Strange days when L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca does an about face and starts mumbling about cooperating with the ACLU.

On KCRW (89.9 FM) show “Which Way L.A.” last night Baca said he would meet with the ACLU regarding allegations that his deputies have regularly beaten inmates over the years and that his department failed to properly investigate the accusations.

The ACLU has served as a court-appointed monitor of the sheriff-run L.A. County jail system and …

… for years has alleged such abuses (some of which were unearthed in a spring cover story in LA Weekly).

Peter Eliasberg of the America Civil Liberties Union of Southern California alleged that the sheriff had repeatedly ignored and dismissed the results of its investigations, which he said have found credible witnesses to jailhouse beatings who were then never interviewed by the department's own internal detectives.

Journalist Celeste Fremon, who has covered the beating allegations, expressed concern that Baca put a man, sheriff's second-in-command (and, strangely, the mayor of Gardena) Paul Tanaka, in charge of the latest beating investigation when Tanaka himself had also been accused of standing by while the accusations persisted.

In fact, Tanaka was reportedly part of an earlier gang-like clique of deputies in the late 1990s accused of jail beatings.

Following recent revelations that the FBI was looking into the beatings and had a deputy smuggle a phone into an inmate so deputies inside could be spied on, Baca was at first defensive and accused the bureau of breaking the law by sneaking contraband into his jail.

But last night Baca was for the first time, it seems, willing to bend. He said he would meet with ACLU reps and discuss in earnest their allegations, and he said perhaps it wasn't always proper to send fresh-out-of-the-academy deputies into jail duty.

This after Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times and the ACLU itself called for Baca's resignation, a move the sheriff said he wouldn't make.

Baca is elected, and he's been a popular official. But that also means he works without supervision, except when elections roll around.

Will this be his undoing, or will his newfound ability to acknowledge problems in his jails win voters over again?


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