Criminal investigations continue as Sheriff Baca announces his retirement
By André Coleman 01/08/2014
Following more than two years of scandal, punctuated Friday by the release of hundreds of complaints alleging deputy misconduct ranging from rape, drug smuggling and inmate abuse to improperly using a county helicopter, falling asleep at work and mistakenly letting inmates out early, Sheriff Lee Baca announced Tuesday morning that he was retiring.
A 48-year veteran of the 19,000-employee Sheriff’s Department, the last 15 years as sheriff, Baca said he will retire as of the end of this month — nine months before the next election.
“We have been saying there are massive problems in the Sheriff’s Department for years,” said ACLU Southern California Legal Director Peter Eliasberg. The ACLU sued the Sheriff’s Department in October 2012, alleging a longstanding and widespread practice of inmate abuse, often bordering on torture, in county lockups.
“Sheriff Baca has done the right thing by stepping down. This is not the solution to the problems, but it is a step in the right direction to reforms in the jail and the department,” Eliasberg said shortly after Baca’s surprise announcement at Sheriff’s Headquarters in Monterey Park.
The LA County Board of Supervisors is expected to choose an interim sheriff with input from Baca.
Last month, following the indictment of 18 mostly low-level deputies by a federal grand jury, Supervisor Gloria Molina, a onetime Baca ally, said that “When month after month, problems with your workforce cost Los Angeles County taxpayers millions of dollars — then it’s time to admit you don’t just have a ‘few bad apples,’ but rather an institutional crisis stemming from failed leadership.”
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who supported former Sheriff Sherman Block in Baca’s first run for elected sheriff in 1998, even though Block had died a few days before the election, didn’t speak of the department’s many problems.
“I thank Sheriff Baca for his 48 years of public service and I respect his decision and wish him well,” Antonovich stated Tuesday.
During his time as sheriff, Baca was known for his desires to help the homeless and mentally ill inmates. He also promoted transparency. A victim’s rights advocate for Mitrice Richardson, a 24-year-old college student suffering with bipolar disorder who was last seen alive leaving the Malibu Sheriff’s station Sept. 18, 2009, following her arrest earlier that evening, said she has mixed feelings about Baca’s departure.
“I am very conflicted,” about Baca’s resignation, wrote Dr. Ronda Hampton, Richardson’s mentor and teacher. “On a personal note, I found him to be a very intelligent and thoughtful man. My conversations with him were always fruitful and thought-provoking. I found him, in many ways, a very compassionate and sensitive individual.”
However, she wrote, “At the end of the day he has been the head of a corrupt agency that he has allowed to mistreat many citizens, including my former intern. … The lies and mishandling of her case, from her arrest to the removal of her naked skeletal remains in the Malibu Canyon … was all on his watch, and to that end I hold him responsible.”
Baca, a resident of San Marino, said Tuesday that he supports Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald to serve as his interim replacement. According to NBC Channel 4, McDonald is a 24-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Baca’s decision to step down could open up the field in the November election, which now includes former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, former Cmdr. Bob Olmsted and retired Sheriff’s Lt. Patrick Gomez. In June, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell backed out of the running. In September 2012, McDonnell served as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Jail Violence, which also included a number of former federal judges. During the press conference, Baca repeatedly brought up the “negative campaign” as one of the reasons he was stepping down. However, Baca did not mention the candidates in his remarks.
Tanaka, who along with Baca was taken to the proverbial woodshed by the blue ribbon commission for his role in overseeing the county’s corrupt jail system, praised his former boss in a statement issued Tuesday.
“I want to put politics aside for today and applaud him for his dedication to public service,” Tanaka said. “This is a tough job and I want to thank Sheriff Baca for his decades of public service to Los Angeles County.”
In his statement to the press, a teary Baca said the decision to retire was “one of the most difficult I have ever made.” But, he said, “I have great gratitude to the people who have elected me, but at the same time that I was elected to four terms, I will go out on my terms.”
Baca won the Sheriff’s seat in 1998. Over the next three elections, he cruised to easy wins, running unopposed in 2010. Since that time, Baca has found few supporters in the county’s Latino immigrant community. On Tuesday, the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), said that Baca’s successor will have much work to do in rebuilding bridges burnt by the sheriff and his deputies.
“Sheriff Baca has been no friend to the immigrant community,” Jorge-Mario Cabrera said in a statement. “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,” a federal program that allows local law enforcement to fingerprint and hold undocumented immigrants.
Since his reelection in 2010, Baca, the county’s first American Latino sheriff in the past 100 years, has faced a mounting number of political scandals. In October 2011, the ACLU and area activists, including former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp of Pasadena and the Rev. Ed Bacon of All Saints Church, called on the FBI to investigate allegations of deputy-sanctioned physical and sexual brutality in county jails illustrated in an ACLU report on the claims.
In the report, a witness for the ACLU likened Los Angeles County jails to Nazi concentration camps, claiming inmates were routinely beaten, Tasered and kicked by merciless deputies. Baca has denied all the allegations.
The blue ribbon panel appointed by the Board of Supervisors later found that the department suffered from a lack of leadership and recommended numerous reforms, most of which Baca supported. Baca said he would implement the reforms, but unbeknownst to him at the time, federal agents had already begun investigating alleged brutality in county jails.
The FBI had smuggled a cell phone to a whistleblower inside Men’s Central Jail, but after the plant and the FBI’s intentions were discovered, deputies lost the suspect in the system and allegedly told federal authorities he had been released when they began searching for him to testify before a federal grand jury.
Last month, 18 deputies were indicted by a federal grand jury for charges that include civil rights violations, use of excessive force, obstruction of justice and mortgage fraud. Also in December, the Los Angeles Times uncovered evidence that the department had hired dozens of deputies accused of prior misconduct. André Birotte, US Attorney in Los Angeles, said the investigation is ongoing.
Then last week, the Office of Independent Review (OIR), a performance oversight agency established by Baca and headed by former federal prosecutor Michael Gennaco, released a 408-page report revealing deputy- or personnel-involved allegations of rape, smuggling heroin into the jail, stealing money from a narcotics bust, smuggling undocumented immigrants, and at least one incident of a deputy using a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department helicopter for unofficial business. The report has since been taken down from the OIR’s Web site.
“The last couple years have shone a light on the violence and misconduct of the LA County Sheriff’s Department,” said Carla Sameth, a Pasadena writer and businesswoman who was roughed up by sheriff’s deputies in 2009 while riding on the Gold Line. Sameth suffered a broken nose and other injuries in the incident, and later sued. She eventually settled the case out of court.
“My own experience was only one of many, the vast majority of which probably went unreported. To this date, I still get comments from people of varying ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic groups, who tell me that they were or knew of victims of abuse by the Sheriff’s Department,” she wrote. “Often people’s fears and feelings of powerlessness keep them from speaking up, but many have thanked me for stepping forward where others lacked the courage and support to do so.”