Sheriff agrees to broad jail reforms

October 3, 2012 

Breaking a nearly week-long silence, Sheriff Lee Baca says he applauds the commission's efforts. Photo/AP

Chastened and conciliatory, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Wednesday that he fully agrees with—and will begin implementing—dozens of recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel that accused him and his top command of failures in leadership that fostered a culture of brutality among jail deputies.

“I couldn’t have written them better myself,” Baca said of the more than 60 recommendations issued last week by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which concluded a year-long investigation with a blistering report on management breakdowns inside the nation’s largest jail system.

But, in response to a question during a packed news conference, the elected sheriff brushed aside talk of a possible resignation. “I’m not a person who thinks about quitting on anything,” he said.

Baca convened the massive media gathering in the chapel of the Men’s Central Jail, an aging facility on the edge of downtown Los Angeles, where the vast majority of brutality allegations against deputies have been leveled over the years by inmates and civilian monitors, including the ACLU.  As Baca spoke from the pulpit under a large cross, more than 20 members of his jail command staff sat solemnly behind him, some on risers. In the pews—behind a bank of TV cameras—were rows of inmates, dressed in L.A. County’s jailhouse blues.

It was an usually theatrical setting for the sheriff’s first response to the 194-page report by the jail commission, which was appointed by the Board of Supervisors and included former judges, a police chief and a longtime South Los Angeles pastor. And he went to great lengths not to criticize any aspect of the commission’s effort, which he said he supported from the outset. “I’m paid to take criticism,” said the sheriff, dressed in uniform. “Even when it’s unfair.”

In fact, as he has in the past, Baca was quick to accept blame for use of force issues that had been intensifying for several years. Those problems became especially acute under the leadership of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, according to the commission. The panelists concluded that Tanaka had “exacerbated” the problems by, among other things, publicly belittling internal affairs investigators and unilaterally killing a plan to break-up deputy cliques by rotating them into new jail assignments.

“They needed me to set a higher standard for performance,” Baca said of Tanaka and other key members of his command staff, whom the sheriff said had failed to alert him to the brewing problems inside the crowded county lockup.

The commission was highly critical of Baca for not holding Tanaka and others accountable for their conduct, saying his failure to act has sent a troublesome message to the rank and file. Repeatedly pressed on that point by reporters on Thursday, the sheriff sharpened his tone. “I’m not a person who acts impulsively or in my own self interest when it comes to someone else’s career. We will either have the facts or we won’t have the facts.”

Baca, who said he is reviewing Tanaka’s conduct, added: “I don’t lead with my ego. I lead with my intellect.”

The sheriff said Tanaka, a certified public accountant who was not at Wednesday’s event, would remain with the department, overseeing administrative services and the agency’s budget, a far smaller portfolio than he once held.

Among the commission recommendations (read the panel’s executive summary here), Baca said he supports two that, in concept, would vastly enhance oversight of the jail operation.

One would create an independent Office of Inspector General reporting to the Board of Supervisors. The new agency would essentially consolidate and broaden the review responsibilities of three existing civilian bodies—the Special Counsel, Office of Independent Review and the Office of the Ombudsman. The idea for an inspector general is modeled after a watchdog agency that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department. Exactly how such a body would be created and function for the Sheriff’s Department will likely be a matter of considerable public debate.

The second recommended reform would be the creation of a new assistant sheriff position, staffed by an experienced corrections leader from outside the department. This person would report directly to Baca, who said he supports the idea and already is seeking candidates.

The commission also called for tougher discipline for excessive force and dishonesty, a simplification of the disciplinary system and creation of a new investigations division that would report directly to the sheriff.

Baca said he welcomes these recommendations as a way to make “a stronger and safer jail,” a place where deputies respect the humanity of inmates, who, for their part, can learn life skills and end the cycle of recidivism. “I do have some deputies who have done some terrible things,” he said.

Still, Baca stressed that since last October when the ACLU presented him with numerous accusations of excessive force in the jail, he aggressively instituted a series of measures that have reduced “significant force” in the jails by 53 percent—“a historic low,” he said. He said he also has initiated tough new policies while increasing supervision, video surveillance and training. Baca said he and his management team have “responded massively.” (A video of Baca’s hour-long news conference can be seen here.)

In its report, the jail commission acknowledged the significant improvements Baca had brought to the custody operation after he belatedly became engaged with the issues. But commission member Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and ex-head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said those measures do not go far enough and that the department needs sweeping cultural and structural changes.

“The modest steps taken by the sheriff are not permanent, institutional reforms,” Bonner said during last week’s commission meeting. “They are Band-Aids—meant to staunch the bleeding.”

Posted 10/3/12

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