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Embattled LA Sheriff Still Plans To Give Fifth Term A Shot

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca at the Men's Central Jail in downtown LA in 2012. Baca, who has been under fire for jailhouse abuses, is facing calls to step down and not seek a fifth term.
Reed Saxon
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca at the Men's Central Jail in downtown LA in 2012. Baca, who has been under fire for jailhouse abuses, is facing calls to step down and not seek a fifth term.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca — who oversees the largest municipal jail system in the country — is facing growing pressure to bow out of the race for what could be his fifth term.

There's a lot that's been piling up against Sheriff Baca lately. At the top of the list is an FBI probe into what's been described as a systemic pattern of unnecessary force against inmates in county jails.

"Sometimes the term unnecessary force feels antiseptic. We're talking about shattered facial bones, you know 35 and 40 stitches. I've worked with somebody who literally had his teeth kicked in when he was surrounded by multiple deputies," says Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, which is the court-appointed monitor of the LA county jail system.

"I don't find it to be a very persuasive defense when the sheriff says, 'I didn't know about it.' Well I think you have an obligation when you're the head of an organization to know about stuff, especially when so many people are reporting it."

The litany of alleged abuses has been well-documented in exhaustive reports by the ACLU and an independent jail commission. They describe ganglike cliques of sheriff's deputies beating inmates, with top brass either encouraging violence or looking the other way.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department last month found that sheriff's deputies outside the jail engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches and excessive force against blacks and Latinos in the Antelope Valley north of LA.

Despite all this, the 71-year-old sheriff seemed anything but shaken at a recent luncheon put on by the Long Beach Rotary Club. In a wood-paneled ballroom, the tall and slender Baca grinned as he shook hands and posed for a few photos with Rotarians. During a speech, the sheriff quickly diverted from a planned script and addressed the jail scandal head-on.

"The havoc that you read about is kind of given a statement of narrative that 'it's all deputies, it's never the prisoners,' " he said.

The sheriff said a small number of rogue deputies with little street experience had, in his words, overreacted to challenges by inmates, Speaking to reporters afterward, Baca said his leadership over a department of some 18,000 employees shouldn't be judged by the actions of a few.

"And we have an organization I'm very proud of, the men and women of the department are very resilient, they're leaders, they care and the public should not be tainted by the few that do bad things," he said.

Baca says his department is taking steps to address the problems in and outside the jails. Eliasberg of the ACLU says there have been some positive changes since the worst of the scandals became public two years ago.

"I think the jury's still out," he says. "I've seen some evidence that they're changing their practices and doing better. It troubles me as I've said before when the sheriff makes it seem like the problem that he says he's addressing isn't really that serious."

The sheriff's response to the scandals has prompted calls for him to not run for a fifth term, most recently from the LA County Supervisor and the Los Angeles Times. Baca ran unopposed last time. But in 2014, he could face some formidable challengers. Even one of his former top deputies, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, recently jumped in the race.

"After 15 years of the same leadership, it's time for a new direction," Tanaka said

But Tanaka has his own baggage. He's under scrutiny too, since he was Baca's No. 2 man until he resigned abruptly this past spring. It's thought that criminal indictments in the jails scandal could come well before next year's election. What's not clear is whether Baca or any of his current or former top aides will be named.

For his part, Baca says he has every intention to run for a fifth term. And he all but brushes off any suggestion that he should step down because of all the problems in the department.

"Criticism is healthy because it means you gotta try harder and do better. And fixing problems is what I'm noted for," he says.

In the end it will most likely be up to voters to decide whether things really are better, across a department with more than 9,000 deputies patrolling the some 4,700 square miles of Los Angeles County.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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