Making Excuses for Incompetence: L.A. County Sheriff’s Edition


Not six months ago, the L.A. County supervisors’ Commission on Jail Violence concluded that Sheriff Lee Baca would have been fired for incompetence if he’d been employed in the private sector.

For everything from favoring campaign contributors and “Friends of the Sheriff” to allegations of deputy cruelty and inhumane conditions in the jails, from deputies forming their own gangs and factions (only to attack each other) to heroin burritos and FBI-smuggled cellphones (for real-time corroboration from jailed informants), one might be tempted to believe Baca might finally be held accountable for his misdeeds.

The bad news is that a sheriff, an elected official, isn’t subject to the authority of a Board of Supervisors, so Baca can’t be fired for the negligence, mismanagement, or lack of accountability and transparency cited in the Commission’s findings. But the good news is, he probably won’t be running unopposed in the next election, as he had in 2010.

LEE BACA IS TIRED OF GETTING HASSLEDFor a guy who answered a blue ribbon panel’s question about fixing his department’s problems with a petulant, “Don’t elect me,” the 2014 election won’t be as kind to ol’ Leroy as the city’s real estate moguls have been. His opponents will probably have to form a line: out-of-work actors and comedians on the left, and on the right, former-law-enforcement-from-under-every-rock-from-here-to-Newark. Separate lines might form for newly sober ambulance chasers, for bee-keepers, for paralegals – you name it. Baca has so lowered our expectations of who’s qualified to do his job that, shit, why not even a felon like me?

Until then, though, Angelenos will have to endure facepalm after facepalm as Baca’s tycoon buddies (who loved their Sherriff’s reservist badges) work to prop up his legacy. It started this week, in fact, with the National Sheriffs’ Association declaring him “Sheriff of the Year.”

Having witnessed much of what’s been investigated in L.A.’s jails, at first I felt insulted by the award (but not surprised). Now it’s just the excuses made for Baca’s incompetence that bother me, like when Sheriff’s excuse-proxy extraordinaire Steve Whitmore called this Baca’s best year yet, ‘cause “people do their best when they face their biggest challenges.” Wait – did he just invent the vindication accolade?

MCJ FREEWAYIn announcing the award, the National Sheriffs’ Association trotted out the tired point that Baca operates the largest jail system in the U.S., a contention used defensively by Whitmore and the sheriff more times than they’ve been comp’d meals. The association also noted the educational opportunities Baca has provided to jail inmates, which would be great if his deputies didn’t restrict access to favorites, hold them over the heads of would-be-informants, and otherwise exploit their value.

Association spokesman Fred Wilson told the Los Angeles Times that the judges were former award recipients themselves, plus corporate sponsors (who are they?). He also said Baca was being recognized because of “what the sheriff has done to advance the office of sheriff nationally.” Oh right, we want to replicate the L.A. jail system.

L.A. County Sheriff's EditionBased on the pseudo-philanthropic cop-groupie powerbrokers Baca attracts, I’m sure those bestowing this award don’t believe in it any more than you or I do, no matter who they are. These kinds of convenient, parlay-able honors are arranged well in advance, and someone presenting one “do-gooder” with a plaque will often receive one just like it later in the ceremony (frequently from very the person to whom they just presented).  Somebody has to write these God-awful ceremonies: what the presenters say, the remarks made by recipients, and so forth. Oddly enough, criminal background or no, I’ve been that guy.

Wanna know more? Check out Where Excuses Go to Die, available for presale later this month.

Wanna read the Report of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence? Here’s the PDF