With Sheriff Baca's Resignation, Time for a New Kind of County Sheriff

It's not easy to police Los Angeles County. The county's size, its political complexity, and its bewildering diversity (deserts, mountains, barrios, movie stars homes, and suburban tracts) are just some of the challenges.

Sheriff Leroy Baca, 71, has decided that the challenges are too great for him. At this morning's press briefing, an emotional Baca confirmed rumors circulating since Monday that he intends to resign to avoid, he said, an election campaign "of negative contentious politicking."

Baca's last day as sheriff will be January 31.

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He leaves a mixed legacy. Baca was energetic and innovative after years of the mercurial Peter Pitchess and the grandfatherly Sherman Block. Baca succeeded where they hadn't in reaching out to many of the county's marginalized ethnic communities. He modernized the department and extended its mission.

Baca managed one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world, but he left the operational side of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD) to his senior aides, notably former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

In recent years, allegations of favoritism and cronyism have marred the department's image. In the jargon of the LASD, if a deputy was "in the car" with a powerful patron, then promotions, better assignments, and protection from discipline were the rewards for a deputy's loyalty. Add to that two recent, well-publicized federal probes, one that resulted in the indictment of 18 of his deputies.

The long unraveling of the Sheriff's Department required years, not all of them during Baca's tenure as county sheriff. The culture of violence in the crowded county jails has a long history. So have the department's gang-like cliques and casual practice of racial profiling.

Voters will soon have the opportunity break with that past and define a better department, a rebirth that might mirror the reforms that have come to Los Angeles Police Department.

Before the June 3 primary, the County Board of Supervisors will select an interim sheriff who ought to begin now the process of remaking the internal politics of the Sheriff's Department. The announced candidates for sheriff -- among them Paul Tanaka -- ought to provide a detailed roadmap to structural reform. Voters ought to examine the candidates and their roadmap with skeptical intensity.

It will be hard to transform the culture of the Sheriff's Department, but that's the necessary work of the next person to wear the badge.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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