Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is seen at a press conference in April. (Los Angeles Times )
Lee Baca has been Los Angeles County sheriff for nearly 16 years, and the last five have brought an extraordinary cascade of scandals that have exposed the dismal state of the department and the jails he runs. As a new election season begins, Baca should make the best of a bad situation and announce that he will not seek reelection in 2014. Instead, he should focus his attention on reforming the department while clearing the field so that candidates will step forward to run for his job.
What possible argument is there for a fifth term for Baca? Evidence that sheriff's deputies regularly beat inmates in the jails is mounting, and a wide-ranging federal investigation has been launched, including an FBI probe into criminal wrongdoing. Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded last month that sheriff's deputies in the Antelope Valley repeatedly violated the civil rights of African Americans and Latinos. Allegations of special treatment for Baca's friends and political donors have been a recurring theme over the years.
Baca has repeatedly claimed to be unaware of the troubling goings-on in the department he's supposed to lead — the violence, the gang-like cliques of deputies, the dearth of meaningful oversight. But lack of knowledge is no excuse. That's why the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence blasted him last year for ignoring multiple warnings and declining to ask probing questions or to implement reforms. The commission called it a failure of leadership and concluded that if the CEO of a private company had been so completely in the dark, his board of directors would probably have replaced him.
Next June, the voters of Los Angeles County will be asked to elect a sheriff. So far, no credible challengers have emerged. Baca's likely opponents include Lou Vince, a little-known Los Angeles police officer, and Patrick Gomez, a retired Sheriff's Department lieutenant who has twice run unsuccessfully for the job. Paul Tanaka, Baca's former top aide, is rumored to be preparing to challenge his former boss, but he has been accused of encouraging misconduct and abuse in the department.
It is extremely difficult for an outside candidate to raise the money or build the campaign organization necessary to unseat an incumbent. In fact, at least since 1932, no incumbent L.A. County sheriff has ever been unseated. If Baca were to announce that he would not run again, it would open up the field and make a credible race by a credible candidate much more likely.
Even if Baca remains in the race, we hope that a competent, experienced challenger will step forward to run a serious campaign against him. It's time for voters to focus on this important but mismanaged county department and the many serious problems there that need to be addressed.