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Crime & Justice

2013 critical year for Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles County jails

Sheriff Leroy Baca testifies during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee March 10, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Sheriff Leroy Baca testifies during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee March 10, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
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This is one in a series of year-end stories that look back at the most memorable pieces KPCC reporters worked on in 2012 and look ahead at a key issue that will be the focus of coverage in the coming year.

The scene repeated itself throughout the year: whenever the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors discussed the jails, someone showed up to tell a story of alleged abuse.

The week before Christmas, it was Eva Flores, whose 26-year-old son is awaiting trial at the county’s most problematic lockup: Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A.

“Without any cause, he was pepper sprayed on his face,” the Maywood resident told the board through a translator.  “He got several broken bones in his back and a broken nose. These happened while he was handcuffed.”

It was impossible to immediately confirm the account.

Over the years, however, the county’s five elected supervisors —  who control the sheriff’s budget but not his operations — have expressed frustration as they’ve sought to persuade Sheriff Lee Baca to implement reforms.

“It’s hard for us on this side of the table to really know what goes on within our jails,” Supervisor Gloria Molina said.  “Use of force by far is one of the most difficult issues.”

The issue came to a head a year ago after the American Civil Liberties Union presented dozens of declarations not just from inmates, but also chaplains and jail teachers who said they'd witnessed abuse.  The Los Angeles Times published a series of articles that included former sheriff’s officials describing excessive use of force.

In response, the board created a citizen’s panel that included four former federal judges. In September, they made more than 60 recommendations for reform. The panel’s general counsel, Richard Drooyan, is now leading the push to implement them. One change demands that deputies avoid using force against inmates, even if the inmate is challenging the deputy.

“Was there an opportunity to de-escalate?" Drooyan said. "If so, did that deputy take the opportunity to de-escalate? If not, why not?” 

The sheriff has implemented two reform recommendations and begun to work on 44 others, Drooyan said. But he also accused Baca of dragging his feet on some. He noted the sheriff has given himself until November 1, 2013, to hold his managers more accountable.

“I think that’s too long,” Drooyan said.

The independently-elected sheriff is not obligated to follow the recommendations, but has said he will. He told the board his self-imposed deadlines are reasonable.

“I think we can beat some of those projections. That’s our desire,” Baca said.  “But you don’t want to rush to implementation.”

The sheriff said changes in jail management and policies already have produced a 45 percent drop in the use of force at the jails — an improvement that Drooyan worries is only temporary.
The sheriff has said he’ll need more than$30 million to implement all of the reforms, including hiring a new assistant sheriff from outside the department to run the jails. The county also plans to create an inspector general position to monitor a sprawling system that holds nearly 20,000 inmates. 

Amid the intense scrutiny, Baca has remained adamant that allegations of abuse are exaggerated.

“I invite everyone from the public to come into the jails and see for themselves,” the sheriff said. “I have 7,000 inmates who are in classrooms now.”

Baca, who’s been sheriff for 14 years, said he’s always wanted to change the jail culture to what he calls education-based incarceration. That may be true, but the way he’s operated his jails to date prompted the federal government to launch an investigation a year ago. It’s a difficult time for Baca.

“Unquestionably, this is a key moment for Sheriff Baca and his team,” Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson said. “They have the opportunity to put in practice reforms and stave off the federal government filing a lawsuit.”

The federal government refuses to comment on its inquiry, but Levenson said it likely has two tracks: A grand jury is probably looking at whether individual deputies should be charged with excessive use of force and, separately, the Justice Department’s civil rights division is likely considering whether to file a pattern-and-practice lawsuit.

“They have to look and see if this is just a few bad eggs…or if it's more widespread,” Levenson said.

It was only after the federal government filed a pattern-and-practice lawsuit against the LAPD more than a decade ago that the department changed its ways.

One key question for Baca in 2013: what’s the role of Paul Tanaka?

The citizen’s commission described the powerful undersheriff as having "specifically derailed efforts to address excessive force” at Men’s Central Jail when he vetoed a job rotation plan in 2006. The county’s longtime jail watchdog, Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, said Baca relies heavily on Tanaka.
“Paul Tanaka’s always been very important in terms of the budgetary process. He will continue to do that,” Bobb said. “But the other assignments and responsibilities that he has had, only time will tell what happens next year.”

Baca has said his top commanders report directly to him now, not Tanaka, but he’s been vague about the undersheriff’s current authorities.
At the board of supervisors, Daisy Cruz joined Eva Flores – her mother – in expressing concern about her brother, who remains locked up.

“I’m very worried about my brother and about his safety in there,” Cruz said. "I think no one has a right to be treated this way. Everyone needs respect and dignity.”

Cruz is part of a new group called The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails.  Members are calling on the county to create a civilian review board that has subpoena power over a sheriff they don’t trust.  The Board of Supervisors so far has rejected that idea, and intends to rely instead on a new inspector general to watch over the nation’s largest jail system.

Baca is up for re-election in 2014, but he must decide whether he'll seek a fourth term before the end of next year.