Sheriff Baca Says He’s in Agreement With All 63 of the Jail Commission’s Recommendations. That’s a Good First Step. Will He Follow Through?October 4th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon
Just before the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence delivered its 194-page report on Friday, Sept. 28, the message emanating from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was that Sheriff Lee Baca intended to “investigate” the Commissions findings and recommendations before he made up his mind on their merits.
“He wants everything that’s put forth to be reinforced by his investigators, and by the people he has who are trained to do this,” Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore told the LA Times. “He doesn’t want to just accept a report without analyzing it, studying it.”
The reaction was a disheartening one. Really? After the Commission’s army of the best and the brightest investigators, most of them former prosecutors, interviewed more than 150 witnesses, and reviewed 35,000 pages of documentary evidence, the department was going to investigate their investigation? This after, as the Commission pointed out, there’d been 20 years of other oversight groups, experts and advocates who had already ID’d the same troubling themes?
“At a fundamental level,” the Commission report concluded, “the failure to heed recommendations made — and advanced repeatedly over time — is a failure of leadership in the Department. As the Sheriff has acknowledged, it was his responsibility to ensure that reforms recommended by these oversight and advocacy groups were implemented and that problems of excessive force in the County jails were addressed. Yet, his response has been insufficient.”
So the department’s reaction to that thunderingly unambiguous statement was—metaphorically speaking—”We’ll get back to you once we’ve checked your math.”
By Wednesday of this week, however, the message from Sheriff Baca had changed dramatically when, during an hour-long press event held in the 3000 floor chapel of Men’s Central Jail, Baca said that he agreed with and accepted all 63 of the Commission’s recommendations.
“I couldn’t have written them better myself,” he said, flanked by around two dozen members of department command staff and around 100 jail inmates from the sheriff’s M.E.R.I.T education program. “I’m a passionate believer in the public’s right to be properly treated, whether they’re in jail or out of jail.”
SO WHAT DID HE AGREE TO?
The recommendations that Baca agreed to embrace fall into six categories: USE OF FORCE, MANAGEMENT, CULTURE, PERSONNEL, DISCIPLINE and OVERSIGHT.
Some of the specific recommendations are as follows:
1. The creation by the Board of Supervisors of an independent Inspector General’s Office (OIG) and the appointment of an Inspector General, “with broad authority as well as adequate staffing and funding” to review not just custody concerns but also “independent civilian oversight to review all of the Department’s operations.”
The commission concluded that, while the department has “multiple oversight mechanisms,” (the Office of Independent Review and Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, prominently among them), the LASD failed to implement “the critical issues or key recommendations” that those “oversite mechanisms” identified. As a consequence, a far more rigorous and independent watchdog entity was urgently needed.
Fine, bring it on, the sheriff said—or words to that effect
2. The Department should create a new Assistant Sheriff for Custody position…
3. The Sheriff should appoint as the new Assistant Sheriff over Custody an individual with experience in managing a large corrections facility or running a corrections department.
Baca said he was already beginning national search for such a person.
4. The commission specified that the new assistant sheriff should report directly to the sheriff with no middle persons to run interference.
Right. On the subject of that running interference thingy: several of the Commissions’ recommendations are sharply worded critiques specifically directed at the Undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, reportedly in the past the chief runner of interference between Baca and everybody else:
5.The Sheriff must hold accountable those whose actions have allowed excessive force problems to persist and who shielded him from key information over a period of years. A terrible message — one directly at odds with any notion of accountability — is conveyed to the rest of the Department when there are no consequences to senior Department leaders who oversaw the jails when incidents of force were on the rise and a host of related problems occurred.
Of particular concern is the role of Undersheriff Tanaka and his negative impact on accountability and ethical conduct within the Custody Division…..
6. The Undersheriff should have no responsibility for Custody operations or the disciplinary system.
The Commission believes that true reform of Los Angeles County’s jails cannot take
place if the Undersheriff continues to have any role, direct or indirect, in overseeing LASD’s Custody operations or the disciplinary process, including IAB and ICIB…..
(Although the Commission has no say over operations outside of custody, one deduces that commission members felt no better about the undersheriff having “any role, direct or indirect” in overseeing the department’s patrol side.)
The topic of Paul Tanaka was the area where the sheriff hedged most. But even here there was movement from his you-can’t-tell-me-how-to-handle-my-command-staff stance that was prominently on display when he testified before the Commission. On Wednesday, he sheriff said—and Steve Whitmore reiterated later in the day—that an Internal Affairs investigation and an investigation by the Office of Independent Review had been opened to look at allegations against the undersheriff.
“I am not a person that acts impulsively or in my own self-interest when it comes to someone else’s career.”
Okay, fair enough.
In the meantime, the Sheriff said he was complying with the Commission’s request, and that Mr. Tanaka would be focusing only on department budgets and numbers.
(This is a matter we are positive our department sources will be keeping a sharp collective eye on.)
7. The LASD should discourage participation in destructive cliques.
While the Commission rightly said it couldn’t prohibit deputies from associating with each other, it “should…adopt policies that prohibit visible tattoos associated with deputy cliques….”
