Lee Baca Facing Six-Month Prison Term: What Happened to the Idealistic Sheriff from East LA?

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is one of America’s stranger law enforcement agencies, and its former head, Lee Baca, who admitted this week that he lied to federal investigators, is about as strange and troubling a public figure as one can imagine.

The organizational oddity begins at the top, since the Sheriff is an independently elected official. That was common in the mid-19th Century, when the department was formed, but today only a handful of agencies retain that arrangement, none of them anything like the size of LA County. What that means is that the head of the nation’s fourth largest police agency and its largest sheriff’s department is not accountable to any other authority but the voters every four years.

That’s fine if you’re president or mayor or any other sort of executive frequently in the public eye. If you know anything about the level of popular engagement in local politics, however, you can estimate for yourself how much accountability is built into that arrangement for the head of law enforcement agency.

Then, there’s the sprawling and diffuse nature of the department’s responsibilities. It employs about 18,000 individuals, half of them sworn. Aside from policing the county’s transit systems and unincorporated areas, the sheriff department also provides basic police services to 42 cities in LA County.

The quality of that service varies in an interesting way: In places with generally well-educated, generally affluent and politically assertive populations—West Hollywood and Malibu, for example—the service tends to be efficient and constitutionally correct. In communities with working class, poorly educated, and largely immigrant populations, the department’s history is abusive, as it has been in vast swaths of Southeast Los Angeles.

More recently, federal authorities have identified a pattern of racial discrimination on the sheriff’s  part in the Antelope Valley and Lancaster. Perhaps strangest of all, is the department’s long-time tendency to break into cultic cliques, like the notorious Vikings, whose habits mirror those of the gangs the deputies are supposed to police.

The department’s major responsibility is running the world’s largest local jail system, which at any given moment, may house as many as 200,000 inmates. Every deputy begins their career by serving as a jail guard, so the system isn’t just a major preoccupation, but also formative in shaping the deputies’ culture, stamping it with a brutality unlike anything you might find in the reformed Los Angeles Police Department.

The scope and complexity of the sheriff’s activities make the department hard to scrutinize, particularly because no other local official has the responsibility to do so and because such a large share of its activities occur in the closed-off environment of the jails. Add onto that the general diminution of Los Angeles  news coverage by our corporate-owned newspapers and television stations, the opportunities for malfeasance, abuse and official lawlessness mushroom.

All of those things flourished in LA County’s jails in recent years and intense pressure from local watchdog groups and, particularly, the American Civil Liberties Union, finally forced an undercover investigation by the FBI and local U.S. Attorney’s office. It not only uncovered widespread physical and emotional abuse, but a conspiracy directed by Baca and his top lieutenant, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, to obstruct the federal investigation.

More than a dozen deputies and sheriff’s officials now have been convicted or pled guilty acts of brutality or participation in the cover-up. Tanaka was indicted and awaits trial; Wednesday, Baca pled guilty to lying to investigators about his role in sending a group of deputies to intimidate a FBI agent at her home. The former Sheriff could face six months in prison.

The question that lingers is whether this appalling abuse and unconstitutional policing simply continued because Baca was—as he has described himself—“a hands-off administrator,” or whether it deepened because of the quirks in his personality.

Baca’s tenure began in unusual circumstances, to say the least. He ran for the office against his one-time patron, Sherman Block. The prospect of working for Baca so alarmed many of Block’s lieutenants that, when their incumbent died during the campaign, they insisted on keeping his name on the ballot in the hope the dead man would win, thereby opening the door for the County Supervisors to name a successor. It didn’t work.

From the start, there were questions about Baca’s judgement when it came to the people around him and one of his major campaign supporters turned out to be a phony nobleman and con man. He had an odd blindness to the appearance of impropriety, accepting a free trip to Taiwan from the government of his second wife’s native country. He set up a weird auxiliary unit of celebrity supporters and issued them weapons permits.

Worst of all he promoted and increasingly relied on Tanaka, a charter member of the Vikings clique.

I encountered Baca many times over my newspaper career. In the last instance, I’d written a column with which he disagreed and he had his civilian PR man invite me to the Sheriff’s headquarters to discuss it. The place had something of the reverent air of the Vatican—with guns. I don’t think we spent five minutes of our 90-or-so minute chat on my column.

Instead, Baca launched into a rambling monologue about his “spirituality,” a pretty confused and goofy polytheistic business, even by LA standards. (According to an early profile of Baca in the Los Angeles Times, he had a propensity to converse with an ancient oak on his daily six-mile run.) The whole thing was pretty hard to make out, even for a guy who’d been raised a Catholic then approved of his first wife’s decision to raise their children in the Mormon faith to which she’d converted. Baca and his second wife were married in an Armenian Orthodox church—not because either one of them was Armenian or Orthodox, but because a couple of his major campaign donors were.

Our conversation ended with his long hymn of praise to Princeton’s Robert George, the brilliant and deeply conservative Catholic constitutional law professor and legal philosopher who has almost single-handedly restored natural law to a force in American jurisprudence. He’s one of the fathers of so-called “theoconservatives.” I couldn’t really make out whether Baca actually could tell natural law from the penal code—or whether he was just trying to impress with the fact he’d been on a panel with George not long before. In any event, our chat ended warmly and he insisted on presenting me with a money clip adorned with a sheriff’s badge.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Baca’s ultimate fall was that, from the beginning, he presented himself as a jail reformer. Not long after he was elected, Baca addressed a group of young Republicans in Pasadena. According to the Los Angeles Times, he told some 20 people who had gathered that he wanted to provide counseling to inmates inside the vast Los Angeles jail system. “People in jail, for all the crimes they committed, are, first and foremost human beings,” he said at the time.

“They will either come out worse for their stay in jail, or they’ll come out a little more pulled together as human beings than when they got in,”  he said, adding: “Forty percent of the people we arrest are illiterate. They can’t read or write in any language. This in itself is a social crime. The failings of the school system and whatever else that contributed to this are on my shoulders.”

Baca received a rousing applause from group. He told them: “This is kind of like the grand vision of taking human beings and giving them another sense of hope about things.”

So what happened to that idealistic guy from East LA? Was he betrayed by people he never should have trusted, or is he simply a hypocrite willing to do whatever it took to ensure his own political survival? There’s really no way to tell, but—either way—the fault was somewhere in Baca rather than his stars.

We’re never going to be able to protect ourselves or the vulnerable individuals held in our jails from an ineffective or deceptive Sheriff or his malfeasant and ill-supervised underlings. Introducing more oversight by making the office appointive rather than elective would be a start, but that’s unlikely to happen. It might be smart, though, to do what Los Angeles has done with its police chiefs and at least limit the Sheriff to two terms.

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