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Cover Story | Some Hard-Core Cops See Sheriff Lee Baca
as a New Age Nut. Supporters Say He's a Much-Needed
Voice of Compassion and Reason.

La-La Land Lawman

February 20, 2000|Tina Daunt | Tina Daunt is a Times staff writer who covers City Hall and was covering the Sheriff's Department when Lee Baca was elected

Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca strides through the lobby of the boarded-up Hall of Justice at Temple and Spring, his polished shoes crushing chips of old paint that have flaked from the ceiling. A small flashlight illuminates his path as he makes his way to the main staircase in what once was the vibrant hub of the county's criminal justice system. He kneels and presses his hands against a cold marble step.

"You can actually see the wear," he says, dusting a layer of soot from the aged stone. "So many thousands, and perhaps millions, of people have walked down these stairs over the years." The thought seems to leave him in awe. He pulls himself up and leans against the tarnished brass banister, surveying the derelict downtown building, closed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

"Can you believe the mess? To let it go in the manner it is, neglected, is just wrong," he says of this place where his career began. "Buildings have a life of their own. It's all tied to humanity." He laughs: "I know I'm getting worked up here."

For years, Baca dreamed of this job, to which he was elected at age 56 in November of 1998. Now that he runs the nation's largest sheriff's department, with some 14,000 employees and a jail system housing more than 20,000 inmates, he has come up with a glittery to-do list based on his idiosyncratic notions of order and justice, art and history and--one of his favorite words--"humanity." While other law enforcement leaders talk about ways to keep inmates locked up longer, Baca's agenda is "humanitarian," calling for rehabilitation of habitual drug users, counseling of spousal abusers and therapy for young gang members and their parents. His down-to-earth, self-deprecating manner has earned him a measure of admiration in law enforcement circles and the approval of civilians hungry for emotional connection with their leaders. Others, though, dismiss him as "goofy," rolling their eyes when he launches into one of his already legendary soliloquies or makes a politically incorrect faux pas. And plenty of cops and county government insiders go even further. They call him "Sheriff Moonbeam." They can't believe he's a Republican. They're appalled at his lack of verbal restraint. At his swearing-in ceremony, gasps and nervous laughter met his off-handed remark about the mistress of ceremonies, Fox News anchor Christine Devine--"the only newscaster where the entire news station was named after her: Fox News." Some county managers contend that Baca's seemingly blithe indifference to the cost of his programs could drive the department to fiscal ruin. Critics bristle at his apparent improprieties, such as his decision to take his new Taiwan-born bride to her native land on a business trip paid for by that nation's government.

Even allies worry that the novice office-holder is too trusting of the people around him. During his bitter campaign against former Sheriff Sherman Block, Baca often talked about his new friend "the count," a European emigre who had vowed to help him raise campaign money. The self-described aristocrat seemed like a promising ally--until the FBI identified him as an "international class con man [and] swindler." It was not a unique incident. In November, Baca disbanded his widely ridiculed "celebrity" reserve unit. This unlikely posse of about 20 influential community members hadn't stopped a single crime, but two members had managed to get themselves in trouble with the law--one on money laundering charges and the other for a weapons violation. Baca's staff, it turned out, had failed to do adequate background checks on the people to whom the sheriff was issuing badges and guns.

Even Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who has called Baca's ideas a "breath of fresh air," gets nervous about Baca's associations. "Most people don't question Lee's sincerity," he says. "But there is a lot of concern about the people around him, in and out of the department." Melekian, president of the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Assn., adds that for someone with Baca's nontraditional agenda, lining up solid supporters is critical to giving plans credence and making them work. "Someone once told me," he says, "that there is a thin line between vision and hallucination. That line is defined by the people who carry out your plans."

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