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Sheriff Lee Baca was consumed by crises

He rode into office on high hopes, but will be remembered for scandals, despite his many achievements.

January 29, 2014|By Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard

For Sheriff Lee Baca, it was a legacy moment. He was on Capitol Hill, testifying before a congressional hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims. Conservative lawmakers were grilling him, pressing him to acknowledge that the Muslim groups he embraced after 9/11 may have had criminal elements.

Baca wasn't having it.

"We don't play around with criminals in my world," he shot back.

With dozens of cameras trained on him, the sheriff made the case that American Muslims were being unfairly persecuted and should be treated as partners, not suspects, in the fight against terror.

The tense exchange in 2011 made national news, burnishing Baca's image as a lawman who bucked law enforcement stereotypes and embraced a softer side of policing.

Back in Southern California, a different narrative was playing out in his department.

Just two weeks earlier, Baca's deputies allegedly beat a man visiting his brother in the Los Angeles County jail in an incident that would later result in federal indictments. Baca's subordinates had recently hired dozens of officers with histories of serious misconduct. And in the Antelope Valley, Baca's deputies were involved in searches and detentions that federal authorities would later say violated the constitutional rights of black and Latino residents.

Baca's defense of Muslim Americans on the national stage would turn out to be a high point in his 15-year tenure. Since then, the Sheriff's Department has been rocked by one scandal after another. And a different take on Baca emerged: a disengaged manager who lacked the managerial skill and sway to get his 18,000-person department to follow his vision.

As a federal investigation into jail brutality grew, Baca admitted he was out of touch.

"People can say, 'What the hell kind of leader is that?' The truth is I should've known," Baca said a few months after his triumphant Washington trip. "So now I do know."

As Baca makes way for his successor, even his supporters see the contradiction in his legacy. Baca, whose resignation takes effect Thursday, arrived as a different kind of sheriff, one who talked about tolerance, educating jail inmates and policing that wasn't based on force and intimidation. He leaves a department accused by federal authorities of brutality against jail inmates and racially biased treatment of minority residents.

"I know he's got to be destroyed inside to be going out this way," said Brian Moriguchi, head of the union for sheriff's supervisors.


In many ways, Leroy David Baca represented a stark difference from the traditional L.A. law enforcement leader. Raised by his grandparents in working-class East Los Angeles, Baca dropped out of community college. He was hired as a beat cop with the Sheriff's Department and worked his way up the ranks, earning a doctorate from USC. Along the way, he developed a philosophy about policing that went beyond simply arresting criminals and included rehabilitation and education.

In 1998, as a top commander within the department, he launched a campaign to unseat his longtime mentor, incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block. One top aide recalled Baca's approach then as being the opposite of Daryl Gates, the controversial former LAPD chief criticized for a militaristic take on law enforcement that alienated minority communities. Baca drew his support from ethnic communities within the county.

"I felt that he was going to be a real change for the department and a breath of fresh air," said veteran civil rights attorney R. Samuel Paz, who later became a fierce critic of Baca's leadership.

The runoff between Baca and Block, 74, was expected to be close, but days before the election, the incumbent died from injuries he suffered after slipping in the shower.

In his first years in office, Baca impressed some reformers.

He required his deputies to memorize a pledge to fight against racism, sexism and homophobia. He created dozens of ethnic advisory committees, formalizing a pipeline between his office and the county's many minority groups. He opened a drug and alcohol treatment center for jail inmates as part of rehabilitation efforts.

Baca successfully pushed for a watchdog agency that would monitor how the department handled allegations of misconduct by deputies. The move was all the more notable because it came at a time when the LAPD was mired in the Rampart corruption scandal.

Baca's subordinates felt the culture inside the agency shifting, even in subtle ways.

Moriguchi, the union boss, recalled first meeting the sheriff when they shared a flight to a hate crime conference. Moriguchi, a sergeant at the time, had become widely known after he sued the department, alleging he was retaliated against for complaining about an Asian caricature sketched onto a station whiteboard.

"Many department executives held that against me, told me my career was over," Moriguchi said.

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