So, like, may we presume that such a new prohibition would include command staff and certain tattoos reportedly still gracing a number of high ranking ankles?. I mean, it’s all very well to set nice, shiny new standards, but if special people always get a pass…. Well, let us just say that actions speak far louder than words when one is trying to change a deeply entrenched culture
When it came to discipline, the Commission called for an expanded Internal Affairs Bureau that investigated all serious uses of force, no matter how righteous they appeared to be.
8. The investigative and disciplinary system should be revamped.
“….all uses of force that result in any injuries more than “redness, swelling or bruising,” complaints of pain regarding the “head, neck or spine” would be reviewed — and if necessary investigated – by the more skilled IAB (or ICIB) investigators.
This additional workload would, of necessity, mean an expansion of IAB.
9. The Discipline Guidelines should be revised to establish increased penalties for
excessive force and dishonesty.
(As the CDCR’s Matt Cate pointed out, in California prisons, the first verified instance of dishonesty in reporting force or on a report means automatic dismissal.)
Whitmore said that he didn’t see problems coming from the deputies’ union ALADS on these stiffer penalties. “The Sheriff can be very persuasive,” he said.
And there are 54 more recommendations where those came from, all of which the sheriff says he will implement.
SO WHAT CAUSED THE CHANGE?
According to Whitmore, Baca just needed some time to absorb the lengthy report and its recommendations.
Okay. And perhaps the Sheriff had a chance, after the fact, to take in some of the statements that Commission members made during Friday’s presentation that were not in the printed report itself.
For example, two of the most conservative Commission members said that some on the blue ribbon panel had suggested that the Commission ask the sheriff to resign.
“Although this was considered,” said Judge Robert Bonner, “we rejected such an approach.”
In other words, it wasn’t an option that was rejected out of hand, even though the Commission decided not to go that direction. This was a possibility they discussed seriously.
Bonner went on to say that he rejected the approach because he knows the sheriff “to be a thoughtful man who wants to do the right thing.”
“I hope that I am not proven wrong,” Bonner said. “I truly hope that my faith in Sheriff Baca is not misplaced.”
Although Bonner praised the sheriff for the reforms he’s already instituted in the jails that have resulted in a drop in the use of force statistics, he added that the “modest steps” taken by the sheriff do not constitute institutional reform that is needed. “They are band aides—meant to staunch the bleeding. They are temporary at best.”
The solution, said Bonner, “requires significant, profound institutional and cultural change.” And cultural change isn’t easy.
It should be mentioned here that Bonner, a former federal judge, is not a stranger to running law enforcement agencies.
“Look, I’ve run four Federal law enforcement agencies if you count being the US Attorney,” he said after the commission meeting. “I’ve run DEA, which had 8000 personnel, the US Customs Service, which then became Customs and Border Protection, so if you count that as a separate agency, I guess that makes four.”
So he gets it, Bonner said.
Commissioner Jim McDonnell, who is the Chief of the Long Beach Police Department, and the top Assistant Chief of the LAPD before that, had equally terse words for the sheriff and the undersheriff last week.
McDonnell said he found the testimony of the Mr. Tanaka before the Commission to be “very troubling.”
He was also troubled, he said, by Sheriff Baca’s admission that he was unaware of many of the problems that the commission was charged with investigating.
“When asked about how he is to be held accountable, [Sheriff Baca]
responded, ‘don’t re-elect me,’” McDonnell said. “In addressing the charge given to us by the Board of Supervisors, that response does not promote reform in any meaningful fashion.
“My concern,” McDonnell continued, “is that if serious remedial action is not taken immediately, federal authorities may pursue legal action against the County which would likely result in a Consent Decree. That would be an onerous, labor intensive and very expensive path to reform. Instead, it would be more constructive for morale within the organization and more efficient to the operation of the department, to implement these reforms before any state or federal mandate.”
Commission member Alex Busansky, a former federal and state prosecutor who is now the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, was the tersest of all.
“Real leaders,” Busanski said grimly, “do not need an election to teach them the difference between right and wrong. Real leaders are accountable to all people in their community. Real leaders demand accountability from those who work for them. Seeking Sheriff Baca’s dismissal is beyond the scope of this Commission’s work. However, it is well within the scope of work of the Board of Supervisors, the press, and our civic and religious leaders.”
So did the sobering words of warning have a salutary effect? After all, there are rumors floating about that, unlike previous years, this time there could be a viable candidate or candidates ready and waiting in the wings who could make a decent run against Lee Baca in 2014 should he seriously stumble.
“This is not going to happen unless the sheriff decides this is something that he’s going to make his own,” Bonner said last Friday.
According to Baca on Wednesday, he was indeed embracing the recommendations as his own.
May it be so.
Of course, adopting the recommendations isn’t anything close to an end point; it is a beginning. This is a deeply troubled department filled with good people who deserve better than what they’ve been getting from their leaders. The County of Los Angeles deserves better. The problems in the jails are only one symptom.
Still, Sheriff Baca’s first step is a welcome one.