Tide Rises Against Sheriff Lee Baca in California

Tide Rises Against Sheriff Lee Baca in California

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Protest Los Angeles Twin Towers
Protest Los Angeles Twin Towers

In New York City, the Twin Towers have become a symbol of freedom and perseverance. In Los Angeles County, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility represents for many the exact opposite. The 1.5 million square foot complex, the largest jail in the world by size, run by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) has been at the center of intense scrutiny and criticism.

In January of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the head of the LASD, four term Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy “Lee” Baca, accusing him and Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley of covering up a pattern and practice of deputy abuse against inmates. But that’s just a small piece of the history of complaints of an absence of accountability and racially brutality motivated against Baca, who has served as Sheriff since 1998, and the largest county Sheriff’s Department and the fourth largest local policing agency in the United States. It should be noted that Lee Baca has been serving in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department since 1965 and has climbed through the ranks in his over four decade long career.

In 1992, a report by Special Counsel James G. Kolts and Staff (PDF), prompted by shootings of people of color by the LASD, chronicled the unchecked use of excessive and deadly force, lax discipline, racial profiling, unjustified raids of homes, millions of dollars paid out in lawsuits, abuse of inmates at the hands of deputies, and inmates purposely being pitted against each other along racial and ethnic lines. 23 recommendations made by a committee of 25 included regular external audits, more civilian oversight, better training of officers on when to use force, better internal investigation and tracking  of incidents of officer with troubling patterns of abuse, better discipline procedures, and a move towards community policing.

And yet, last month when a blue-ribbon commission issued a 194-page report recommending more than 60 reforms (PDF), pointed the finger of blame squarely at Baca and his Undersheriff Paul Tanaka with the same types of allegations, the Sheriff feigned not knowing until then the extent of the problems within his department that contracts with 42 of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County for complete municipal law enforcement services.

Is this a case of a police department too big to monitor itself? A department too entrenched in a culture of seeing people of color as animals and hiding between a wall of silence? Or is the LASD’s problem a failure of leadership, not just from Sheriff Baca who testified at a hearing earlier this year that the answer to his lack of accountability was,  “Don’t elect me,” but also from the  five member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that oversees Baca and his deputies?

In 2011, the ACLU  reported (PDF) beatings of inmates by sheriff deputies, sexual assaults by inmates on other inmates with assistance of LASD deputies, excessive and brutal use of tasers, excessive and inappropriate use of pepper spray, and the existence of cruel deputy gangs like the 3000 boys in Men’s Central Jail, named for the unit they oversee. Baca has been dismissive of these accusations, despite civilian corroboration, faulting a few bad apples instead of acknowledging a system wide epidemic.

The most recent commission admitted that they considered recommending that Baca resign but decided not to, hoping that this would be the straw to force the Sheriff to step up, especially if that means avoiding federal receivership. But as an elected official, no one can really force Baca to do anything.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, about a hundred people, mostly youth of color, protested across the streets from the Twin Towers. As LASD buses, filled with people raising their fists to the windows, rolled past the crowd, Jose Gallegos, a young organizer who once was inside Twin Towers recounted how he was forced to self-segregate by race and ethnicity saying, “In there, you are the property of the deputies.”

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