AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH SHERIFF LEE BACA
REPORTER/PHOTOS: TOMI HINKKANEN – LOS ANGELES
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is the largest sheriff’s department in the world. It provides general-service law enforcement to unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. People from every country in the world live in the county. Therefore the sheriff keeps tabs with all nationalities – Finns as well. I recently met Sheriff Baca at a European-American Advisory Council luncheon in the sheriff’s headquarters in Monterey Park.
The 69-year-old Sheriff Leroy “Lee” Baca, was born in East LA. His own ethnic background is Mexican and Spanish. Lee Baca has had a long career in law enforcement. He began at the LA County Sheriff’s office in 1965. He has been Los Angeles County Sheriff for the past 13 years. Sheriffs are elected and Baca is currently serving his fourth term. The first thing that catches one’s eye about Mr. Baca appearance is his terrific physical shape. Baca wakes up every morning at 5.30 and goes for a run. He calculates having run an equal distance as that of three times around the Earth over the last three decades.
The European-American Council is the forum to by which the sheriff keeps in touch with the local Finns. There were Consuls General of several European countries present at the luncheon – Finland was represented by consul general Kirsti Westphalen and a prominent member of the council, attorney Ava Anttila. The council is not just about PR. For example, if a particular country’s citizen is suspected of a crime here, the sheriff can turn to that country’s representative for information. The sheriff has similar information sharing networks with other world countries as well. In this spirit of sharing information, we sat down for a frank one-on-one interview.
Q. Thank you, Mr. Baca for taking time to talk to Finntimes. Have you ever been to Scandinavia?
Yes, I have been to the Netherlands as well. The whole point of those visits is the connections between Los Angeles and the Scandinavian world.”
Q. Have you been to Finland?
Yes, I have. I find Finland to be fascinating, because we all know that Helsinki is a very important city. Internationally speaking it is very diverse. I believe that the Finnish society has made significant contributions to the western world.
Q. About the LA County jail system – can you give us a picture of how many places for inmates do you have and how many actual inmates?
Well, we have capacity for 20,000, we have 16,000 inmates. The important thing about it is, 80% are pre-trial – they have not been tried or convicted yet. It makes it interesting and challenging to me that many of them are in jail for serious drug dealing crimes, crimes of violence obviously. We have about 700 murderers waiting for trial. Sometimes they are in jail locally for 2-4 years. A couple of them have been in there for five years and they still haven’t been convicted. So, it is a challenging responsibility. But I believe that education is an important part of incarceration, so I’m offering education courses for these individuals, so they can improve their lives while they are in jail.
Q. One of your celebrity inmates is Dr. Conrad Murray, who is probably going to sit his entire sentence in your jail system. Being a high profile inmate, he needs special protection from the other inmates and that means more tax payer dollars, correct?
It’s interesting. We have 24 sheriff’s stations. We have smaller jails. I believe his sentence should be served in one of those stations. It would be with less security obviously, because he is not a security risk. I think you are correct in saying that he is someone who is a target of some perhaps more aggressive inmates. But in a smaller sheriff station jail he would be best suited.”
Q. There has been some trouble especially in Men’s Central Jail. Former commander Robert Olmsted has emerged as one of your toughest critics. He said in a recent LA Times interview, that he tried to warn you that deputies were getting away with using unnecessary force, beating up inmates. He says you ignored his warnings. What do you say to his allegations?
We, his allegation is completely out of context. I knew of the force issues, because of six deputies that got into a fight at a Christmas party. He tells me after I learned already. That’s not a very good warning. He should have told me before he retired. And that’s my response to his concern. He and I spoke. He told me he tried to warn his supervisors, but when I spoke to his supervisors, they said he didn’t try to warn them. So, the guy strikes me as being a little odd. If he knew about these things, why didn’t he tell me while he was working there instead months later when he is retired and left the department.”
Q. Maybe he was afraid that there would be retribution if he came forward before his retirement?
Well, he should be strong enough to understand that anything that is under his command, he has the responsibility to correct himself and not blame others above him.
Q. But in one way or another, there was a communications error and the information did not reach you in a timely manner?
Q. You mentioned the Christmas party brawl between the deputies. Those were the deputies who worked at Men’s Central jail?
Correct, which Robert Olmsted was the captain there and he was also a commander over that captain. So, it was totally in his control. If he knew about this, he should have done something.
Q. KTLA did a report about the so-called 3000 block gang of deputies, who have their own hand signals just like members of street gangs. Those were the deputies who got into this Christmas brawl. How have you dealt with?
