Bush supporter, but his efforts to attack the social foundations of crime in the 21st century — poverty, homelessness, substance abuse — snugly fit Marx’s definition of radicalism as the ability to go to the root of a problem.

Badge of humanity: Swearing in hearing-impaired students

“He really gets the idea,” says Father Boyle, the founder of East L.A.’s Jobs for a Future and Homeboy Industries, “that people are more than the worst thing they’ve done and believes in the redemption of the individual.”

The list of Baca’s initiatives reads like a Rooseveltian New Deal for law enforcement, a two-front revolution against traditional cop attitudes and for a compassionate embrace of society’s most helpless. One of his first acts was to rehab the old Biscailuz Jail in Monterey Park and turn it into a minimum-security facility housing and treating only addicts and domestic abusers. (One early inmate was actor Robert Downey Jr.) The Biscailuz Recovery Center epitomizes Baca’s belief that in the long run the pre-emptive education of potential criminals will relieve pressure on law-enforcement resources as well as ease the burden on other county resources. According to a department report, “inmates who have not participated in the program are re-arrested four times more often than non-participants.”

 

Baca also authorized handing out condoms to gay inmates, set up a separate, 96-bed section in the jail for military veterans and, at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, the Mother and Infant Relationships Achieved through a Community Living Program (MIRACLE) has plans to open a nursery for female prisoners, so that pregnant inmates can give birth in custody and care for their babies while learning parenting and vocational skills.

Since 9/11 he has been a welcome visitor to Southland mosques and has encouraged Sikhs to become deputies — all the while continuing to enjoy the long-standing support of Jewish groups. The department even entered, of all things, a float in Pasadena’s annual Rose Parade a few years ago; this was a somewhat whimsical gesture tinged with irony since, in 1991, the Pasadena City Council sought to block deputies from the Vikings-tainted Lynwood station from serving on parade duty.

The problem, critics say, is that however noble his programs, Baca has no mandate from either the voters or Board of Supervisors to make sure that county inmates are given, say, employment counseling or that wife beaters receive anger- management counseling in lockup. To them, the department’s job is to run jails, not therapy centers.

“We already have a health department, we already have a social services department,” says one county government insider who wished to remain anonymous. “Why should the sheriff’s department all of a sudden be providing some of the same services when it should be fighting crime?”

How people answer that question invariably determines what side they take in debates about Baca and the direction he has set.

 

Lee Baca oversees the nation’s second-largest law-enforcement empire but doesn’t wear a sidearm. “A gun isn’t practical when you’re sitting in a car,” Baca tells me one afternoon as we ride in his black Grand Marquis. “Over a period of time it’ll affect your back, and we’ve already got enough worker’s comp problems.”

His discourse on the ergonomics of gunslinging would not surprise anyone familiar with Baca’s persona, which is part professorial, part visionary. L.A.’s 30th sheriff holds a USC doctorate in public administration and sometimes sounds more wonk than cop, as when he explains why he prefers wearing his uniform instead of civilian clothes:

“I believe in marketing the Sheriff’s Department’s brand. The uniform is our brand.”

Baca leads an army of about 8,000 deputies and 7,000 civilians. His department services 41 contract cities, operates the world’s largest jail and polices the county’s transportation systems. This khaki realm covers most of L.A. County’s 4,081 square miles, from Avenue A in the high desert to San Clemente Island’s China Point. Baca often spends much of his 16-hour days helicoptering or jetting to its distant reaches simply to pat a few backs at a Rotary Club. “This county isn’t practical,” he says.

Baca is a vigorous, lean man of 61 who looks like a new $20 bill in his pressed uniform and patent-leather shoes. In personal conversation he is a thoughtful listener prone to giving long answers while rubbing his wrists. His thin, Jesuitical smile resembles Rudolph Giuliani’s and, in fact, until the middle of his campaign against Block, Baca also sported a Giuliani-like comb-over. (He often pats his bald pate as though brushing down the hair that was once there.) His steely vigor and intimate rapport with visitors do not often transfer to the podium, however. He sometimes conveys a Rosenbergs-caught-in-the-flashbulbs stiffness and often speaks slowly and dolorously.

