Critics Applaud L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's Resignation
"I've been proud and honored to serve the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the people of this greatest of counties, Los Angeles County, for the past 48 years," said Baca. "I can't even imagine anyone working 48 years at anything, but I've done that, which has made this decision in my life probably the most difficult."
With a challenging re-election campaign standing between him and his long-held position, Baca, 71 decided to throw in the towel early. Rather than face defeat and continue battling allegations of authoritative abuse, Baca chose to resign on his "own terms" out of "the highest of concern for the future of the sheriff's department."
Baca’s resignation follows the levying of criminal charges against 18 current and former sheriff’s deputies for crimes including physical abuse of jailed inmates and visitors, unjustified detainments and obstruction of an FBI investigation.
At the press conference Baca claimed the primary motivation for his retirement is “the negative perception this upcoming campaign has brought to the exemplary service provided by the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department.”
The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in LA Jails is “ecstatic” about the sheriff’s resignation. “Given his history of authoritative abuse and the criminal allegations surrounding Baca, we think it’s only fair that he resign,” remarked Patrisse Cullors, founder and executive director of the coalition.
Cullors explained how her 19-year-old brother endured repeated abuse while he was incarcerated last year while awaiting conviction, and she and her mother could not do anything about it.
"He was beaten by multiple officers so badly he blacked out and awoke in a pool of blood," said Cullors. "On top of all that he was denied visits from me and my mother and we couldn't tell anyone what was going on in there."
Last year, the L.A. Times reported that a blue-ribbon county commission concluded that Baca and his top assistants had fostered a culture in which deputies were permitted to beat and humiliate inmates, cover up misconduct and form aggressive deputy cliques.
The Justice Department is also conducting separate investigations on the treatment of mentally ill inmates and allegations of excessive force.
“The pattern of activity alleged in the obstruction of justice case shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law,” remarked U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. in a December press conference following the arrests of the deputies.
Yet, Sheriff Baca firmly denies that the threat of possibly facing federal charges prompted his decision to step down.
The culture of Sheriff’s Department deeply problematic and has been for a long time," said Peter Eliasberg from the ACLU. "We need a lot of pressure points and eyes to change the course of a super tanker that has been heading in the wrong direction for years under Baca."
The Sheriff’s Department declined to make an independent statement about Baca’s resignation.
Since Baca is leaving before the end of his contract, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is in charge of finding an interim sheriff before the next election.
The Board has been divided over the mounting abuse accusations against the Sheriff's Department for the past few months. L.A. Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas have pushed for a civilian oversight committee as an added layer of oversight and transparency for the struggling Sheriff's department, but the three other board members will not vote in favor of the committee and the decision has been pushed back for months.
Despite their disappointment with Baca’s inability to maintain the ideals under which he accepted his position, the collation is pleased by his recent demonstration of support for the creation of the civilian commission to oversee the department, with the goal of preventing future abuses.
“I think an oversight commission is important,” Baca said. “"[It is] consistent with my view on strengthening transparency and accountability, and would serve to further develop law enforcement skills regarding constitutional policing, procedural justice, civil rights and human rights as a whole."
Recently, the Board of Supervisors hired the county's first ever Inspector General, Max Huntsman, to try to ensure comprehensive independent oversight of the Sheriff's Department, something that has been missing according to the ACLU, FBI and several other county agencies.
Bob Olmsted, who was in the department for over 33 years and planned to run for Sheriff in the upcoming election, says the need for any type of independent oversight marks a serious "loss of leadership."
"An inspector general is only brought in when you have a history of problems that have not been solved," said Olmsted. "And now it shows you have issues throughout community and you have lost trust of public, board of sups and everyone else on how to do your job."
Olmsted had served as commander over a cluster of the department’s largest and most troubled jail facilities, including Men’s Central Jail, where he repeatedly saw inmate abuse. Shocked by the violence, Olmsted initiated three reports documenting the alarming use of excessive force, which he says his higher-ups ignored.
"In the last year we have worked with about 10-15 families be it the person themselves or often times it is someone who is currently incarcerated and it is their loved ones who come to us for support to figure out next step would be in terms of getting some justice," said Cullors.
“This is the Rodney King moment for the Sheriff’s Department,” remarked Cullors, drawing parallels between the accusations of racism and brutality that surround the LAPD, just as they do the Sheriff’s Department.
With the creation of an oversight council and the election of a new sheriff in the spring, however, Cullors believes that the time is right for the Sheriff’s Department to finally shed its tarnished reputation.
The Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles believes Baca's resignation is a huge win for L.A.'s multicultural communities, as African American and Latino men make up the majority of inmates in L.A. County jails. The Coalition staunchly argues that Baca has "never been a friend to the immigrant community."
"Thousands upon thousands of undocumented families living in Los Angeles County who committed no major offense have been deported and faced years of unscrupulous detentions and referrals to immigration officials through Mr. Baca’s misguided embrace of 'Secure Communities,' said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, the Coalition's Director of Communication.
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and Olmsted are shaping up to be the two front runners in the sheriff’s election, but with six months remaining, it is likely that more contenders will enter the race.
“Sheriff Baca and I have had our differences regarding the leadership and management of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department” remarked former Under Sheriff Paul Tanaka. “I want to put politics aside for today and applaud him for his dedication to public service. This is a tough job and I want to thank Sheriff Baca for his decades of public service to Los Angeles County.”
Critics of the Sheriff's Department say the Sheriff's Department "has some serious cleaning up to do" to regain the public's trust. While Baca pushed for education and rehabilitation programs inside county jails, his career is marred by serious accusations of abuse, misconduct, corruption, violence and jail-overcrowding.
"Baca didn't have the teeth to do it," Olmsted said of reforming the embattled department. "We have seen a lack of leadership at its worst. We need to change how we bring people into leadership positions to save this department. They need to have teeth."