Soon after he was sworn in as L.A. County's 30th sheriff in 1998, Lee Baca began to express a philosophy of policing that was radically different from anything that had ever come out of the Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department. He spoke of his police force being an "enemy" of bigotry in all its forms and of the necessity of his deputies to revere the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Communities, declared Baca, should tell his department the solutions to their problems, not the other way round.
Then last July, Baca unveiled a plan that embodied his unconventional approach to law enforcement. It called for civilian oversight and supervision of his department's investigations of officer-involved shootings, abuse and misconduct. What made Baca's proposal even more groundbreaking was that the civilians chosen to head and staff his new Office of Independent Review would be civil rights attorneys, traditionally anathema to overzealous police officers. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky hailed the plan as an "unprecedented [leap] in the history of law enforcement."
Baca, 58, has spent nearly 36 years in the Sheriff's Department. Working his way up through the ranks from deputy sheriff trainee through commander of numerous sheriff's stations, he now leads a force of 13,000 deputies and civilian personnel who police 2.5 million people and run the nation's largest urban jail system. Yet, he looks and sounds more like a well-prepared systems analyst than a veteran cop.
A native of East L.A. who grew up in a poor, troubled family, Baca attributes much of his empathy for the impoverished and marginalized to that experience. After graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School and East Los Angeles College, Baca joined the Sheriff's Department in 1965. Nearly 30 years later, he earned a doctorate in public administration from USC.
Married for two years to the former Carol Chiang, Baca has two grown children from a previous marriage, one of whom is a police officer in Rancho Murieta.
In an interview in his Monterey Park headquarters, Baca spoke about his involvement in the recent furor over President Bill Clinton's commutation of the prison sentence of Carlos Vignali, a convicted drug dealer from Los Angeles, and about his vision for the department.
Question: Should a law-enforcement officer be writing any kind of letter on behalf of someone who is serving time for a crime?
Answer: Let me set the record straight. The only letter I've ever written involving a person who had committed a crime was when I was a chief in 1996. I asked the Federal Department of Probation to consider moving [Carlos Vignali] closer to his family. I believe that when people are in prison, their families are an integral part of their rehabilitation.
Q: You say you have never written a letter "involving a person who had committed a crime" other than Vignali. Why did you do it for him?
A: Because I believed that Vignali's father is a good man and a good father who wanted to see his son more frequently, so he'd go no further into the world of crime. I believe that's an important thing.
Q: Horacio Vignali made $11,000 in political contributions to you. The appearance is that those contributions could have prompted you to write the letter.
A: [The contributions] had no impact on my decision. And I wouldn't rule out [writing a letter] again to help someone get closer to an offspring in prison. What the public doesn't know is that this was not an unusual request. Large prison populations are best managed when you have an inmate population that is not going off the deep end. All this spin over contributions is convoluting the essence of good management of jails.
Q: Could you elaborate on your contacts with Hugh Rodham in the Vignali matter?
A: I have issued a press statement that defines what my contact was, which is, he contacted me. I never sought him out. He called and told me that I would receive a call from the White House. It's a mystery to me why he called.
Q: You wrote a second letter last year at the request of Horacio Vignali. What did he ask you to do?
A: Prepare a letter about his son's status, and I refused to do so. I don't believe that I am in a position to ask anyone to consider the commutation of a sentence. That's something that requires a review and knowledge of the details of the offense, knowledge I do not have. I wrote a letter [instead] saying that I knew [the elder] Mr. Vignali, that he is a good man and father and that he was helpful [to the department] in regard to a deputy sheriff who was committing a crime while on duty.
Q: Let's shift gears. What's the status of your proposal to create an Office of Independent Review, headed by civil rights attorneys, to conduct and supervise the department's investigations of police shootings and other deputy misconduct?