He's been dubbed L.A.'s new-age lawman. He talks about damaged psyches and second chances, and he shies away from the tough-on-crime cliches favored by many of America's top cops.
Yet after 13 years heading the nation's largest sheriff's department, Lee Baca's progressive views on law enforcement might not have percolated through the ranks.
Disturbing allegations about deputy misconduct have simmered for years. Now, the 69-year-old sheriff finds himself defending his leadership in the midst of an unfolding scandal that has triggered at least two ongoing federal probes.
One investigation looks at claims that deputies discriminated against blacks and Latinos in two high-desert communities. Other allegations involve Baca's sprawling jail network.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other critics say that even as Baca espoused better rehabilitation and educational opportunities for the 15,000 inmates in his custody, he looked the other way while deputies ran amok, forming gang-like groups that beat up inmates, smuggled items behind bars and took bribes.
Baca has "a jail that's a complete disaster, with probably more deputy-on-inmate abuse than any other jail in the U.S.," said Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California. "He has shown himself unwilling and unable to deal with these problems."
A letter released last month by the ACLU asks U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder for a criminal and civil rights investigation into "persistent pattern of deputy-on-inmate assaults, deputy instigated inmate-on-inmate assaults and use of excessive force" in the county jails.
The letter was signed by 26 people, including former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas M. Brown. The ACLU called for Baca's resignation while filing dozens of court documents and 70 sworn statements that painted a picture of unchecked violence and negligent supervision within the jail system.
In one case, two gang members allegedly raped an inmate as another cellmate put his head in a toilet to muffle his screams while deputies ignored his cries for help.
Baca initially condemned as "hyperbole" some of the statements made when the report was filed. However, he told The Associated Press that a group of about 25 deputies at Men's Central Jail might not be living up to his department's core values of treating people with fairness and dignity. Some 400 deputies work at the jail.
"We don't do as well as we can do on the discipline side," Baca said. "Once we have a complete investigation, we are not holding a deputy more accountable for misconduct."
At the Men's Central Jail, the aging downtown facility that houses more than 4,000 inmates and is the source of most complaints, FBI agents say they bribed a deputy to smuggle a cellphone to an informant.
When the deputy, who has since quit, was confronted about the contraband, he implicated several colleagues over violent mistreatment of inmates, Baca said in a letter he wrote to a local official.
Baca initially attacked the FBI over its sting but later softened his stance and said he would welcome any federal investigation into his jails.
To address the jail problems, Baca wants to implement sweeping changes. Since its inception, the Sheriff's Department has rotated rookie deputies through the jails for a period that can last for years.
Many of the young men would rather be out in patrol cars. In the jails, they can become bored, frustrated or depressed looking after inmates. That can trigger violence, Baca said.
"There needs to be a different career track," Baca said. "This is an opportunity for me to make some changes."
He has convened a panel of 35 internal affairs investigators to re-examine some of the complaints brought forward by the ACLU, and he wants to establish a new citizens group that can oversee any overhauls.
Baca, whose stick-thin frame is a testament to the 40 miles he runs each week, presents a curious paradox. He's introduced anger management, educational and parenting classes for inmates, yet advocated for the use of a high-tech ray beam that sends unbearable blasts of heat at unruly inmates.
Ask him about medical marijuana and he'll defend its use for sick patients but will also fret about society and the damaged psyches of drug users trying to game the system.
"I am trying to trigger self-analysis in all inmates," Baca said. "(An) ideological, spiritual conversion from self-doubt and self-loathing to one of possessing strength."
Tim Rutten, a former Los Angeles Times columnist, has written extensively about law enforcement in the region. He said the views of Baca, who ran unopposed last year and is now in his fourth term, "may sometimes sound a little new-ager for some peoples' tastes" and noted his message does not necessarily resonate with underlings.
"I don't think he has ever really had much success in moving his values down the food chain," Rutten said. "Left to his own devices, he is a decent guy ... but his managerial hold on the department is tenuous."
Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice, a friend of Baca, said his department is in the throes of an internal struggle over its policing style.
"Are they going to go `paramilitary-lite' or are they going to go 180 degrees to community policing," Rice said. "The sheriff has the right vision, but the rest of the department doesn't want to follow."
For the most part, Baca believes his core values have been embraced throughout the ranks and said his 6,000 patrol deputies, who police some 4 million residents in Los Angeles County and several cities, are generally well-respected.
But in August, the Justice Department announced it was conducting a pattern and practice investigation to test claims that deputies discriminated against blacks and Latinos in the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, especially those living in subsidized housing.
Preliminary results indicated the communities appear to have unusually high rates of misdemeanor arrests, particularly of blacks, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Perez said.
Baca has said he welcomed the investigation, along with any complaints from citizens.
Ultimately, Rutten said, Baca will not be able to make meaningful reforms to his department without federal oversight. It took a federal consent decree for the Los Angeles Police Department to clean house after a widespread corruption scandal in the late 1990s.
Baca said he is open to federal inspectors but believes he can make the changes necessary to turn around his jails' troubled image.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said Baca had been slow to respond to concerns. Despite years of various oversight agencies recommending changes, Baca has dithered in implementing them, Molina said, singling out how long it has taken to get cameras installed in the jails.
"Constant recommendations are being made, but he doesn't do it," Molina said. "His heart is in the right place, but this isn't about heart _ this is about solid management."
Watkins can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/thomaswatkins
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