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Baca Is Talking, and That's All

May 16, 2000

This is not what the public wanted to hear, Los Angeles County sheriff's officials announcing felony criminal charges against a deputy for allegedly falsifying records and filing false reports in three criminal cases.

Some Sheriff's Department officials told Times reporter Beth Shuster that the charges against Deputy David Auner, 31, were "lightweight." They also told Shuster that the charges--which grew out of a disclosure by a trainee of Auner--were much less serious than those in the Los Angeles Police Department's corruption scandal, which has uncovered allegations of bad shootings, perjury, falsified police reports and more.

Say the accusations are true, what exactly is "lightweight" about a deputy who writes a police report saying that he saw a suspect commit a crime when he did not? One of the most important lessons of the LAPD's Rampart scandal is that so-called "lightweight" abuses lead to more dangerous infractions down the line.

The timing of this case is important given Sheriff Lee Baca's mixed messages about the need for better oversight of the department on a variety of fronts. Equally unclear is the stance of Baca's budget overseers, the county supervisors. Do they believe Baca is serious? And whether or not they believe him, are they prepared to press for necessary safeguards?

Just two months ago Baca shocked law enforcement colleagues by saying that he might hire a civilian to head the department's internal affairs division. He also said he was weighing the feasibility of retaining retired judges to review disciplinary investigations against deputies.

"I thought . . . I could very well be in the same situation [as Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks]," the sheriff said. "What can I do to learn from the Rampart experience?"

Baca followed up in April with a closed-door report to the county supervisors. Later, he dropped those proposals from his short list of budget priorities for the next fiscal year. That left the supervisors pleased that Baca had avoided a huge wish list.

The Sheriff's Department has problems: unabated race riots in its jails, calls for an independent panel to investigate accusations of racial and sexual harassment within the department and more. In light of these troubles, a proposal to hold legislative hearings into the county's criminal justice system increasingly sounds like a good idea.

This is no time for the sheriff or the supervisors to revel in the fact that they are not working out of LAPD headquarters. So far, they have talked about safeguards and reform, and that's all they have done--talked.

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