On one Thursday morning the sheriff attends a conference on Homeland Security in the gloomy L.A. City Council chambers. He does not say much, but speaks fluently enough in the overly gracious, Mandarin court language of city bureaucracies. At this conference Baca talks about the new regional crime lab that will eventually open at Cal State L.A., then sits back and listens to the what-if-jets-crash-into-a-Lakers-game presentations. LAPD Chief Bill Bratton sits a few chairs away, wearing his trademark frown. On some levels, Bratton is the Anti-Baca — flashy, sharp-tongued and, above all, a showman.

Baca is publicly fond of Bratton. “It’s as though we’re cut from the same block of wood,” he explains after the Homeland Security meeting. “We both believe in finding the problem before the problem finds us.”

The East Coast Bratton and East Los Baca certainly make for an odd couple, with Bratton’s uptight Officer Krupke playing off of Baca with his more forgiving view of human nature. In a way, their personalities mirror public perceptions of their departments, with the LAPD traditionally being viewed as more distant from the public it serves.

 

“LAPD cops always believed they were the gold standard of law enforcement and were not subject to the law,” says Rice. “They made no distinctions between judges and doctors in communities they decided were kill zones. The deputies don’t quite have that hypermacho attitude, they’re lower-keyed and make a little more room for who you are.”

Roy Burns, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), the union that represents deputies and investigators for the district attorney, puts it another way: “The LAPD drives with its windows up, where we drive with ours down — we want to hear the sound of windows broken and gunshots being fired.”

Baca twice applied for the appointed position of L.A. police chief, and was twice rejected because of good-old-boy politics and insider-friendly rules governing the accumulation of test-score points. Some have said he was merely using these as dry runs for his eventual challenge to Block, but it is worth contemplating what the LAPD would be like today if Baca had been appointed in 1992 or 1996.

“He would have tried to change the LAPD and it would have eaten him alive,” guesses Yagman. “It won’t eat Billy Bratton because he’s creating an appearance of reform around the margins. He’s all sizzle and no steak.”

 

Sheriff’s Headquarters in Monterey Park is about six and a half miles from Baca’s San Marino house and even closer to his childhood home in East Los Angeles. The drive in either direction takes minutes, yet it’s taken Baca 33 years to make it from Downey Road and Olympic Boulevard to San Marino, although when he dies, he will return to East L.A. — Baca’s plot in Calvary Cemetery is located only a few blocks from the Hubbard Street clinic where he was born.

The Mexican-American neighborhood of Baca’s youth was a hardscrabble place where immigrants made a point to speak English if they could; today Baca’s lack of Spanish proficiency causes him to demur requests to conduct interviews in Spanish for Hispanic media. Raised by his grandparents, the young Baca, through a bit of hustle, attended distant Highland Park’s Franklin High School — preceded by future LAPD Chief Daryl Gates and followed by L.A.’s current city attorney, Rocky Delgadillo. His passions in those days were school government and country & western music; Franklin’s class president often drove his 1950 Chevy, lowered on small front tires, to Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree in El Monte, then one of the state’s top country-music venues.

“Drugs were not in my high school,” Baca says. “I dressed Ivy League — you never wore tennis shoes to high schools, and girls wore skirts and blouses. Boys did not wear Levis to class.”

If the geography of Baca’s life fits onto a small map, his interests do not. His reading ranges from the Koran to academic management texts, and when he looks at problems he sees a Mercator projection of the Big Picture, a holistic diagram of interlocking causes and effects. It is not a stretch to say that Baca’s problem-solving confidence comes from the optimism of the early 1960s, when Americans saw their troubled cities as something manageable, fixable, in the way America once believed all problems were solvable with the right models and Venn diagrams.

