Sheriff Lee Baca faces commission over jail abuse allegations
Baca has been accused of neglecting his lockups and ignoring direct warnings about rampant excessive force and gang-like deputy cliques. His second-in-command, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, has been accused by current and retired sheriff's supervisors of openly encouraging a climate in which deputy misconduct went unchecked.
The commission was created by the county Board of Supervisors after it was revealed that the FBI was investigating allegations of abuse inside the Sheriff's Department lockups, the largest jail system in the nation.
In hearings over the last several weeks, the commission has already heard dramatic testimony from advocates and former prisoners. The most notable testimony, however, has come from past and current sheriff's supervisors, who have been given clearance to speak candidly before the commission.
At the panel's last meeting, a current sheriff's supervisor testified that a former Men's Central Jail captain allowed misconduct to go unchecked by jailers. He said at one department Christmas party, Capt. Daniel Cruz joked about force on inmates during his speech, toasting to "not in the face," an apparent allusion to blows on inmates that don't leave marks.
Another current sheriff's captain, Patrick Maxwell, testified that Tanaka encouraged supervisors to allow deputies to "work in the gray area," which he interpreted as encouraging policing that violates the law and policy.
Cruz and Tanaka have disputed those allegations.
Months of reporting by The Times revealed that long before public scrutiny of the jails bubbled over, top Sheriff's Department officials were raising alarms about excessive force and shoddy investigations by supervisors. A top commander told The Times that he tried to warn Baca about rampant excessive force and the formation of excessive deputy cliques on two occasions but was ignored. Former Cmdr. Robert Olmsted said Baca's aides also ignored his alarms, telling him it was impossible to change the jail's culture.
Baca has pledged to take a more active role in the jails.
As the investigating commission's hearing got underway Friday morning, dozens of Sheriff's Department officials assembled in the audience, a huge increase compared with past hearings.
-- Robert Faturechi
Photo: Sheriff Lee Baca. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times