Sheriff Lee Baca: Right your ship

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department is teetering from misconduct allegations. Its leader can't keep ignoring badge-wearing rogues.

  • Pin It
Thousands of felons who would be sentenced to state prison are about to be funneled into county jails — a money-saving measure for cash-starved California, and a headache for local law enforcement agencies.

But not here in Los Angeles County, where Sheriff Lee Baca plans to greet arrivals with a menu of classes and counseling programs aimed at helping miscreants go straight.

If I were one of those inmates, I'd rather take my chances at Folsom than serve a term at the county lockup, where deputies just might jump me on my way to citizenship class.

According to accounts from jail volunteers, the Los Angeles County jail has become a dangerous 'hood, with deputies dealing out blows and attitude.

This week, the ACLU released sworn testimony from jail chaplains and visitors who said they saw compliant inmates beaten and kicked by deputies. And the FBI is investigating misconduct allegations that it deemed serious enough to probe with an undercover sting — which Baca wasn't told about beforehand.

Which makes me wonder if the sheriff is seen as part of the solution, or the problem.


I believe Baca's intentions are good. We've crossed paths for years at community events, and I've always admired his humanitarian bent.

He's been an advocate for the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless. He reached out to Muslims after 9/11. He went door-to-door in Compton in 2005, apologizing to residents when deputies chasing a car-theft suspect blasted their neighborhood with gunfire.

But a recent series of articles by The Times' Robert Faturechi paints a picture of a troubled agency:

The U.S. Department of Justice is probing claims that deputies systematically harassed minorities in Antelope Valley public housing projects.

A Sheriff's Department captain was placed on leave after federal agents thought they heard her voice on a wiretap of a Compton drug ring.

A brawl between deputies at a Christmas party — involving trash-talking, turf wars and flashed hand signs — led to a lawsuit charging the department with fostering "gang-like activity" among jail employees.

In my column about that brawl, department watchdog Michael Gennaco cited a combination of forces: deputies as young as 18, carelessly screened, poorly trained and assigned for years to coarsening custody routines.

Baca blamed the foolish antics on a few guys who drank too much and forgot, for a moment, the department's core values: fairness, wisdom, integrity, respect, honor, common sense.

But it's time for the sheriff to look deeper. What witnesses described to the ACLU is too blatant and broad to be dismissed as a few bad apples in a healthy barrel.

Judging from their affidavits, there was not even a code of silence to breach; jailers beat inmates and bragged about it.

"Yeah we f— these guys up all the time," one jail visitor said a deputy told him, after he witnessed other deputies restrain and Taser a prone inmate.

The visitor was Scott Budnick, producer of the movie "The Hangover." For four years, Budnick was a jail volunteer, teaching writing to inmates. That's the kind of project Baca loves. But Budnick cut back his visits in 2008 "because I became so disgusted with what I saw there," he said.

  • Pin It

Local & National Video