History will link the sheriff to his scandals

 

Sheriff Leroy D. Baca has left the building. His 48-year career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department - and his 15 years serving as Los Angeles County's top cop - came to an end Thursday when his resignation, tendered earlier this month in a surprise move, took effect.

"I will go out on my own terms," Baca told reporters at his abrupt Jan. 7 press conference. "The reasons for doing so are so many, most personal and private."

Those reasons could be tied to the announcement last month that federal prosecutors were filing criminal charges against 18 current and former sheriff's deputies, sergeants and lieutenants accused of beating jail inmates and visitors, obstructing FBI investigations and other crimes.

Or perhaps it was the U.S. Department of Justice investigation that accused deputies of engaging in widespread unlawful searches, improper detentions and unreasonable force against Antelope Valley African-Americans who received subsidized housing aid.

Or maybe it was his recent acknowledgement his department hired dozens of unqualified deputies in 2010 despite background investigations that found they had committed significant misconduct.

John Scott, an undersheriff with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, was sworn in on Thursday to replace Baca. Scott, who was with L.A. County for 36 years himself before retiring in 2005, said his retirement was motivated by his perception of the way things were going in the Sheriff's Department.

"I thought the direction of the department was taking a turn that I did not want to be part of," Scott was quoted as saying on L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's website. "I saw diminished accountability. I saw fragmentation within the department. I saw some people who did not represent the best interests of the department."

Five years after becoming undersheriff in Orange County, Scott was named as Baca's interim replacement by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. He has already said he will not run this year to be elected sheriff.

At a news conference where his selection as interim sheriff was announced, Scott said he planned to make changes in what he called "a ship in distress."

"I will begin the process immediately - restoring both the dignity to the men and women of L.A. County, and the confidence and trust with the public that we serve," Scott said.

Baca had recommended Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald be named as his replacement, but McDonald was found ineligible and Baca's spokesman said he was not disappointed by Scott's selection.

Baca had a reputation as a progressive, a reformer, a humanitarian. He also gained a reputation as a controversial and sometimes ineffectual leader.

He won praise for efforts to educate jail inmates and for his Muslim-outreach initiatives following the attacks on 9/11.

He also was criticized for allegations of offering favors to political donors and for reacting too slowly to implement reforms in his jails.

Raised by his grandparents in a decidedly downscale East Los Angeles neighborhood, Leroy David Baca quit community college and ended up being hired as a beat cop with the Sheriff's Department. That was circa 1966.

What followed was a steady rise up the ranks, culminating in his decision in 1998 to challenge his predecessor and mentor, incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block, for his badge. Days before that election, Block died from injuries he suffered after slipping in the shower. It was now Baca's command and his opportunity to show the community there was a new sheriff in town.

Drawing his support from ethnic communities throughout the county - people who had felt alienated or harassed in their previous dealings with law enforcement - Baca entered office with a stated mandate for tolerance and policing based on education, not force and intimidation.

Baca required his deputies to memorize a pledge to fight against racism, sexism and homophobia. He created multiple ethnic advisory committees. He opened a drug and alcohol treatment center for jail inmates as part of his efforts to spur rehabilitation.

But those efforts, ultimately were not enough to counter the numerous allegations of criminal misconduct and behavior. For a time, it felt like there was a new charge of corruption or abuse each week. Those allegations included:

Deputies under investigation for fostering in jails a climate of violence and forming secret cliques that tolerate and sometimes direct inmate violence.

Baca accepting gifts and trips, and providing special perks to campaign supporters that later become embarrassments.

An inquiry into the patterns and practices of arrests in the Antelope Valley.

It should be noted that it was Baca who made sure that resources were placed in the Antelope Valley to dampen what had been a years-long rising trend of crime. That trend reversed, but crime also calmed down in most other places, too.

In the end, Baca was a sheriff loved by supporters and supported by many community-interest groups, but loathed by many in the rank and file required by the duty of their oath to follow and obey.

His belief that reduction of crime in communities cannot be achieved by merely arresting bad guys and locking them up instead advocating for humanitarian "core values" for deputies rubbed some of the officers the wrong way. It was a "touchy-feely" approach when the sheriff's trust should be to arrest bad guys, take them off the street and keep them behind bars.

By these measures, in many ways, on many days, Baca fell short. That might be the ultimate reason he decided he could no longer perform his duties as sheriff.

A primary election to fill the sheriff's seat is set for June 3; a runoff, if no one candidate gets a majority, is in November. A tough election battle lies ahead for the candidates vying for Baca's office including his former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka; former Commander Bob Olmsted, and Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell.

When you look at those announced candidates for the June 3 primary, you might not be fully reassured they are up to the task. Tanaka has fielded criticism in the handling of the security culture (or, lack of it) in the county jail system. Olmsted, who complained about how security was handled at the jail, was not attracting the same level of fundraising that the popular and charismatic Baca seemed to handle effortlessly.

But that's an editorial for a future day. Today, we bid goodbye to Sheriff Baca. He was a complicated man trying to handle the rigors of a complicated job. He may have had a reformer's heart, but it may very well be the scandals that define him.

Legacies don't come as easy as they used to.

 

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