Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is up for reelection in March, on Thursday delivered his first "state of the department" address, in which he proclaimed that his agency is "stronger, larger, smarter and more secure" than at any other point in its history.
Speaking to a meeting of city managers in the Santa Clarita Valley, Baca did not shy away from some of the more controversial aspects of his first term in office: his budget deficit, his recent purchase of a jet and his push for a homeless shelter in downtown Los Angeles, among other so-called nontraditional law enforcement programs.
Overall, Baca declared his leadership a success. "Simply put," he said, "we are in the best shape ever."
His comments prompted applause a couple times from the city managers who represent the 41 cities that contract for Sheriff's Department services. But he also drew criticism from his two challengers, Sgts. Patrick Gomez and John Stites, both of whom heard the speech.
Afterward, Gomez and Stites accused the sheriff of understating the department's financial troubles and sidestepping other, more pressing problems, such as understaffing in patrol and increasing gang violence.
"Nothing's improved," Gomez said. "In fact, it's gotten worse."
Stites sarcastically praised the sheriff for a "well-orchestrated" event and said Baca appears comfortable speaking only when he has "complete and total control." Baca has refused to debate his two challengers.
Stites initially was asked to leave Baca's speech, but sheriff's officials decided he could stay as long as he didn't "make it into a campaign event."
Political consultants say Baca is protecting his presumed lead, a time-tested strategy.
"That's what incumbency is: He gets to go out there and highlight his record," said Rick Taylor, a veteran consultant not involved in the sheriff's race. "For him to go out there and tell the citizens of L.A. County what he's done over the last four years is exactly what he should be doing. That's what I would tell him to do."
Besides delivering his speech, Baca also picked up an unusual endorsement Thursday. Leo Terrell, a civil rights attorney known for his lawsuits against police departments, said he supports the sheriff's reelection.
"He's trying to make changes in an institution that doesn't like change," said Terrell, who has numerous lawsuits pending against the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department.
Terrell particularly praised Baca's Office of Independent Review, for which civil rights attorneys were hired to aid in investigations of Sheriff's Department actions. "That, to me, was a very, very bold step," Terrell said.
In his speech, Baca said he is pushing the department to move in new directions--initiating jail classes for sex offenders and drug addicts, for instance, and launching programs for teenagers at risk of dropping out of school and becoming gang members.
He said he has "been accused of being an idealist, and, yes, I am guilty."
But, Baca said, "I choose to call what I do 'practical idealism.'"
He also touted his support for a downtown homeless shelter that would be staffed by deputies and mental health experts. If the shelter succeeds in treating homeless people, Baca believes, the Sheriff's Department can reduce the numbers of mentally ill inmates in its jails.
Baca did not address, however, medical care in the jails, which is costing the county millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements and judgments. His challengers say the $2.4 million Baca recently spent on an airplane for himself and the department should have been used to improve medical care for inmates.
The sheriff, however, contends that much of the money for the airplane was restricted for air support functions and therefore could not have been spent on jails. Moreover, he said the plane is being mostly used by homicide investigators to travel as part of their work.
On the budget, Baca acknowledged that the $25-million shortfall in this year's spending plan caught him off guard. He blamed the deficit on increased staff for new programs--some of which he created--as well as the costs of housing illegal immigrants in county jails. He said the department will pay off its shortfall, in part by using federal funds that reimburse the county for the illegal immigrants in jails.
But the Board of Supervisors has not yet released that money, and it is unclear when that will happen. The supervisors have control over the department budget.
Baca, however, is undeterred.
"It is only applicable to my department," the sheriff said. "They can't use it for any other purpose."
Baca said the department must continue to grow. To accomplish that, he is asking voters to approve Proposition C on the March ballot. The measure would allow him to add five high-level positions at an annual cost of about $600,000. Those include an assistant sheriff, who would be a civilian, and four chiefs.
"I want us to be a leader and an innovator in law enforcement to be envied and copied by others across the nation," Baca said. "Not because it is self-serving, but because it's the right thing to do. Better law enforcement makes for a better community."