In the beginning much was made of Baca being a Latino sheriff, but more than anything he represents the triumph of a California idea — a slightly eccentric, somewhat pragmatic belief in visions, experiments and even the occasional grand failure. Baca’s self-proclaimed “practical idealism” is nothing if not the blood descendant of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and of a time when California built schools, libraries and hospitals, and where, from academia to the counterculture, from its barrios to the shake-roofed suburbs, the state had vibrated with enthusiasm.

“My generation felt hope,” the sheriff remembers. “If a person did his work and set a goal he could reach it.”

Baca becomes more abstract – wonkish — when I ask him to recall the moments that have defined his 38-year law-enforcement career. He vaguely mentions that “there have been times when I brought forth some good ideas that were very important but they were not respected.”

The sheriff often speaks a managerial language that can make him seem aloof or even evasive. Even when I ask him to name specific incidents that have shaped his passion for reforming the department, he only describes some resistance he encountered 20 years ago from the technical services division over the importance of crime analysis.

Baca, in fact, has always been an outsider’s outsider in a department whose politics follow the county’s cult of incumbency. The L.A. sheriff’s right to appoint has always been the power to anoint: At the time of his death in 1998, Sherman Block had been only L.A.’s third sheriff since 1932, thanks to a tradition whereby departing sheriffs resign and hand over their office to handpicked successors who are quickly approved by the Board of Supervisors.

 

Baca was elected sheriff in November 1998, following a bruising campaign against the four-term Sherman Block, who’d once been Baca’s friend and mentor. The race was a close one and decisively tipped toward Baca’s favor only when Block, 74, died of a cerebral hemorrhage days before the runoff.

Even after Block died, some politicians (as well as former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates) supported his posthumous victory because it would allow the supervisors to pick a new sheriff who would not be Lee Baca. In fact, a fix had purportedly been in place while Block was alive: The ailing sheriff had intended all along, the stories went, to follow the time-honored tradition of resigning shortly after winning the election and then recommending his successor — in this case, the connected former LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker — to an agreeable Board of Supervisors.

Joseph McNamara is San Jose’s retired reform-minded police chief who, over the years, became familiar with the corrosive effects of L.A.’s get-along/go-along cop ethos, and finds Baca a needed breath of fresh air.

“I knew Pete Pitchess and Sherman Block,” McNamara says. “They were negative guys who kind of coasted — political men who were not leaders. Lee Baca is different from both of them, he is not cynical and doesn’t have their negative karma.”

David Dotson, the former LAPD assistant chief, believes Baca’s emphasis on creating leadership courses and allowing middle managers to initiate changes within their stations is the only model that works, though he adds that the sheriff needs to clear the department of deadwood obstructing his programs.

“You don’t need a reign of terror,” he muses, “but if everyone has agreed on the vision that needs to be embraced, then you have to kick ass and send people to Siberia. But in civil service, which has tenured positions, it’s hard to find crappy places to send people.”

 

For years, Los Angeles lawyer Barry Litt tried to get the Los Angeles Sherrif’s Department to change the way it released inmates from custody after court appearances. In the days of the Block regime, any prisoner who was ordered released by a judge would be forced to return to jail to be strip-searched and processed out. Unfortunately, once back at the jail, many — an estimated 40 percent — would get lost in the system and spend one or two additional days (or weeks) locked up. Besides wasting money on additional incarceration costs, the process was unconstitutional — in 2001 the Board of Supervisors agreed to a $27 million court-ordered settlement of class-action lawsuits for holding inmates beyond their release dates and illegally strip-searching them.

“The settlement got Sheriff Baca’s personal attention and the policy was revamped within 90 days,” Litt told me, amazed that anyone in the ossified LASD would — or could — act so swiftly.