Well, those deputies, first of all, they were not a gang. And secondly, they didn’t have hand signals for themselves. They took a photograph off duty and used what were commonly thought of as gang type signals. But it is not a fact that they were operating like a gang in jails. We don’t have gangs in county jails. Every deputy has specific assignments. They don’t work together as a group. They are spread out to all the different cells. So, they were friends. The KTLA report with even the allegations that they were a gang are completely false. They were just new deputies assigned to the sheriff’s department – been on for 2,3 years. You don’t have a chance to form a gang under those circumstances. So, my answer to this is that the news took it upon themselves to make this sound like this is worse than what it really is. Nonetheless, I fired six of the deputies for getting into the fight. You initiate a fight, that’s unacceptable. That’s where they made their mistake and now they are gone.
Q. The former commander Olmsted also claimed that in Men’s Central Jail there was a culture of disobedience – writings on the office walls saying “don’t feed the animals”, things like that. Have you heard of this kind of a culture prevailing in Men’s central Jail?
It’s not a culture as much as it is an act of wrong doing by – who knows who. When this happened, commander Olmsted was the captain of the Central Jail. He should have done a criminal investigation. He did not. He basically said, let’s just fix the problem in terms of painting over graffiti. A report was made, but in my opinion a crime report should have been initiated. And in that place we would try to find out who did this and then severely discipline this person who did it. So, you see, a few mistakes have been made along the way. But this is not me trying to be critical of commander Olmsted, but at the same time I rely on captains and commanders to fix problems. And it appears to me that commander Olmsted, then captain Olmsted didn’t fix the problem to the extend that he should have. That’s all I’m saying.
Q. So, have you looked into this “don’t feed the animals” signs and other forms of disobedience, or wrong doing?
I have, but you cannot go back three years and say, we sufficient timeliness. It should have been done at the time it was discovered, when Olmsted was captain. He should have commenced a criminal investigation.
Q. I have seen some reports, where inmates have come forward, who have said that they have been beaten up by the deputies in the jail system. Is that still happening?
Inmates say they’ve been beaten up, but they don’t say, what were the circumstances in which they were involved in fights with deputies. It’s easy to say that they were beaten up, but those who have not reported the force – the deputies are supposed to report all the force they use – we discharge those deputies who don’t report all the force. No one has been harmed to the extent that they are permanently incapacitated, or even killed in the hands of deputies. The biggest concern that the inmates have is other inmates attacking them. Most of the fights that the deputies get into are provoked by the inmates. But I do believe that we can do a better job. That’s why I have a force prevention policy, because some of the inmates, who the deputies themselves have used the force, tell me, are people, who have mental issues. And they don’t have any context as to how to control themselves. So, when the deputies try to move them from one place to the other, whey resist and then force is used and then there is a fight. Of course, let me make clear that in a jail operation, where inmates are violent, the deputies must always win. If we don’t have control a hundred percent during fights, we wouldn’t have anyone that we would be able to protect within the jail system, particularly inmates on inmates. So, every inmate that attacks a deputy or gets into a fight with a deputy, is ultimately going to lose. That’s the reality. And for some that have lost, they say, I was beaten up. But they never say what they did to strike the deputy.
Q. There is also an ongoing FBI investigation into the jails and officer misconduct. What is the status of that FBI investigation and when can we expect results?
I don’t know what the status is and when the results will be, but we welcome the investigation.
Q. You mentioned in the beginning of the interview that you have implemented policies, where inmates are being taught. Can you tell me about that?
Yes, we have several programs. The first is the merit program where we teach them life skills and they enjoy learning about these. How to build a stronger character in relationships with their loved ones – children in particular. That’s one of the most successful programs we have. The other is the Imagine 21 program, which also builds stronger self control tools – people, who are addicted, people, who have violence in their background – they learn to live life in a more positive way. But it takes a lot of steps and a lot of communication with our instructors to build that confidence. Most people in jail are depressed and stressed and have anxiety. And what we do is we teach them how to live a positive life and not a negative life. Those are very successful programs. And that’s going on now, as all these other issues you mentioned have happened, we still have other alternatives for the inmates. But the biggest factor is, in my judgment, a person in jail or prison should be educated when they come out and be better prepared to go back into the community and live a productive life.”
Q. What is the average time an inmate spends in one of your facilities?
The average ones that are sentenced – now remember, only 20% are sentenced, the other 80% are awaiting trial, like I mentioned earlier – they spend about 45 days. And that’s generally long enough to make a change.”
Q. Are they normally young people?
No, they are of all ages. They run from young to old.
Q.Finally, what would you like to see happen with the jail system, if you got your wish?
Two things, I would like to have more staff, because this is part of the problem. If you have less supervision, then there is a likelihood that you will have more force. I need 91 more sergeants, more deputy personnel and then I would like to have every inmate have an educational plan, so that their time spent in jail is more productive than just serving punishment.