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On Hilton decision and others, Sheriff Baca goes his own way

Backers say the lawman is always trying to make a difference. A detractor sees arrogance.

June 18, 2007|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Before he made the decision to release Paris Hilton early from jail, Sheriff Lee Baca consulted top advisors throughout the day.

He heard psychologists describe Hilton's condition as deteriorating and potentially life-threatening. Baca talked to senior media advisor Steve Whitmore about how the media would handle the story if he sent Hilton home.

"It will be a firestorm, and it will be worldwide," Whitmore told him.

Those who have followed the Los Angeles County sheriff during his more than eight years in office were not surprised that he chose to release Hilton, a move that prompted the predicted criticism around the globe and an effort to recall him from office.

Whether he's speaking at a Church of Scientology gathering, approving the distribution of condoms to gay jail inmates or deciding the fate of one of the world's most closely watched celebrities, Baca does what he wants with little regard for how it plays out with the public.

"He's probably the most humane person I've ever met in my life," said Undersheriff Larry Waldie, Baca's top advisor and longtime confidant. "He will always do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. I think this Paris Hilton thing shows that. He knew it was a tough decision. He knew he'd be criticized, but he still did it because he thought it was the right thing to do."

Inside the offices of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the decision to spring Hilton was viewed differently. The union already had challenged the department upon learning that deputies were being searched when arriving to work inside the Lynwood jail that would house Hilton. The searches were meant to ensure that deputies didn't smuggle in cameras to take pictures of the heiress in captivity, a union official said.

Now the department was taking a pounding from the world's media and being accused of coddling Hilton because of her celebrity status.

Steve Remige, the union's president, appeared on national television news programs to criticize the decision. He said it appeared to him that the sheriff, a golfing partner of actor Michael Douglas, was unduly swayed by the rich and famous. He said he knew of no other case in which Baca had ordered the release of an inmate for medical or psychological reasons and said the department had the means to treat Hilton while in custody.

"Whenever the sheriff does something that draws attention to the department, puts it in a bad light, it reflects on all my members," Remige said. "You can only bite your tongue for so long; then someone needs to step up and say something."

Remige said it appears that Baca manages with arrogance and without regard for the views of his deputies or anyone else. One day after Hilton's release, an angry judge ordered Baca to return the actress to jail to complete her sentence.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors demanded a written report about the decision to release Hilton and scheduled a hearing for Tuesday. Baca went ahead with plans to travel to a conference on global security in Turkey and had a subordinate inform the board that he would not attend the meeting. The board rescheduled the hearing for June 26, and Baca agreed to appear.

"He has the attitude he's not accountable to anybody. He doesn't listen to the Board of Supervisors. He doesn't listen to the judge. He just does whatever he wants to do, believing he's not accountable to anybody," Remige said.

Baca, 65, grew up in East Los Angeles and was raised by his paternal grandparents after his parents' divorce. He joined the Sheriff's Department in 1965 and rose through the ranks until 1998, when he won an unusual election to become sheriff: He defeated incumbent Sherman Block, who died days before the election.

The new sheriff quickly earned a reputation as the least typical of lawmen, an advocate of social outreach with an emphasis on providing second chances -- to jail inmates and problem employees.

"I'm a believer in petting the bad dog. After a while the dog will believe it's a good dog," he said.

Baca championed a countywide effort to battle homelessness, formed a team to help jail inmates transition into society and allowed the distribution of condoms to gay inmates at the Men's Central Jail, even though it's a felony for inmates to have sex.

Baca, who earned a doctorate in public administration at USC, sought to provide affordable and accessible college educations for his deputies. He required all deputies to memorize a 59-word set of core values that among other things required them "to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms."

"He's an uncommon man in terms of law enforcement. He's a guy who genuinely believes he has an opportunity to change the world," said Jeffrey Prang, an openly gay West Hollywood City Council member who works for Baca as a special assistant. "He's not a politician who puts his finger in the air to decide which way the wind is blowing before he determines a course of action."

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