Perhaps no area of the sheriff’s jurisdiction causes the department more problems than the county jail system. Baca sees L.A.’s pandemic homeless problem lying at the root of it all. He may be sheriff in a state considered to be on the edge of tomorrow, but he’s also the de facto mayor of a medieval village of the homeless, paroled and deranged. His deputies spend far too much time encountering and arresting homeless people for misdemeanors that arise solely out of their itinerant conditions, and they have become a growing segment in the Twin Towers jail. Worse, for most of the homeless, jail is their only health care provider — Baca, as he often says, runs the country’s largest mental hospital.

Homelessness is one of the scars that distinguish contemporary America from “old America” — the America of consensus that existed before the Vietnam War era. Then, there were relatively few panhandlers and vagrants; now, they form a vast but powerless lumpen subcontinent that American society handles the way it deals with its most shameful problems — with a shrug.

Baca has taken the issue head-on. Last September he and City Councilwoman Jan Perry hosted a Summit on Homelessness at the Central Library. The sheriff proposed establishing an open-air homeless shelter outside Twin Towers that would serve as a counseling center and short-term residence for released prisoners who have no other place to sleep but L.A.’s streets.

The summit did not attract many high-profile politicians but earned the sheriff praise from homeless activists, even while they criticized his proposal to build a tent city within Twin Towers’ shadow as a kind of transitional gateway to the world.

 

If nothing else, a highly readable report came out of the meeting that, among other things, pointed out that Los Angeles County (minus Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach) has a homeless population of 84,300 (the nation’s largest) yet budgets only $520 in services per homeless person, while San Francisco spends $12,000 on each of its 8,640 homeless.

“Three NIMBYs can override 300 people who are for a solution,” Baca tells me, a rare growl of disgust in his voice.

For Baca, Los Angeles County is a Wagnerian stage, one on which homelessness and other social dragons are fought, and it’s not unusual to hear him use theatrical phrases to describe a crime scene or public gathering.

“Wherever we’re putting on a show, meaning, providing services,” he says, “it’s literally in the hands of the people doing the work — the participants who are on the stage of performance.”

Never one to think small, Baca looks at the long term, and his LASD2 Strategic Plan is a 30-year program to overhaul his department, a blueprint covering everything from community policing to hate-crimes identification to establishing a publishing unit.

One of the programs dearest to the sheriff’s heart has been the creation of the LASD University and the Deputy Leadership Institute, which allows deputies and civilian employees to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees through five affiliated universities, and trains officers in higher management skills. Again and again Baca’s recollections of his early career as a deputy return to the low level of formal education that marked the department when he joined it in 1965, and he is clearly proud of the fact that 900 officers and civilians are now seeking secondary degrees.

“Do I want a rigid culture that doesn’t take interest in the broader forms of knowledge,” he asks rhetorically, “or do I want a culture that believes not only in the diversity of the people we serve but believes in the diversity of knowledge that creates the people we serve?”

However, his most radical innovation has been the creation of the Office of Independent Review (OIR), a six-lawyer panel comprised of civil rights lawyers, headed by former U.S. Attorney Michael J. Gennaco, that investigates officer-involved shootings and use-of-force complaints. OIR lawyers roll to crime scenes as soon they are contacted by watch commanders . This unit was the first of its kind in the nation, reaching far past the civilian commissions that many cities use to investigate police brutality cases. Lawyers speak of the OIR’s creation — by the very man whose work it is intended to evaluate — with awe.

“It’s unprecedented to have such a self-critical report in law enforcement,” USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky tells me. “It shows Baca cares about the integrity and the way discipline is conducted in his department.”

 

 

“When you catch a criminal,” Baca says, “you’ve caught a human failure. Our job is to stop human failure the best and most humane way possible.” Baca’s humanism is not, to put it mildly, shared by all the rank and file. “He’s a behavioral scientist, and in my mind we don’t need someone like that as sheriff,” says Sergeant John Stites, a 23-year department veteran. “His problem is that he believes he should use law enforcement as a vehicle to solve all the world’s social problems.”

Stites is an affable man with a laconic manner who, along with Sergeant Patrick Gomez, ran against Baca in the 2002 election (Gomez, who’s been with the department for 22 years, also ran for sheriff in 1998); both men stressed that, for this article, they were sharing private observations as former opponents of the sheriff.

