The news that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca suffers the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease stirred a mix of personal bittersweet memories of the sometimes productive, other times, challenging confrontations, I had with him through the years.
Those confrontations told much about the good and the bad times for Baca and the Sheriff’s Department that he ran with a tight fist for nearly two decades. Baca is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on July 11 for making false statements in a federal probe into the department.
That is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the by now well-known, and well-documented, deplorable, disgraceful years of abuse, brutality and neglect of and against prisoners that went on in the L.A. County jails.
The man that gets much of the blame for that sorry condition is Baca. He was the sheriff, the man at the top, and the abuses happened on his watch. But Baca, though often kicking and screaming, did finally face up to the brutal reality that the jails were in deplorable shape and that there had to be a top-to-bottom serious and radical overhaul.
That meant immediate and vigorous implementation of the dozens of reform recommendations such as fully empowered independent oversight, getting rid of deputies who brutalized prisoners and administrators who looked the other way, massive improvements in inmate mental and medical care, and total transparency and accountability on the reform process.
While Baca was hammered hard for the terrible things that went on in the jails, there was the just as deeply troubling problem of dubious officer-involved shootings and allegations of racial profiling by deputies. Other civil rights leaders and I could not ignore them. I challenged Baca in three appalling cases where deputies either gunned down or killed in a vehicle incident two young African-American males and a Hispanic male.
We held press conferences at the spots in South L.A. and Inglewood where the killings occurred and demanded a meeting with Baca at sheriff’s headquarters and at my organization, the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable’s office.
Baca did not hesitate. He agreed to the meetings at sheriff’s headquarters and my office. He agreed to review and revise policy on how and when officers should use deadly force in civilian encounters.
He was as good as his word and announced within days a policy change that would emphasize containment and de-escalation, not confrontation and gun play when confronting civilians in situations where there was no direct threat to the officers.
Baca went further and promised that the Office of Independent Review tasked with investigating all officer-involved shootings and use of excessive force would provide detailed and timely reports to my organization and other civil rights groups on its findings and what action it would take in the cases.
We demanded full public transparency in the findings and the action. Baca agreed.
I also repeatedly probed Baca on the innovative inmate education programs that he had implemented in the county jails, and pushed him to ramp up the programs. They were the type of programs that could make a huge difference in giving inmates needed skills and training to enable them to get jobs once released.
In our conversations on this issue, Baca agreed that it made no sense to continue to lock up people who could, with the right programs and push, turn their lives around.
I continued to challenge Baca to ensure that there be real discipline of deputies who used deadly force under highly dubious circumstances. That came to a head in the shooting in central L.A. of an African-American homeless man in 2013.
I immediately went to the scene and talked to some of the witnesses who disputed the deputy’s contention that the man had physically threatened deputies. I immediately called Baca to inform him of what I was told.
He quickly agreed to review the shooting personally and take appropriate action. The action in that case was another policy directive which reiterated that deadly force must be the absolute last option in dealing with civilians, especially in dealing with homeless individuals on the streets.
That was particularly volatile and had the potential for a deadly confrontation. Baca again agreed and followed up with action.
Whether it was a meeting, a personal or private conversation we had at my office, or with other civil rights leaders, and there was sharp disagreement about the department’s handling of a shooting or an abuse case in the jails, I was always struck by Baca’s willingness to listen, and often take immediate action. Baca knew that we would not let up in pushing for real reform in the Sheriff’s Department on the crucial life-and-death issue of the overuse of deadly force.
Baca’s legacy is deeply tainted by public disgrace and rancor over the hideous legacy of abuse, brutality and neglect in the L.A. County jails. He will pay a price for that when sentenced.
However, that’s only one side of what his legacy should be. The other side is the side I saw, and that’s of a sheriff who listened to me and other civil rights leaders who pointedly told him the department must clean up its act, and do it now.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Let’s Stop Denying Made-in-America Terrorism” (Amazon Kindle). He also is the weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.