Crime & Justice

Can Baca’s guilty plea restore the Sheriff’s Department’s reputation?

 Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announces his unexpected retirement on January 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announces his unexpected retirement on January 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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LA County leaders' efforts to repair the reputation of the county's jails came center stage after former Sheriff Lee Baca's decision to plead guilty Wednesday to federal charges.

A federal probe into inmate beatings and corrupt deputies in the jails so far yielded 17 convictions, including those stemming from abusing inmates and jail visitors and obstruction of justice after deputies who tried to thwart the FBI's investigation.

Baca, who stepped down in 2014, initially told investigators he was unaware of his deputies attempts at a cover up, but now admits he was aware of his underlings' actions and in some cases, ordered them.

On Wednesday, he plead guilty to making false statements before a judge, and faces up to six months in prison when he's sentenced in May. 

Officials said Baca's plea shows no one is above the law and could help usher in a new culture of accountability amongst the rank and file.

"I don’t think there could be a louder message, I don’t think there’s a megaphone loud enough," said Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents southern swaths of the county, including Long Beach. 

Knabe said lawmakers are feeling public pressure to push reform. Outsized litigation costs still plague the department: the sheriff's department tallied $61 million in payouts in 2015 for wrongful death, excessive force and employment lawsuits. 

In one case, a deputy was fired for failing to investigate the misconduct by his colleagues. 

"We know what the problems are," Knabe said. "We know what the impacts are on tax dollars as it relates to big settlements, and we can’t just tolerate that."

Changes have come to the department with the election of Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who replaced Baca in 2014. When taking the oath of office, he pledged to create a culture of responsibility.

"While the organization should not be judged on the actions of a few, the reality is that it is. And, we need to be able to shine the badge for everyone," McDonnell said.

Retired L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who served on the board for decades, said he began to see change after the department started "getting some of the bad actors of the jail."

The FBI investigation uncovered a culture of management looking the other way when faced allegations of inmate abuse  - and supervisors seeking to hide it from federal agents, said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who headed the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence. 

Baca's deputies tried to intimidate the federal agent investigating the jails, putting her under surveillance and threatening to arrest her.

Baca lied to the federal officials and said he didn't know deputies were going to approach her. In fact, he ordered them to "do everything but put handcuffs on her," according to a plea deal reached with prosecutors.

His replacement, McDonnell, was elected with a mandate for change. He moved some people around and demoted others.

"The sheriff's department is very large place and that doesn't mean that there aren't pockets that still subscribe to a former way of doing business," Krinsky said. "But I think it's become clear to everyone in the department that this is a new day."

She said McDonnell also ushered in several reforms, including identifying inmates in need of mental health treatment and instituting a zero tolerance policy for deputies caught lying.

Assistant Sheriff  Terri McDonald, who preceded McDonnell, has sought to better professionalize the jails. She said the biggest change she's seen is morale –  deputies wanting to be better.

"Things do go wrong in every environment - particularly in jails," she said.

McDonald said wrongdoing is no longer swept under the rug, be it hitting inmates or smuggling contraband.

"We do a critical analysis of every incident," she said. "What happened? What did we do right? What did we do wrong? What do we need to change?"

And while more work can be done, some of the department's biggest critics are recognizing reforms to the use of force against inmates by deputies. 

"What was happening in the old regime was everything was rubber stamped - the force was reasonable," said Peter Eliasberg, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, which has filed lawsuits against the agency for alleged abuses and poor conditions. 

"The department has to make sure that it has ongoing culture of aggressive, careful reviews of use of force incidents and appropriate response," Eliasberg said. 

But, Eliasberg said, "it takes awhile to change a culture."