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Panel says Sheriff Baca must move quickly to fix jails

September 28, 2012 |  2:42 pm

A blue-ribbon commission blamed Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on Friday for a “failure of leadership” that allowed “a persistent pattern of unnecessary and excessive force” by his deputies to fester for years in the county jails.

The seven-member commission, including several former judges and a police chief, accused Baca of not listening to repeated warnings from the department’s civilian watchdogs and inmates' rights advocates, and for ignoring his custody operations until public scrutiny intensified last fall.

Commission members said they considered calling for Baca to resign but ultimately decided against doing so, hoping instead that he would prove willing to carry out the panel’s recommendations.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

Commissioner Jim McDonnell, chief of the Long Beach Police Department, said he was concerned that federal authorities would ask a judge to order reforms if Baca does not immediately implement the panel’s long list of proposed fixes.

McDonnell and other commissioners cited testimony he gave at a commission hearing earlier this year when the sheriff was asked how he could be held accountable and responded: “Don’t elect me.”

“His statement seemingly reflects a lack of genuine concern,” said Alex Busansky, a commissioner who is the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, an Oakland-based nonprofit. “Real leaders do not need an election to teach them the difference between right and wrong.”

Robert C. Bonner, a former federal court judge who headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the early 1990s, said Baca “seems to have had his head in the sand.” Still, he said, he cautiously believed that Baca would do what is right to fix the problems. “I hope I’m not proven wrong,” Bonner said.

The commission, which was created last year to examine allegations of jail abuse, released a 194-page report recommending more than 60 reforms that included a management shakeup, harsher penalties for excessive force and dishonesty and the formation of a new civilian watchdog.

“If a chief executive officer in private business had remained in the dark or ignored problems plaguing one of the company’s primary services for years, that company’s board of directors likely would not have hesitated to replace the CEO,” the report said.

The release of the report is a major milestone in a scandal that erupted more than a year when The Times revealed the FBI was secretly investigating the jails. Federal agents went so far as to smuggle a cellphone through a corrupt jailer to an inmate working as a confidential federal informant. Other allegations of abuse and mismanagement followed in subsequent months.

The commission based its report on interviews with current and former sheriff’s officials, other jailhouse witnesses, testimony from experts and internal department records. Its investigation painted a grim picture of Baca’s jails over the years. Among the findings were that top supervisors made jokes about inmate abuse, encouraged deputies to push ethical boundaries and ignored alarming signs of problems with excessive force.

“LASD personnel have used force against inmates when the force was disproportionate to the threat posed or there was no threat at all,” the commission concluded, noting that Baca contends his senior managers never alerted him to the problems. “A leader who does not want to hear about problems will not be told of them by those who work under him, and this appears to be the case here.”

The commission called on Baca to become “personally engaged in oversight of the jails” and to “hold his high-level managers accountable for failing to address use of force problems.” Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, whom the commission accused of discouraging discipline for misconduct, should have no responsibility for the department’s custody operations, the commission said.


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