After a lengthy appeals process that ended with the US Supreme Court refusing to hear his case, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca — a once well-liked, reform-minded lawman who oversaw the department during one of its most scandalous periods — is headed to prison .
It’s been a long road and a drawn out legal process, but like many of his former deputies, including his undersheriff, Baca will finally be forced to serve time in prison, in his case for obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying during a deputy abuse of power scandal that rocked the county Sheriff’s Department for much of the previous decade.
That federal probe — sparked by an ACLU report on inmate abuse, a series of stories on the same by the LA Times, a letter from Pasadena leaders calling for a federal investigation, and a blistering report on the department by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, a group consisting of four retired federal judges, a police chief, a popular minister and a community member that found deputies were indiscriminately abusing inmates throughout the county jail system — eventually resulted in nine deputies and Baca’s former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka being sentenced to prison.
In the case of Tanaka, who was a former mayor and sitting councilman in Gardena at the time, he ran for Baca’s seat in 2014, soon after the longtime San Marino resident resigned under fire and the federal civil rights investigation was still under way. But he was not exonerated by the Citizens’ Commission. Far from it.
“The troubling role of Undersheriff Tanaka cannot be ignored,” the seven-member panel concluded in its September 2012 report. “Not only did he fail to identify and correct problems in the jails, he exacerbated them. … Over the course of several years, the Undersheriff encouraged deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities and created an environment that discouraged accountability for misconduct,” the commission’s report states.
Tanaka was ultimately convicted in June 2016 on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges in relation to the federal probe and sentenced to five years in prison. He started serving his term at a minimum security facility in Colorado in January 2017.
The Citizens’ Commission, consisting of retired US District Judges Lourdes G.Baird, Robert Bonner, Dickran Tevrizian and Carlos Moreno, also did not spare Baca, who they accused of a failure to lead the department.
“[T]he problem of excessive and unnecessary force in the Los Angeles County jails was the result of many factors, beginning most fundamentally with a failure of leadership in the Department,” the panel concluded. “Simply stated, the Sheriff did not pay enough attention to the jails until external events forced him to do so. Further, his senior leaders failed to monitor conditions in the jails and elevate use of force issues so that they received the necessary attention by the Sheriff, and the Undersheriff engaged in conduct that undermined supervision of aggressive deputies and promoted an environment of lax and untimely discipline of deputy misconduct.”
It’s interesting to look back now and see how Baca once wanted to put a homeless encampment outside Men’s Central Jail, near Chinatown, to house homeless inmates being released. He also promised to do something about the high number of mentally ill inmates doing time and getting beaten up by his deputies, calling county jails “the world’s largest mental institution.” Baca was a Republican who sometimes spoke like a Democrat, but little if anything positive ever happened on those two critical fronts during his 16 years in charge.
Now 77 and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Baca was told by US District Judge Percy Anderson on Wednesday, January 15, that this was the end of the line, and that he would have to turn himself in no later than Feb. 5.
He will likely be made as comfortable as possible, and that’s important, in a morbidly ironic sort of way. But what’s really important is that people remember the real reason why Baca is going to prison. It’s not just for deceiving civil rights investigators, but ultimately for failing to do the job he was elected to do, which included protecting the lives and rights of inmates, staff and others in his care.