Is LA County Sheriff Lee Baca listening this time to complaints about jail violence?

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday considers a blue ribbon report that describes persistent deputy-on-inmate violence inside L.A. County lock-ups.

Sheriff Lee Baca operates the jails, but supervisors said they intend to pressure the powerful lawman to heed recommendations from the panel.

The report was the work of a mostly law enforcement-friendly commission - people apt to give the benefit of the doubt to cops.

“Look, I approached it with some skepticism," said Robert Bonner, who headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for President George H. W. Bush. "I wasn’t sure to what degree there was a use of force problem in the jail.”

Bonner was joined on the commission by two former federal judges, a former member of the California Supreme Court, the chief of the Long Beach Police Department, an expert on jails, and a Methodist minister.

All concluded Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka “enabled or failed to remediate" deputy violence.

“Even if you totally discounted all the inmate testimony ... that finding is supported by the statements from members of the sheriff’s department itself," said Bonner.

Use of force statistics dating back a decade also pointed to serious problems – especially at Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, Bonner said.

Last week, a few days after the report was released, Baca invited reporters to the downtown L.A. jail to say he accepted the report’s recommendations – if not its findings.

“I am not one who is going to quibble over accuracy or inaccuracy because I don’t think with my ego, I think with my intellect," said Baca, who holds a PhD and tends toward the philosophical. "I don’t need approbation to do the right thing. But I do appreciate stimulation to do the right thing."

The jails have provided Baca a lot of stimulation. Last year, the Los Angeles Times published a series of reports on jail violence and the sheriff's mismanagement of them. The FBI launched an investigation.

This is a sheriff who has served for more than a decade, and according to the commission’s report ignored repeated studies that found increasing deputy-on-inmate violence. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has collected more than 100 declarations from inmates who say jail deputies beat them.

Baca maintains his investigators so far only found two to be true. That may be why ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg said he would watch the sheriff’s next moves closely.

“He vacillates between statements about admitting there was a problem and being kept in the dark, and making these statements saying we know what the problems are and we fixed it," Eliasberg said.

The ACLU praised Baca for agreeing with the panel’s recommendations – which include hiring an outside professional to run the jails and creating an independent inspector general.

But Eliasberg said politicians need to maintain pressure on the sheriff.

“Is the board of supervisors going to push him hard enough to make sure he does what’s necessary?" asked Eliasberg.

L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a Republican who has grown frustrated with Baca, acknowledged the board’s limitations. The sheriff is an independent elected official.

“The Sheriff has exclusive jurisdiction over his department," Antonovich said. "But the board can make strong recommendations and now with the jail commission's report coming from responsible leaders. Again, we have a chief of police making these recommendations.”

Baca made it clear he ultimately is accountable to the voters – not the five members of the board of supervisors. He also indicated some resistance to any state legislation that would give an inspector general independent oversight over his department.

He believes it would be a mistake to enshrine that authority in law.

“There’s more value to doing something, establish its relevance and provability, and then keep it because it works than to say you gotta do it, even though it doesn’t work," Baca said.

Baca, would prefer to decide himself whether to allow access to his department - as he does now with the Office of Independent Review.

The head of that office - Mike Gennaco - has said the sheriff has provided "unfettered" access in the past. At the same time, Baca has ignored some of Gennaco's recommendation for jail reforms.

There has been progress over the past year, after the media and FBI started paying attention.

Use-of-force against inmates is down - thanks to Baca’s replacement of jail management, installation of cameras at the jail, and institution of new use-of-force policies.

“Sheriff Baca is to be commended for that," Bonner said.

But the panel's report is clear: “Notwithstanding the recent reforms, the Commission does not believe that the problem of excessive use of force in the jails has been fixed.”

Bonner said without reform: “there will be another commission looking at this very same issue in the future."