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Does L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca get a pass?

The Board of Supervisors' commission to investigate reports of inmate abuse by sheriff's deputies in L.A. County jails has little leverage on Sheriff Lee Baca because he's an elected official.

November 12, 2011
(Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

What can the Board of Supervisors do to address reports of inmate abuse by sheriff's deputies in L.A. County jails? Not much, wrote editor-at-large Jim Newton in his Nov. 7 column, because the sheriff is elected by voters and cannot be fired or disciplined. The column prompted USC public administration professor David Lopez-Lee to write the following letter, which was published Nov. 9:

"Jim Newton writes about L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca: 'Unlike the [Los Angeles Police Department] chief, the sheriff is an elected official.... He can't be fired or disciplined. In effect, he has no boss but the voters, and that means an investigatory commission, no matter how effectively it does its job, will have little leverage.'

"He concludes that Baca 'is so insulated from normal channels of pressure that he simply does what he likes.' He describes such insulation as 'politics.' By politics, he means the voting public.

"To negatively frame and thereby trivialize the pressure of the voting public is remarkable. There are many who would prefer a police chief directly responsive to the voting public as opposed to pressure by commissions, which are often populated by egos vying for the political limelight.

"Baca, with a doctorate in public administration, knows who he serves."

Jim Newton responds:

Lopez-Lee makes an understandable point: If Baca is accountable to the public, shouldn't that be enough? The public, after all, has the ability to vote Baca out and replace him.

Or does it? The point of my column was to call attention to the limits of the special commission that will examine the Sheriff's Department's management of the jails. Unlike the Christopher Commission, which examined the LAPD in the early 1990s, the county commission cannot impose rules on the sheriff — a term limit, for instance, or requirements for additional civilian oversight — because Baca is an elected official. That's what I meant by the new commission lacking leverage.

There are ways the commission could bring pressure on Baca. It could raise public awareness of the problems in the jails, which could invite the federal government to take action. It could even disillusion the public about Baca's performance and make him vulnerable to a challenge at the polls.

But I notice that Lopez-Lee is an academic, and I might suggest that his objection here is entirely academic. As much as we might like to imagine that the sheriff is subject to accountability at the polls, that notion exists only in theory. Only one sheriff in modern history has ever lost to a challenger. That was Sherman Block, who lost the office to Baca in 1998. In that race, Block tallied nearly 40% of the vote. Not bad, considering that he died before election day.

If a dead sheriff can almost win, surely public accountability is a fiction.

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