Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, the longest serving law enforcement officer in Southern California— a symbol of peace in the old Wild West and a Hispanic at that—finds himself today facing a political crisis more potent than the .45 of any outlaw.
Lee Baca, say critics, is confronting a giant hurdle of his own making.
Baca and the nation’s largest sheriff’s department are under investigation, both by federal and local authorities for a slew of alleged violations:
From harassing minority residents to brutalizing prisoners, from failures of a disengaged management style to allowing corruption and misconduct among his deputies, from placing friends on the payroll to taking gifts he should not have.
“The sheriff should be sweating an awful lot of bullets,” County Supervisor Gloria Molina told the Los Angeles Times, which last year disclosed that the FBI was secretly investigating Baca and his department. “This is his come-to-Jesus moment.”
But if Baca is worried, he doesn’t show it. In 14 years in office he has survived one scandal and controversy after another and still established himself as a nationally recognized law enforcement leader.
Next to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sheriff Lee Baca is the most prominent elected official in Los Angeles County.
And in that, the 70-year-old is something of a maverick. He is a Republican who has survived the anti-GOP mood in the state to win re-election three times.
Baca has also had something of a blessed career, swept into office in 1998 when the powerful incumbent he was challenging died just days before the election.
The department Baca took over includes 9,000 deputies, 9,000 civilian employees and a budget that tops $2.2 billion. His deputies patrol 44 cities spread over thousands of square miles, L.A. County Metro buses and trains, and the jails.
In office, he quickly proved he was a perfect fit in Hollywood, becoming known as the celebrities’ sheriff, setting up a special reserve program that would allow celebrities, executives, star athletes and other notables to carry guns and badges.
“My mother was born in the state of Michoacan, Mexico,” says Baca, “and she came to the United States when she was less than a year old. In those days, undocumented was different than it is today, and so it wasn’t difficult for her to become a citizen.”
But it was his grandmother, who cared for a mentally ill relative in her home, who may have had the greatest influence on him.
“Kindness is actually the greatest strength on Earth,” he loves to tell reporters. He is not shy about taking them on tours of East Los Angeles where he grew up so poor that his divorced mom, a seamstress, almost had to put him up for adoption.
“She couldn’t handle three kids at the same time, so I was put up for foster care,” says Baca. “Then my paternal grandmother stepped in and said ‘No, I’ll take him.’”
Baca eventually graduated from the University of Southern California and was sworn in as a deputy in 1965, a time when Latinos were still rare in law enforcement.
He rose through the ranks, developing a coalition that included reaching out to the Muslim community after 9/11 and later defending himself against critics—even lecturing a Republican congressman at a Washington hearing about the importance of maintaining good relations with the Muslims.
Other Latino officials quietly applauded him, even as they continued not knowing exactly what to make of Baca, who is the only Hispanic elected leader in Los Angeles
That in itself is a source of private head-shaking among the local Latino establishment, which like most in Los Angeles were surprised by Baca’s unexpected election, albeit aided as it was by the incumbent’s sudden death.
Baca’s predecessor had been in office for 16 years, and it had been the tradition in Los Angeles that no sheriff had ever been elected in modern times without having been anointed by the incumbent.
“Lee Baca, though, said, ‘To heck with tradition where being sheriff was concerned,’” says Hollywood restaurateur Lucy Casado, a Democrat and long regarded as the Hispanic grand dame of Latino politics in Los Angeles.
“Lee is a man of the people. Democrat, Republican—who cares about labels. Lee Baca goes beyond labels. He’s a man of tremendous understanding and caring.”
Unfortunately for Sheriff Lee Baca, his compassion has sometimes gotten him into hot water, most notably in at least two high-profile instances of alleged favoritism to celebrities.
Baca’s office reportedly tried to cover up Baca’s friend Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant and behavior in a 2006 drunk driving arrest. A year later Baca came under fire when he released celebrity heiress Paris Hilton after she served only hours of a 45-day jail sentence for a reckless driving probation violation.
“We know we screwed up in the past,” Baca admitted this summer.
His words came in talking about jail violence to a county commission, but they may as well have applied to any criticism made of Baca. “I’m a guy that says let’s go forward…”
“This commission is a great commission… But you’re not going to tell me how to discipline my people.”
“If you’re to blame,” wondered a commission member, “how do we hold you accountable?”
Baca’s answer, say both supporters and critics, was classic Wild West Baca:
“Don’t elect me!”