Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Sheriff Baca mum on federal jail inquiries in Sherman Oaks talk

Sheriff Lee Baca insisted his department is in good shape, despite two federal investigations into his jail system.
Sheriff Lee Baca insisted his department is in good shape, despite two federal investigations into his jail system. "People want to think the Sheriff's Department is falling apart," he said. "The Sheriff's Department is not in bad shape.”
Frank Stoltze

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca touted lower crime rates and his charitable giving in an appearance at the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association Thursday night, while skirting the biggest problem facing his department: two federal investigations into his sprawling jail system, which houses nearly 20,000 inmates.

Baca, who is seeking a fifth term next year as L.A. County's top law enforcement official, said only that he was dealing with a few "knuckleheads" in the Sheriff’s Department and promised, "I’ll take care of them."

The United States Justice Department is conducting an investigation into allegations that deputies beat up inmates at Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. The federal government is also examining whether the Sheriff’s Department engaged in a pattern of violating inmates’ civil rights, especially in its delivery of mental health services.

But those investigations appeared to be off the radar for the 100 or so Sherman Oaks residents who came to hear Baca at Notre Dame High School: none of them asked about the federal inquiries.

"I don’t know much about that," said Lucy Smith, who praised the sheriff’s talk about providing more education to inmates. "I thought he was very inspiring."

"I think he’s doing a great job with what he has to deal with," said Bill Bernikow. "Its just a big problem with those jails with all those people, overcrowding and everything."

The sheriff acknowledged he faced challenges providing proper care to mentally ill prisoners, but said they should not be under his care in the first place. "My jail is full of people who shouldn’t be in jail."

Baca, 71, faces several challengers in next year’s June primary election, including his former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Retired Commander Robert Olmstead and former Lieutenant Patrick Gomez are also running, as is LAPD Sergeant Lou Vince.

In an interview after his talk, the sheriff touted lower crime rates and reduced use of force against jail inmates as he made his pitch for re-election.

"The sheriff’s department has never been more effective in its entire existence," Baca said.