ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
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And I'm Melissa Block.
The man who oversees the largest municipal jail system in the country is under scrutiny. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's department is at the center of several scandals. And Baca is being pressured to bow out of the election for what would be his fifth term in the job. Among the problems, the sheriff's department is facing a federal investigation into widespread brutality in its jail system, which houses more than 20,000 inmates.
NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: There's a lot that's been piling up against Sheriff Lee Baca lately. At the top of the list is an FBI probe into what's been described as a systemic pattern of unnecessary force against inmates in county jails.
PETER ELIASBURG: Sometimes this term unnecessary force feels antiseptic. We're talking about shattered facial bones, you know, 35 and 40 stitches. I've worked with somebody who literally had his teeth kicked in when he was surrounded by multiple deputies.
SIEGLER: Peter Eliasburg is legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, which is the court-appointed monitor of the L.A. County jail system.
ELIASBURG: I don't find it to be a very persuasive defense when the sheriff says, I didn't know about it. Well, I think you have an obligation when you're the head of an organization to know about stuff, especially when so many people are reporting it.
SIEGLER: The litany of alleged abuses has been well-documented in exhaustive reports by the ACLU and an independent jail commission. They describe gang-like cliques of sheriff's deputies beating inmates, with top brass either encouraging violence or looking the other way. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice, last month, found that sheriff's deputies outside the jail engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches, and excessive force against blacks and Latinos in the Antelope Valley, north of L.A.
Despite all this, the 71-year-old sheriff seemed anything but shaken at a recent luncheon put on by the Long Beach Rotary Club.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you for all you do.
SHERIFF LEE BACA: Oh, bless you. Thank you.
SIEGLER: In a wood-paneled ballroom, the tall and slender Baca grinned as he shook hands and posed for a few photos with Rotarians. During a speech, the sheriff quickly diverted from a planned script and addressed the jail scandal head on.
BACA: The havoc that you read about is kind of given a statement of narrative that says, it's all deputies, it's never the prisoners.
SIEGLER: The sheriff said a small number of rogue deputies with little street experience had, in his words, over-reacted to challenges by inmates. Speaking to reporters after, Baca said his leadership over a department of some 18,000 employees shouldn't be judged by the actions of a few.
BACA: We have an organization I'm very proud of. The men and women of the department are very resilient. They're leaders. They care. And the public should not be tainted by the few that do bad things.
SIEGLER: Baca says his department is taking steps to address the problems in and outside the jails. But Peter Eliasburg of the ACLU says there have been some positive changes since the worst of the scandals became public two years ago.
ELIASBURG: I think the jury's still out. I've seen some evidence that they're changing their practices and doing better. It troubles me, as I said before, when the sheriff makes it seem like the problem that he says he's addressing isn't really that serious.
SIEGLER: The sheriff's response to the scandals has prompted calls for him to not run for a fifth term, most recently from an L.A. County supervisor and the L.A. Times. Baca ran unopposed last time but in 2014, he could face some formidable challengers. Even one of his former top deputies, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, recently jumped in the race.
PAUL TANAKA: After 15 years of the same leadership, it's time for a new direction.
SIEGLER: But Tanaka has his own baggage. He's under scrutiny, too, since he was Baca's number two man until he resigned abruptly this past spring. It's thought that criminal indictments in the jail scandal could come well before next year's election. What's not clear, though, is whether Baca or any of his current or former top aides will be named.
For his part, Sheriff Baca says he has every intention to run for a fifth term. And he all but brushes off any suggestion that he should step down due to all the problems in the department.
BACA: Criticism is healthy because it means you got to try harder and do better. And fixing problems is what I'm noted for.
SIEGLER: Well, in the end, it will likely be up to voters to decide if things really are better, across a department with more than 9,000 deputies patrolling the some 4,700 square miles of L.A. County.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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