“He’s a politician,” says Gomez one afternoon amid the bustle of the Eastside Market, a sandwich shop near Chavez Ravine that packs in law-enforcement and fire department personnel at lunchtime. “He tells you what you want to hear.”

Stites claims that years ago Block promoted Baca to play the Latino card and to have a feel-good emissary to dispatch to community meetings.

“Block would send him to these organizations like Women Against Gun Violence because he would always say whatever they wanted to hear,” says Stites. “Sometimes Baca’ll endorse both candidates during an election. He withdrew his support from [mayoral candidate] Nick Pacheco and threw it to [Antonio] Villaraigosa.”

Stites believes the department has lost both the respect of hoodlums and the Board of Supervisors.

“Baca projects an aura of superiority, and that puts him in a bad light,” he says. “You’re dealing with some very headstrong members on that board. He’s consistently reminded the supervisors that they have no control over him — but they do have control over his money.”

 

Another complaint against Baca is that he’s made his executive bureaucracy top-heavy and that the fleet of LASD take-home cars available to his staff has doubled from 300 to 600, further straining an already cash-strapped department.

“We have cars with 120,000 miles on them,” says Sergeant Gomez of the deputies’ own black-and-whites. “We’re salvaging parts from other cars, some of which we’ve bought from LAPD. Our maps were printed in the 1970s, and our cars’ computers are no longer even manufactured.”

When I mention this to Baca he shrugs, “Our equipment is aging, but we cannibalize it and keep it going.”

Other men and women interviewed for this article held similar views to those of Stites and Gomez, though most declined to go on the record with their complaints. Some accuse the sheriff of vindictiveness and of encouraging the organizing efforts of the new, Baca-friendly union called the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Professional Association, after ALADS and the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA) that represents sergeants came out against him in the 2002 election. Others allege Baca has meddled in the promotion process to reward his friends, especially in the Sergeants exams — a charge the sheriff denies.

“He mostly speaks from the heart,” says one 22-year veteran, who claims to have had run-ins with the sheriff and who requested anonymity. “If Baca sees someone is salvageable he will try to redeem that deputy’s career.” But in the next breath this same sergeant exhales the frustration heard from other LASD personnel.

“What the hell is our mission? We’re not supposed to be acting as surrogate parents for kids in afterschool programs. I would quit tomorrow if I had the money — so would a lot of deputies.”

Baca is not the first reform-minded cop to come along in California. More than 30 years ago, even before Joseph McNamara became San Jose’s police chief, Richard Hongisto was elected as San Francisco’s radical sheriff and later, police chief. Hongisto quickly made headlines by, among other things, aggressively promoting gays, women and minorities within his department; he even spent five days in his own jail for ignoring a court order to evict elderly residents of Chinatown’s International Hotel.

“Mr. Baca ran on a platform that suggested to people what he was going to do,” Hongisto tells me. “And the people of Los Angeles spoke — this man had a mandate. For some deputies in Los Angeles to now say his department is not supposed to be a social service agency shows how retrograde their thinking is — it’s a typical redneck attitude.”

McNamara agrees, noting it’s almost a given that the rank and file will be in near revolt.

“The unwritten behavioral code is that you don’t say anything positive about the chief,” says McNamara. “But the world is so much larger and complex than what the sergeants see.”

There are, however, senior officers who claim to have excellent relations with Baca yet are troubled by the course he’s set. While ALADS’s Roy Burns gives Baca credit for being more accessible than Block, he bristles at the idea of inviting civil rights lawyers to second-guess deputies’ work.

“Every society that has not had a warrior class to protect it has perished,” Burns says. “But our officers are ridiculed and called cowboys for making lots of arrests. Something like 40 percent of the complaints we get are not only unfounded but absurd. I’m concerned about the Office of Civilian Review — there’s been far more politically correct training than before.”

