Bye, Bye, Baca

sheriff lee baca

Photo: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy David “Lee” Baca finally exercised the kind of leadership that has sorely been lacking from his office when he announced his retirement at the end of this month. His decision to step aside makes possible a new era of accountability and reform in a department plagued by a culture of abuse and impunity.

Baca claimed his leadership style was based “on pro-active, progressive problem solving.” But when he was confronted with allegations of deputy misconduct, Baca opted to minimize if not deny those claims.

The ACLU published a scathing report in 2011 documenting dozens of beatings of inmates by sheriff’s deputies and exposing a culture of extreme violence in the jails. Baca could have acknowledged the severity of the allegations and promised a thorough investigation. Instead, he quickly dismissed the report.

Responding to the report and a Los Angeles Times article confirming the existence of an ongoing federal criminal investigation into deputy abuse in the jails, the Board of Supervisors created a blue-ribbon commission to examine jails violence.

Baca welcomed the commission’s creation but bristled at its questions. When asked why he’d failed to address reports, for eight years, that indicated a “significant spike” in use of force against inmates, Baca said those statistics “only tell you so much,” blamed his subordinates for failing to inform him about misconduct, and suggested that there was no point to digging up the past. And, when asked whether he was holding his command staff accountable, he responded, “[Y]ou’re not going to tell me how to discipline my people.”

In its final report, the commission, which consisted of retired federal judges, a police chief, and community leaders, found “a persistent pattern of unreasonable force in the Los Angeles County jails that dates back many years” and placed responsibility for “the problem of excessive force” squarely on “the Department’s leadership.” Indeed, the commission found that Baca had failed to monitor and proactively control his deputies’ use of force against inmates. It pointedly concluded, “If a chief executive officer in private business had remained in the dark or ignored problems plaguing one of the company’s primary services for years, that company’s board of directors likely would not have hesitated to replace the CEO.”

Though Baca agreed with the commission’s 63 recommendations, he refused to accept its underlying findings. He disputed the finding that “there has been an inadequate level of leadership.” He seemingly took issue with the finding that Undersheriff Paul Tanaka “encourag[ed] deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities” and “discourag[ed] accountability for misconduct” by reiterating his support for Tanaka.

The sophistry involved in agreeing to enact the recommended reforms but disputing the justification for them did not reflect leadership; it only proved that you can’t solve a problem unless you first admit having one.

Indeed, just consider where Baca led the department:

  • During fiscal year 2011-12, lawsuits against the department cost county taxpayers about $37 million. This year, taxpayers will likely pay about $50 million.
  • In November, a federal jury awarded $740,000 to five inmates severely beaten by 27 deputies while detained at the jail. The month before, a federal jury found Baca personally liable and awarded punitive damages against him in the case of Tyler Willis — an inmate awaiting trial who was severely beaten by deputies — in part because Baca had failed to control use of force in the jails.
  • The department faces two federal civil investigations; one is examining whether deputies are systematically violating the rights of inmates with mental illness, and also whether they are engaging in a pattern of excessive force against inmates in the jails, and the other has found a pattern of excessive force and racial profiling by deputies on patrol in the Antelope Valley. The department is also the subject of a massive federal criminal investigation that has resulted in indictments of 18 current and former sworn officers for abuse and misconduct in the jails, including a brazen scheme to obstruct a federal investigation. In announcing the indictments, the U.S. Attorney said the incidents reflect “behavior that had become institutionalized.”

Though Baca said he accepts responsibility, he flatly denied any institutional problem, expressing confidence in “99.9%” of his employees. This statement was particularly disingenuous given revelations that Baca and the department hired at least 80 people with serious issues in their backgrounds, including some who had been fired or forced to resign by other law enforcement agencies, and ran a Friends of the Sheriff program that hired deputies with prior criminal convictions for offenses like sexual battery.

hector villagraBaca’s beloved department has become a national embarrassment, and his failure to acknowledge the problem at its core had become the key impediment to its reform. Baca says that he made the difficult decision to run against his friend and mentor Sherman Block in 1998 because it was time for Block to go. Baca has correctly recognized that it is now time for him to go.

Thanks for all you do to support the ACLU,

Hector O. Villagra
ACLU Southern California

Published by the LA Progressive on January 8, 2014
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About Hector Villagra

Hector Villagra has been Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California since February 2011.

He launched the Orange County Office of the ACLU of Southern California in September 2005 and served as its Director until October 2009 when he became Legal Director for the ACLU of Southern California.

Before joining the ACLU, Mr. Villagra served as Regional Counsel for the Los Angeles Regional Office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) from 2001 to 2005 and as a staff attorney at MALDEF from 1999 to 2001. Mr. Villagra has served as counsel in civil rights cases involving such issues as educational equity, religious discrimination, immigrants’ rights, and voting rights.

He began his professional career as a law clerk for the Honorable Robert N. Wilentz, Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt, circuit judge on the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mr. Villagra graduated from Columbia University and Columbia University School of Law.