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Hard to see how Sheriff Baca escapes blame

Either Baca didn't know how bad things were right under his nose or he did know and did virtually nothing about it. If it's the first, he's incompetent. If it's the second, he doesn't deserve the job.

October 16, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, shown at Sheriff's Academy graduation in April, is under fire amid persistent allegations of abuse of jail inmates by deputies.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, shown at Sheriff's Academy graduation… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Gordon Grbavac says he was eating dinner in L.A. County's Twin Towers jail when two deputies approached and handcuffed his hands behind his back.

"They dragged me about 75 feet," said the 44-year-old Baldwin Park construction company owner. He had been arrested several nights earlier, in August of 2009, after guns from his private collection were seized by police. (The case was later dismissed.)

Grbavac said the two deputies dragged him into an attorney's consultation room and closed the door. Then one of the deputies said:

"We're going to teach you what we do to fat asses like you."

Then, said Grbavac, each deputy grabbed one of his arms. "They took my head and slammed it into a glass partition. There was blood all over the window and the floor.... They used my head as a battering ram."

Grbavac said his head had been bashed six times, and he was dazed and fearing for his life when a supervisor entered the room and asked what happened.

"Your deputies assaulted me," Grbavac said.

When the supervisor left, the deputies warned Grbavac that if he didn't change his story, the next beating would be more severe. The supervisor then returned with a video camera and asked Grbavac to explain what happened. As one of the two deputies who assaulted him watched, Grbavac said for the camera:

"I did this to myself."

Grbavac said he was then taken to a nursing station where one of the assaulting deputies gouged the tip of a key into his wrist, penetrating the skin. Later, at the hospital, he was found to have a concussion and bleeding in the frontal lobe of his brain, he said.

This story, which Grbavac told me Friday in the Studio City office of his attorney, Joel Farkas, is one of dozens of harrowing tales of alleged abuse contained in the report issued late last month by American Civil Liberties Union jail monitors. Along with similar reports by my colleagues Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard, it's difficult to have any faith in Sheriff Lee Baca.

"If he were a CEO, he'd have been out a long time ago," Tom Parker, former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office, told me over lunch Thursday.

Parker, who was hired by the ACLU to take a hard look at its findings and conduct his own research, told me he's been in roughly 40 jails and prisons in the country over the years, often investigating cases of excessive force.

"I have never experienced any facility exhibiting the volume and repetitive patterns of violence, misfeasance and malfeasance impacting Los Angeles County" jails, Parker wrote in his report for the ACLU.

"To an astonishing extent, unchecked violence, both deputy-on-inmate and inmate-on-deputy, permeates Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers Jail," he wrote.

And then there's this:

"Sheriff Baca and his top management team … have essentially abdicated their responsibilities to provide a safe, secure and corruption-free incarceration environment."

Esther Lim, who coordinates the ACLU's jail monitoring project, told me she was interviewing an inmate in Twin Towers last Jan. 24 when, through a window, she saw two deputies punching and kneeing another inmate, James Parker, who was face-down on the floor.

"He wasn't fighting with them, he wasn't resisting. In fact, while the deputies are punching and kneeing him, they're yelling for him to stop fighting, stop resisting, over and over," Lim said. "I'm looking at Mr. Parker and he's not doing any of that. In fact, he's so motionless I thought he might be unconscious." Then, she said, a deputy with a Taser starts Tasing Mr. Parker on his back … while yelling 'Stop resisting! Stop fighting!' and the other deputy is punching him."

The deputies claimed James Parker had assaulted them and initiated the altercation, but a criminal trial against the inmate ended in a hung jury, with nine jurors voting to acquit.

Baca, as I've said before, is an unorthodox guy — more of a shaman than a sheriff — who's distinctly progressive on some issues. But he's been a lousy administrator and leader in many ways, whether he's handing out badges and guns to celebrity pals, giving special treatment to acquaintances or loading up on more gifts than all the state's other county sheriffs combined.

For several years, he's flicked away complaints about the jails, arguing that inmates lie and exaggerate, and that any problems can be laid at the feet of a few bad apples. He's finally beginning to acknowledge that the problems may run deeper, but only because the heat has been turned up. It's not just inmates making accusations, but at least one former deputy, too, and civilians including two chaplains and a tutor. Tom Parker, the retired FBI guy, told me he believes the abuse and cover-ups are part of a rooted culture, and that Baca is too trusting of his hand-picked managers. He also said he thinks the sheriff's policy of staffing the jail with inexperienced deputies fresh out of training is a huge mistake.

Baca's department has become such an embarrassment, even a few of the traditionally spineless members of the county Board of Supervisors are beginning to suggest it may be time to do what they do best: appoint a commission to look into the problem.

"They've been silent as mummies," said ACLU jail monitor Peter Eliasberg.

As for Baca, it's hard to see how he escapes the bulk of the blame. Either he didn't know how bad things were right under his nose, which makes him incompetent. Or he did know and did virtually nothing about it, which makes him unworthy of the job he's been elected to.

A couple of weeks ago I said he should do the honorable thing and resign. But he won't, of course. One of his blind spots — maybe it's just ego — is a glaring inability to see how bad a job he's doing.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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