 

Like all revolutions, Baca’s requires money, and these are hardly the days of wine and roses. Yet even without California’s economic downturn and the militarization of federal spending priorities, his department would be hurting, thanks to sexual harassment suits, overtime and worker’s comp payouts, and a conga line of civilians who have sued alleging excessive force and gratuitous strip searches. Last December the department averted federal monitoring and crippling legal costs only by agreeing to provide baseline mental health care in the jails.

On any given day Baca has one reliable ally on the Board of Supervisors in Mike Antonovich – two, if Don Knabe’s in a good mood. None of the supervisors returned the Weekly’s request for interviews about Baca.

“That in itself should tell you something,” said an aide to one board member.

Baca’s detractors accuse him of treating the supervisors with messianic condescension and of blatantly encouraging community groups to fill board meetings to support him in his conflicts with it.

 

“Baca’s pissed off the supes,” says one sergeant who requested anonymity. “His biggest liability is the emotional component, which leads him to burn bridges. He can get very angry and vindictive.”

“I make no retributive attacks on my critics — no matter who they are,” Baca replies. “This is a democracy — criticize the sheriff for everything and anything you can find but get your facts right.” Baca also flatly denies the bad blood between him and the supes.

“My relationship with the supervisors has never been bad,” he tells me, even after one person close to the board assured me it is toxic.

The LASD, with an annual operating budget of about $1.5 billion, has been running far into the red — but not, according to audits, as much as the $160 million annual shortfalls Baca has told the board LASD has suffered for the most recent two budgets. At best, then, his department doesn’t know how much money it spends or, at worst, the sheriff is deliberately inflating the scope of his budget crisis to get more money from the supes. Baca has countered that the elusive figures for his department are proof that it is understaffed.

“Sheriffs,” David Dotson says, “are elected countywide and feel they should be able to spend their money any damn way they feel.”

That attitude, if anything, explains the board’s antipathy toward Baca, whose visionary programs have cost far more than originally advertised, leading supervisors to grumble that Baca wasn’t being honest with them when he first went to them for funds, and to allege that he’s redirected money earmarked for equipment upgrades into what critics like Stites call “feel-good programs.”

“Whose signature is that?” Sergeant Gomez says, underscoring this point by showing his identification card — signed by Sherman Block. “It’s been five years and he hasn’t updated ID cards or our equipment. He was given money to replace our ID cards but hasn’t.”

“We’re bankrupt!” says one deputy who wished to remain anonymous. “Why do we have these programs of his?”

Scrutiny intensified this past May, when the county’s auditor-controller office released a 10-page report deeply critical of the LASD’s handling of its finances. Within their dry analysis of the department’s accounting practices, the report’s authors signaled a head-scratching bewilderment over policies that have led to wildly erratic billings sent to the 41 contract cities. The investigators found some cities being overcharged, while others received bargain-basement rates for police services, simply because the contracts don’t specify levels of service or even their costs. This suggested that perhaps one of the reasons the LASD was in a budget crunch was simply because it wasn’t collecting as much money as it was owed by the towns that provide the department with 10 percent of its revenue.

Most vexing to the investigators was the department’s refusal to monitor its deputies’ time through the use of timecards, which Baca asserts take up too much time to fill out.

“The Sheriff estimates,” the audit said, “it would take 15 minutes per day per employee to fill out a timecard. Our experience with employees performing multiple tasks has been approximately 30 seconds to one minute.”

Although Baca, in an initial, five-page response concurred with only five of the report’s eight recommendations, he did, in the end, relent on the timecard issue — even if deputies are now logging their hours into a new computer system and not merely punch-ing cards.

