Beleaguered Sheriff Baca defends jail management

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC file photo

Under fire for violence inside Los Angeles County jails, Sheriff Lee Baca wrote in a newspaper op-ed Friday that he’s launched a series of measures to curb excessive use of force by deputies. The piece is his first public response to initial findings released on Sept. 7 by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

“The report neglected to mention a number of important initiatives my management team and I have put into place since allegations of problems at the jails surfaced,” Baca wrote in The Los Angeles Times. “These measures have resulted in a record low use of force in county jails in recent months."

The sheriff said he launched investigations into more than 100 allegations of excessive force presented to him by the American Civil Liberties Union. He suggested many of them are untrue.

“I think that when these investigations are completed, which I believe will be soon, the public will be surprised by the factual findings.”

The F.B.I. is also examining violence inside L.A.’s sprawling jail system. It’s focusing on Men’s Central Jail downtown, where former sheriff’s commanders have joined inmates and a jail chaplain in describing a culture of violence. More than 4,000 inmates are housed in the facility that sits adjacent to Chinatown.

While Baca touts his new managers at the jail and a new code of conduct that focuses on respect, he downplays any problems with violence.

"We are still investigating whether these allegations are valid."

For attorneys working for the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, there is little doubt about the problem.
Here's what KPCC's Rina Palta reported a couple of weeks ago:

Jail deputies, Attorney Maurice Suh said, "used force when disproportionate to the threat posed or when there was no threat at all." Some of these instances "stand outside policy and outside common sense," he testified. Use-of-force has gone down in the department: from 84 incidents per month between 2006 and 2010, to 38 per month during the first half of 2012.

However, Suh added, the majority of those instances involve "significant" use-of-force, and are not related to an inmate attacking a deputy or another inmate. "It's likely that they involve resisting inmates," he said — meaning force is still being used as a tool, not a last resort.

Attorney David Schindler concluded Sheriff Lee Baca was effectively "not involved in management of the jails," ceding most control to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Tanaka, among others, then insulated Baca from bad news out of the jail system.

The commission is expected to issue a final report later this month. Its findings are not binding on the sheriff, who serves at the pleasure of voters. Baca, 70, was first elected in 1998. He faces voters again in 2014.

Here's the full text of Baca's letter:

Here's a profile of the sheriff from earlier this year.