L.A. County Sheriff Responds To Safety Criticism

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca says inmate safety is dramatically improving. Baca was responding to a scathing report by a blue-ribbon committee, which found a persistent pattern of excessive force by deputies against inmates at the nation's largest jail system. The committee stopped short of calling for the sheriff's resignation, but said his failed leadership was at the root of the violence.

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The Los Angeles County sheriff says his jails are changing and inmate safety is dramatically improving. Sheriff Lee Baca was responding to a scathing report released last week by a blue ribbon committee. It found a pattern of excessive force by deputies against inmates at the nation's largest jail system. The committee stopped short of calling for the sheriff's resignation, but concluded that the root of the violence was his failed leadership. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Sheriff Lee Baca is not one to shy away from controversy and yesterday was no exception. To address the committee's stinging rebuke of his job performance, Baca assembled his entire command staff onto the dais of L.A. Men's Central Jail chapel. He filled the back pews with inmates and invited in the press.

SHERIFF JOE BACA: I'm not here to quibble with the story. It was too ugly, too big and too unfair. I am paid to take criticism even if it's unfair. You see, I believe in the nobility of policing.

KAHN: It's not unusual for Baca to show contrition and defiance at the same time. It's been a rough year. Allegations of inmate abuse at the hands of deputies has been constant. The accusations include deputies forming gang-like cliques, off-duty fighting and drunkenness. One deputy was arrested for smuggling heroin into the jail in a burrito. Another smuggled a cell phone to an FBI informant.

All led to an ongoing federal investigation and the blue ribbon committee's formation. Baca says he agrees with the committee's conclusions. In fact, he says, he couldn't have written the report better himself.

BACA: I don't lead with my ego and I don't lead with fear. I will stand by my decisions because I'm thinking of what the public truly would like done. Not some ceremonial thing that makes me look like I'm big tough commander or big tough sheriff. What I want is justice.

KAHN: Baca says he's already fired 60 deputies for not following department policy. But the sheriff stopped short of replacing his second in command, who came under particular harsh criticism from the commission for playing, quote, "a troubling role in the jail's problems and blocking efforts to discipline deputies."

Baca says he's prepared to enact the commission's reforms, which include strengthening deputy training, hiring a national custody expert to run the jails, and creating an independent inspector general with full investigative powers. Peter Eliasberg of the ACLU, who has authored several reports of abuse in the jails, says he's extremely pleased that the sheriff is cleaning house.

PETER ELIASBERG: Even though I think the sheriff and the department are late to get to this place, it still, I think is going to be very positive for the jails, for the deputies who work in the jails, and for the community as a whole for the sheriff's department to implement these recommendations.

KAHN: Changing a culture takes time. And if the blue ribbon commission's assessment is correct, L.A. County jails have been in trouble for years. Baca says he's the leader to turn the situation around. He cited a 50 percent drop in the use of force already this year through increasing supervision and better training. Although several inmates said the drop is more due to the increase in cameras in the jail than anything else.

But Baca said the real answer to fixing the jails is education. To bring that point home, he led a few reporters into a classroom, where he addressed the inmates.

BACA: But now you're working your mind. Now you're starting to think about how you can do better. I just want to wish you the very best of luck. OK. Thank you, gentlemen.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: Baca smiled as he took in the applause. This has been the toughest year of his long career in the department and 14 years as sheriff. But he says he's not stepping down and plans to run for a fifth term when he's up for re-election in 2014.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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