Besides financial mismanagement, much of the criticism leveled at Baca centers on his judgment calls and private associations. Some of these complaints are rank-and-file gripes against the executives he has chosen for his expanded command staff, while others involve the creation of the now-disbanded Asian Crime Task Force, which some saw as political payback to San Gabriel Valley Asians, a Baca constituency that strongly backed his campaign against Block. Some of these issues were extensively examined in previous L.A. Weekly articles, including one about Baca’s no-downpayment purchase of his San Marino home. There have been other grumblings: his $2.4 million purchase of a plane for his own use; his early support of President Clinton’s pardon of convicted cocaine wholesaler Carlos Vignali; and his 1999 fact-finding junket to Taiwan, his then-bride’s homeland, which was paid for by the government — the Taiwan government, that is.

Baca owes part of his immense personal prestige to the fact that he won more votes than anyone in L.A. County in 2002. While only the sheriff and D.A. are elected countywide, there is no doubt that the Republican Baca must stand a little taller when he walks into a government meeting knowing that he received more votes than anyone in the room. (Baca’s 646,556 votes in the 2002 election easily eclipsed the countywide total for his party’s gubernatorial candidate, Bill Simon.)

 

“Without the voters he would have been crushed into oblivion,” says Connie Rice. “The supervisors would have run him out long ago.”

Baca’s California Form 460s (campaign donor lists) for his 2002 re-election read like a star chart of Hollywood and business constellations and include Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, film director William Friedkin, Paramount chairwoman Sherry Lansing, the Walt Disney Co., Univision CEO Jerry Perenchio and developer Donald Sterling. It also includes less colorful donors like tow-truck operators and the California Commerce Club casino, and power-lobbyists like Frank Michelena — all of whom, nevertheless, may have had a more direct fiduciary stake in the sheriff’s good will.

“I don’t enjoy the power of this job,” Baca says. “I enjoy the fact that the people who need protection are part of my life. If you don’t enjoy the gift of office the people have given you, what can you enjoy?”

Later, when I leave his office, Baca hands me a keepsake to remind me of my visit — a sheriff’s department key chain that was, it turns out, manufactured by a campaign contributor.

 

Daryl Gates’ LAPD was ultimately called to account by the Christopher Commission, so too was Sherman Block’s violence-prone sheriff’s department reined in by the Kolts Commission. This independent review panel convened in late 1991, following the exposure of the Vikings deputy gang, to investigate the runaway use of force by deputies operating in what were then considered minority communities. Consequently, every two years an independent panel headed by special counsel Merrick Bobb releases a report card on the LASD.

This year’s was particularly hard on the department and zeroed in on three areas. Bobb’s report accused the LASD of inadequately utilizing the Personnel Performance Index database that tabulates complaints. It also criticized the policy on foot pursuits, claiming that far too many involve lone deputies following suspects they have lost sight of. Finally, after a surprise discovery, Bobb (who declined to be interviewed for this article) scolded the department for its officers’ over-reliance on flashlights as impact weapons. (It turned out the flashlight’s popularity among officers easily tops a list of force options that includes batons, nightsticks and saps.)

Baca has little enthusiasm for Bobb’s latest findings.

“The day we tell police officers to stop chasing criminals,” Baca tells me, “is the day we don’t need police departments.” But one also senses an over-defensiveness in Baca’s response, especially when he adds, “I think Mr. Bobb, as a paid critic, hears rumors and uses anonymous observations — then I have to respond to them.”

Richard Hongisto, the former San Francisco sheriff and police chief, agrees.

“I was the most liberal law-enforcement leader the city had,” he says, “but I didn’t forget to catch bad guys. I should think an officer should be given an amount of discretion — we’re here to catch people.”

The Bobb report, in fact, is perhaps the one thing that momentarily unites cops of all viewpoints behind Baca — even his critics within the LASD.

“I don’t believe I should be restricted in the tools I have to successfully do my job,” says Sergeant Stites of the report. “This is not a polite job. I’m not there to be polite, I’m not there to seek approval. I’m there to find out if someone’s been involved in criminal activity. It’s not like we’re running around with flashlights looking to beat someone.”

 

 

“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.

There is also, in Baca’s office, a stylized panda illustration, a gift from supporter Andrew Cherng, the founder of the Panda Express restaurant chain.

“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.”


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