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LA County Sheriff Lee Baca is an intellectual under fire

Grant Slater/KPCC file photo
Grant Slater/KPCC
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
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca surveys the inside of a jail cell in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC
A prisoner in Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles speaks with his cellmates in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC
Grant Slater/KPCC
Grant Slater/KPCC

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The first installment of this two-part profile of Sheriff Lee Baca ran on the Madeleine Brand Show on April 3. The second installment ran on April 4.

He may now be the single most powerful elected official in Southern California. But as L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca drives slowly along Rowan Avenue in East Los Angeles, he almost becomes a boy again.

He points to Our Lady of Lourdes, a modest stucco-and-tile Catholic Church. "That’s where I was baptized, and it brings back a lot of memories," says the 69-year-old Baca. He recalls flying model airplanes and reading Little Lulu comics. His parents divorced, and his mother nearly gave him up.

“She couldn’t handle three kids at the same time, so I was put up for foster care,” he says. “Then my paternal grandmother stepped in and said ‘No, I’ll take him.’”

Baca says his compassion grew in part from watching that grandmother care for a mentally ill relative in her house.

“Kindness is actually the greatest strength on Earth,” Baca says, sounding more like a social worker than the sheriff.

Baca’s concern for the less fortunate — he once wanted the sheriff’s department to build a homeless shelter — is one way he defies the lawman stereotype. Nearly bald and rail thin, he doesn’t drink caffeine, rarely partakes of alcohol and mostly reads in his spare time. He never tweets and doesn’t use email.

On a mission

Baca sometimes compares his job with missionary work.

That’s an unusual way to describe the sheriff’s department, which includes 9,000 deputies, 9,000 civilian employees and a budget that tops $2.2 billion. Baca’s men and women patrol thousands of square miles, 44 cities, L.A. County Metro buses and trains, and the jails. While overseeing them, Baca has become a nationally recognized law enforcement leader.

One way he has distinguished himself: Reaching out to Muslims after 9/11. That’s drawn the ire of some conservatives. A couple of years ago while testifying before Congress, he caught heat from then-Republican Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana. It was a tense showdown.

“Sheriff Baca, you have been 10 times to the fundraisers for the Council on American Islamic Relations, which even the FBI has separated themselves from,” Souder said.

“I object to your characterization of me,” Baca shot back as he vowed to continue to attend the group’s fundraisers. He lectured the congressman about the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the Muslim communities.

The sheriff’s story is, in some ways, typical L.A.: “My mother was born in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, and she came to the United States when she was less than a year old,” Baca says.

The sheriff has revealed that his mother was an illegal immigrant who worked as a seamstress. “In those days, undocumented was different than it is today,” he says. “And so it wasn’t difficult for her to become a citizen.”

Baca sees no contradiction in his support of Secure Communities, a federal program that works with local law enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants at a record pace. He argues that it targets serious criminals. Critics say it sweeps up otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants accused of minor crimes and breaks up families. Baca has fought to block the release of statistics that would detail who he’s handed over to immigration authorities.

So Baca is a sheriff who angers the political right with his outreach to Muslims, and frustrates the political left with his handling of foreign nationals.

A tale of two jails

Baca defends his sensitivity to human rights. And, though critics disagree, he says that sensitivity extends to the jails.

Outside the troubled Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A., Roosevelt Tellis, 47, says he is among those who’ve benefited from Baca’s philosophy. Tellis participated in one of the sheriff’s “education-based incarceration” programs that teach anger management and fathering.

“While I was in here, I was able to go through some of the positive programs that he has,” Tellis says. He thinks that “Lee Baca is somebody who believes in giving people a second chance.”

At the very least, Baca says, he believes that those in jail “deserve to be respected, not for the crimes they’ve committed, but for the humanity that they have.” The sheriff insists that “the objective, of course, is to get them to turn their lives around. That’s my motive.”

But for some, Baca’s jails are a violent nightmare.

Gordon Grbavac, a 44-year-old father of four, stood before reporters late last year to describe his ordeal inside the downtown lock-up.

