Speaking inside the chapel at Men’s Central Jail – site of some of the worst alleged inmate beatings by his deputies – Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca Wednesday said he “would not quibble” with a blue ribbon report that found “a persistent pattern of unreasonable force.” The report also said Baca “enabled or failed to remediate overly aggressive deputy behavior” inside the jails.
“I am paid to take criticism, even if it’s unfair,” Baca told dozens of reporters sitting in the pews. Uniformed deputies surrounded the beleaguered sheriff. About 50 inmates - Baca's invited guests - sat in the back.
Baca indicated he believes the commission exaggerated its findings, but he said he nonetheless accepted the report’s recommendations.
“I could not have written them better myself,” said the sheriff, whose jails are under investigation by the F.B.I.
For example, the sheriff said he agreed that L.A County should hire an outside corrections professional as an assistant sheriff to operate its sprawling jail system that houses nearly 20,000 inmates.
Baca said he also supports the creation of an inspector general's office to monitor the Sheriff’s Department and its jails. But he balked at the idea of special state legislation that could give that office the power to independently examine sheriff’s operations.
“I don’t think there is a need for that because the OIR is established,”said Baca, referring to the L.A. County Office of Independent Review. The OIR serves at the pleasure of Baca, which has raised concerns about its independence.
The sheriff defended his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka. The report by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence said Tanaka had a “troubling role” and “specifically derailed efforts to address excessive force.”
“I’m looking into the pros and cons of the allegations,” Baca said. “I’ve been hearing a lot of opposite statements.” He showed an organizational chart that drew a direct line between the sheriff and assistant sheriffs, bypassing the undersheriff. But Baca added that Tanaka’s role at the department has not changed. “I am not a person who acts impulsively,” the Sheriff said.
Baca said he’s implemented or is in the process of implementing 48 of the report’s 63 recommendations. He also said ‘significant use of force” is down 53 percent over the past year.
He reminded those gathered that the voters – not the board of supervisors or its blue ribbon commission – decide his fate. He’s up for re-election in 2014.
As he often does, Baca spoke at length about the importance of educating inmates to help them turn their lives around. And he talked about the dangers of violence.
“It is not humane under any circumstance for any of us to think violence is ultimately going to solve anything.”
Later, as T.V. cameras rolled and the still photographers clicked, the sheriff spoke to inmates in an anger management class.
“I just want to thank you for your willingness to get into this because it’s a better use of your time,” he said. “Now you’re working your mind. Now you’re starting to think about how you can do better.”