In conversations with Lee Baca, you sometimes find yourself wondering, "OK, is this guy a sheriff or a shaman?"
He's different. Spiritual. More of a social worker than any other cop I know, and he and I have served together more than once on panels involving mental health matters.
All that's to the good, I'd say, although you're never quite sure where Baca's next globe-trekking retreat will take him or whether he'll return in sandals and robes.
But holy Jehoshaphat, when it comes to running a department, it's been one screw-up after another at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
The latest head-smacker involves an e-mail from one of Baca's captains ordering deputies not to speak to the L.A. Times. As my colleague Robert Faturechi reported Tuesday, the captain's directive came just a few days after the paper ran Faturechi's story on the fact that Baca had launched a criminal investigation in Beverly Hills — which has its own presumably competent Police Department — on behalf of a political donor.
It was outrageous enough that Baca took the unusual step of sticking his nose into a case Beverly Hills police had already decided was a civil matter. But then his department puts out the word to punish The Times for doing its job?
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore claimed the e-mail had nothing to do with The Times' Beverly Hills story.
Whitmore also claimed The Times wasn't being singled out.
Hmmmm. Then why did the e-mail instruct deputies to forward media requests to headquarters, "Specifically any LA Times requests."
"It's vernacular," Whitmore told me. "It's shorthand. I know it sounds silly."
This is how it goes with the Sheriff's Department. You're down the rabbit hole before you know it.
On Tuesday, I sent Whitmore a list of Sheriff's Department missteps I wanted to discuss with Baca, and believe me, it took great discipline to limit myself to a mere half dozen. In case you've forgotten some of his past foibles, my list included such things as:
Why he used to give guns and badges to members of a reserve unit that included celebrities.
Why he once allowed a reality TV show to feature his recruits on a show that the department's Office of Independent Review concluded was humiliating the future cops. (Does Baca not understand that this is the point of a reality show?)
Why he once had to shut down his training academy after state inspectors found problems that included one instructor giving recruits answers to the tests.
Why Mel Gibson got a police escort from the Malibu/Lost Hills station after his arrest in 2006, but a vulnerable and troubled non-celebrity — 24-year-old Mitrice Richardson — was allowed to leave on foot after midnight in 2009, without a purse or cellphone. She ended up dead in a canyon, you'll recall, and the coroner's office complained that the Sheriff's Department removed the body prematurely.
Whitmore told me the sheriff was unavailable for comment Tuesday morning because he was on a plane from Washington, D.C., and wouldn't land in L.A. until the evening.
I'm no detective. But if you get on a plane mid-morning, Eastern Standard Time, aren't you going to land in L.A. by mid-afternoon, unless the plane is powered by rubber bands?
The idea of time zone differences seemed downright alien to Whitmore, who said he'd check it out. Turns out Baca wasn't on the plane yet, and he was kind enough to call me from D.C., where he was meeting with federal officials regarding identity theft.
Baca said my list of his missteps was "rather minimist," given his 12 years of crime-reduction efforts in spite of budget restrictions.
I asked if he had any regrets about his reign.
"My regrets, if there are any, is that people don't know how much we do," said Baca.
Spoken like a man who can't be called on the carpet until the next election. An argument, you might say, for appointing rather than electing sheriffs. Does anyone really believe it's a good idea to have a top law enforcement official who has to run around asking for handouts?
On what I take to be Baca's most odious transgression — jumping into the Beverly Hills matter — the sheriff insisted he has full authority to investigate potential crimes even when a local agency already has done so. The case involved Ezat Delijani, a businessman involved in a tenant dispute that Beverly Hills police reviewed but in which they didn't find evidence of a crime.
Baca told me his months-long investigation, which was in fact followed by criminal charges, had nothing to do with his casual relationship with Delijani. He said his job is to serve victims of crime, period, no matter where in the county the crimes occur. Really? Even if they occur in areas served by another police force?
Excuse me, but I wonder how many victims who didn't donate thousands of dollars and send gift baskets and booze were ignored while Baca's boys spent months on a "special investigation" that was given "rush" status.
In 2004, I told Baca, records showed that he had accepted more gifts than California's other 57 sheriffs combined.
"That's the reality of the public affection for the sheriff," Baca said, suggesting he's a victim of circumstances in a culturally diverse and generous county.
"If you're from the Middle East, you will send me a gift regardless of whether you ever see me again. If you're from Asia, you will send me a gift.... I don't care about gifts. That should be the No. 1 part of the story."
Yeah, I'm sorry I didn't work it into the first paragraph.