“I was assaulted by two L.A. County sheriff deputies. They slammed my head into a glass wall over half a dozen times,” he said. “There was blood on the glass, there was blood on the cement floor.”

Dozens of former inmates have made similar allegations. Jail chaplains, a jail volunteer, and a former deputy also have described beatings.

“I have never seen anything that approaches the level of violence that currently infects the Los Angeles County jail system,” Tom Parker, the former head of the FBI’s L.A. office, said. He examined the jails for the ACLU. “There’s been an absolute, deliberate indifference on the part of the sheriff and his top commanders as to what was happening right under their noses.”

For two decades, watchdogs have complained about a culture of violence inside the largest jail system in the nation.

“I think there is a question whether Baca has wisely surrounded himself with people who are capable of running the department consistent with his values,” says Merrick Bobb, who has served as the L.A. County Board of Supervisors special counsel on the sheriff’s department since 1992.

The FBI has launched an investigation into the jails, and some have called on the sheriff to resign. Baca has said his critics exaggerate any problems, and that he’s working on them.

“I will always look at controversy and criticism as an opportunity.”

A dramatic rise

Controversy propelled Leroy David Baca into the sheriff’s office in Hollywood movie-worthy fashion. In 1998, after a stint in the Marines and more than three decades with the department, he bucked the political establishment and challenged incumbent Sherman Block.

“Sherman Block and I are were close, and still are, in spirit,” he says. His victory was far from certain until five days before the election, when Block, 74, collapsed and died of a brain hemorrhage.

Baca describes Block as “an excellent leader, a kind man, a person who was an innovator." But he says it was time for his friend and mentor to leave office.

“Let me say this, there aren’t too many people that would do what I did. I’m a tough guy,” Baca says. “You don’t have to be a yeller, screamer or movie star to be tough,” he adds.

Baca, who holds a doctorate in public administration from USC, brought a more modern approach to the office. For Capt. Carrie Stuart, that’s meant more women in leadership positions. “Years ago there wouldn’t have been as many female captains on the sheriff’s department as we have now, and that’s because of him,” she said. “We appreciate that.”

Capt. Phil Hansen heeded Baca’s call for a more educated sheriff’s department, and “partly as a result of his leadership and example he sets, I went back to school myself and completed a master’s degree at USC last year,” Hansen said.

Sheriff’s deputies also praise Baca’s approach to misconduct. He prefers to re-train – instead of discipline - wayward employees. “Twenty-first century leadership is teaching people how to do better,” Baca has said. But Bobb, the special counsel, said Baca may lean too heavily on the carrot, instead of the stick.

“The system as it exists is tending to, not trivialize, but make less serious some conduct that I think should be taken more seriously, including use of force,” Bobb said.

In one case the Times documented, a sergeant who’d pointed a gun at a colleague was recommended for demotion but was suspended for 15 days.

Over the years, Bobb’s reported on too little supervision of rookie deputies assigned to the jails, gang-like deputy cliques that condone beatings, and weak internal investigations. Then there’s the deputy who smuggled heroin to inmates in a burrito.

“When their reports are not read and not heeded, this is what you end up with,” civil right lawyer Connie Rice said.

L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina said she is frustrated with what she described as Baca’s failure to follow through on task such as placing cameras inside the jails. “We’re thinking that ‘ok, we’ve told you what to do, here’s what to do, get it done,” Molina said. “At the end of the day, we need to be constantly checking.”

One jail captain says he’s warned Baca and other commanders of deputies’ bad behavior in the jails, but they failed to listen. The Sheriff says the captain’s warning surfaced only recently, and complains that his subordinates have kept him in the dark.

“You were the captain over the facility. You know what you’re supposed to do,” Baca said of one retired captain.

Rice, who sits on KPCC’s board, has long supported Baca. But she questions the way the sheriff prioritizes his tasks. “I think that what has happened is that the choices that he has made to lead at the national level and the international level have taken his attention away from the department,” Rice said.

The politicking sheriff

The L.A. County sheriff does have many distractions.

