03/12/2001

County sheriff stacks his values against a "self-limiting" legacy

By Joe Domanick
Joe Domanick is author of "To Protect and to Serve: LAPD's Century, of War in the City of Dreams."
Los Angeles Times

Soon after he was sworn in as L.A. County's 30th sheriff in 1998, Lee Baca began to express a philosophy of policing that was radically different from anything that had ever come out of the Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department. He spoke of his police force being an "enemy" of bigotry in all its forms and of the necessity of his deputies to revere the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Communities, declared Baca, should tell his department the solutions to their problems, not the other way round.

Then last July, Baca unveiled a plan that embodied his unconventional approach to law enforcement. It called for civilian oversight and supervision of his department's investigations of officer-involved shootings, abuse and misconduct. What made Baca's proposal even more groundbreaking was that the civilians chosen to head and staff his new Office of Independent Review would be civil rights attorneys, traditionally anathema to overzealous police officers. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky hailed the plan as an "unprecedented leap in the history of law enforcement."

Baca, 58, has spent nearly 36 years in the Sheriff's Department. Working his way up through the ranks from deputy sheriff trainee through commander of numerous sheriff's stations, he now leads a force of 13,000 deputies and civilian personnel who police 2.5 million people and run the nation's largest urban jail system. Yet, he looks and sounds more like a well-prepared systems analyst than a veteran cop.

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