Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca called for interfaith peace and harmony in a lecture in Westwood Tuesday night that was meant as a retrospective on L.A. County since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Baca runs the largest sheriff's department in the U.S., with a budget of about $2.4 billion and a staff of about 18,000. In the months leading up to the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Baca has become an unlikely advocate for peaceful Muslim-Americans. Baca recently criticized Rep. Peter King's (R-NY) Congressional hearings on Muslim-American "radicalization." In an interview with The Hill, Baca called the hearings "counterproductive."
The event was titled "Aftermath of September 11 in Los Angeles - How to look ahead to the future." But rather than focus on changes in the county from a law enforcement perspective, Baca emphasized his hope for cultures to respect one another.
"My belief is simple," he told the crowd at the Pacifica Institute. "We as a society in America are blessed because of our diversity. The future is that all governments, local, state and national, have an obligation to guarantee religious diversity."
Many Americans, including some running for office, Baca said, do not understand that principle, but rather "prey on people's fears of one religion in order to get more votes." He ripped on politicians who have singled out Islam and Sharia law as a threat to the U.S.
In an interview following the lecture, Baca said that he wants the department he runs to reflect the ideals he has expressed in his political and spiritual speeches. "I'm not suggesting that there aren't any sharp edges in public safety," he said. "But as a norm, our deputies are required to live by core values. If you don't like the rights that people have, you shouldn't be in law enforcement."
When asked how his views on spirituality affect how he runs his department, he said counterterrorism and law enforcement tactics need to be grounded in tolerance. Such an attitude would aid in the counterterrorism effort, he suggested. "This is the most important part, because all Americans can participate in it," he said. "We have to set the tone for this. The way you stop terrorism is you deal with people who are closest to the potential sources."
Soraya Deen, a lawyer-turned public speaker on issues of interfaith relations, said her family had experienced the stereotypes surrounding Muslim-Americans. "Seven years ago, my seven-year-old son came home from school and asked me if we were terrorists."
Deen said she has not experienced any discrimination or profiling at the hands of law enforcement, but suggested that some of her friends who wear the hijab have felt that they were more closely scrutinized.
Though she would have preferred a more detailed plan from the sheriff on how to move forward in improving interfaith relations, she said, she was encouraged that someone in law enforcement was speaking out. "I was very moved by him bringing in a humanitarian aspect to law enforcement," she said. "It's very fresh and expands our thinking."
Eve Haberfield, a retired administrator at UCLA Extension, said she had expected Baca to go into more technical detail about the tactical changes in law enforcement since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "But," she added. "I was pleased with what he talked about."
Ryan Faughnder is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.