“I get 20 to 30 invitations a day to go and speak,” Baca says as he flips through requests outside his Monterey Park headquarters. “These appointments I’ve reviewed and I’ve agreed to do. There’s a political reception of a lady on Grand Street that’s running for the assembly.”

The lady is from Orange County, and like so many Republicans and Democrats in the region, she wants the popular sheriff’s backing. L.A. County judges, especially, seek his support. He has written over 1,000 recommendation letters for Superior Court judges during the last 13 years.

“If you get his endorsement, you are getting the Good Housekeeping seal that you are supportive of the sheriff, you are supportive of law enforcement,” says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Sometimes, the sheriff mixes politics with law enforcement. He recently wore his uniform while endorsing a candidate, a violation of state law. His department issued cars to two financial contributors who serve as reserve deputies. Baca said he was unaware of the perk, but refused to release information about his contributors’ activities as reserve deputies.

When a political contributor called to complain that Beverly Hills police had decided against filing charges against a tenant accused of forgery, Baca ordered his detectives to investigate, labeling the task a “rush” job. Baca bristles when asked about this case.

“Let’s just say you donated to my campaign, and you donated $50, and you’re a victim of a crime. Does the campaign donation deny you the right as a victim?”

Asked why he stepped in on a relatively minor forgery case, Baca said it was a significant case in which prosecutors eventually filed charges. He doesn’t mention he’d personally discussed the case with the district attorney.

“Giving preference to somebody who is a donor always raises the question of uneven enforcement,” said Maki Haberfeld, who teaches police ethics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It’s problematic.”

Baca denies that contributions color his decisions. The Board of Supervisors isn’t so sure. Last month, amid concerns that one failed jail commander won his job because he donated to Baca, it began to consider banning the sheriff from soliciting money from subordinates. A 2006 L.A. Times analysis found sheriff’s managers who contributed to his re-election campaigns were more likely to get promoted than those who didn’t.

In the city of L.A., the police chief is accountable to a civilian police commission and mayor. But the sheriff faces an often-unengaged electorate — and never a strong challenger — every four years.

And Baca successfully argued in court that voter-approved term limits did not apply to the sheriff because the state constitution created the office. All this means Baca, who’s been sheriff since 1998, faces few formal checks on his power.

Under the gun

These days, Baca is spending more time behind bars. On a regular visit to the cacophony of Men’s Central Jail. Metal doors clamor open and shut, and inmates shout out requests as he walks down rows of cells. He directs subordinates to fix a broken toilet. Baca says he is showing them how to be good guards.

“What I have is the ability of being positive when people are being challenged in a negative reality,” the sheriff says. “That’s my skill. That’s what I provide to people — reassurance, positiveness, encouragement.”

Baca stops to talk to a several men in yellow jumpsuits inside one cell. “Stay strong,” the sheriff says. “Hang in there.” The men converse willingly with the man with five stars on his collar.

“They wanted to know why I was so thin. And I said because I run,” Baca says later. (He does 7.5 miles a day.) “Those are the kind of contacts that are real. We’re talking about something that’s important: fitness.”

The sheriff also has appointed a new jail captain, and a dozen new sergeants are in place. Deputies already are using less force, he says.

But the FBI investigation that began last year continues. The Board of Supervisors also has appointed a Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence. Its general counsel is Richard Drooyan, who was part of the Christopher Commission team that examined the LAPD after Rodney King.

After initially resisting scrutiny, the sheriff now says he welcomes it. He says he is on top of any problems inside his lockups. Baca’s jails have ignited a political firestorm he says he’s determined to put out.

At the end of the tour through his old East L.A. neighborhood, Baca sits in his unmarked car with his driver. He talks about listening to the radio to relax during the day and his favorite song, “Let Me Try Again” by Frank Sinatra. The 1973 song marked a revival of Sinatra’s career.

“Of course, it’s about a love relationship where they broke up and now he’s wanting back in. The song is all about the pathos of ‘Let me try again. Ya know, I think I can do a better job.’”

Baca says the song has nothing to do with the challenge at the jails. His critics would say otherwise.