SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The sheriff of Los Angeles County is under fire. A blue ribbon commission issued a scathing report yesterday accusing Sheriff Lee Baca of neglecting longstanding allegations of inmate abuse in his jails. The accusations include deputies beating inmates, cover-ups and a culture of violence. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that the sheriff has been able to survive many storms during his 14-year tenure, but this may be the toughest fight of his political career.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The L.A. County Sheriff's Department is massive. Along with patrolling one of the largest counties in the U.S., deputies run the largest county jail system in the country with more than 18,000 inmates housed in eight facilities. But according to yesterday's commission report, deputies are doing a failing job.
ROBERT BONNER: There has been a persistent pattern of unreasonable force in the Los Angeles County jails that dates back many years.
KAHN: Reading from the report, former federal prosecutor Robert Bonner, says the problems have recently gotten worse. And he and the other commissioners say there is a failure of leadership at the top with longtime Sheriff Lee Baca.
BONNER: The fact is the sheriff does not seem to be someone as a manager who wanted to hear about problems. He seems to have his head in the sand, not minding the store when it came to running the jail in accordance with lawful and sound use-of-force policy.
KAHN: Deputies in the jails have been accused of violent beatings of inmates, several incidents witnessed by jail volunteers including clergy. They've been accused of participating in secret cliques that glorify the beatings, of engaging in off-duty fights and of supervisors covering up years of excessive force. One current captain in the jail system told commissioners he found a drawer full of discarded complaints and that he was told not to look too hard at other allegations of misconduct. Commissioner Alexander Busansky said Sheriff Baca told them he was running a model jail. Sadly, he says, that's not the truth.
ALEXANDER BUSANSKY: What I and this commission have seen is not the best in the nation. It is a jail in desperate need of real leadership, meaningful accountability and simple honesty. Leadership that has the tools and the know-how to change the dangerous culture that has been allowed to grow in much of the jail system.
KAHN: Despite the blistering criticism of Sheriff Baca, commissioners stopped short of asking for his resignation. They did say the current undersheriff should be removed from any supervision of the jail. And they made more than 60 reform recommendations, including hiring a national custody expert to supervise the jails and creating an independent inspector general. The sheriff would not comment on the report. His spokesman Steve Whitmore says he has to have time to study it. But Whitmore says Baca is not afraid to accept criticism.
STEVE WHITMORE: He does not look at criticism in a negative way. He looks at criticism as a cornerstone to learn.
KAHN: Baca has garnered a reputation as a progressive sheriff. He's a Republican in a highly Democratic county, and has been re-elected four times. Raph Sonenshein of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs says Baca is a skilled politician and still has a lot of community support.
RAPH SONENSHEIN: I think this moment we are in right now though is a different one. I think the sheriff hasn't yet come to grips with the fact that this is different from the other times he's had trouble. This is really a serious one.
KAHN: Unlike L.A.'s police chief, which is hired and fired by the mayor, the sheriff is an elected position. His budget is overseen by the County Board of Supervisors, but only the voters decide his fate. Mounting a countywide challenge to the sheriff is costly and seldomly done. Even so, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says Baca better pay attention to the commission's recommendations.
ZEV YAROSLAVSKY: They can't be ignored and anyone who ignores them will do it at their own peril.
KAHN: Baca, who is 70 years old, says he is not going to retire. In fact, he says, he plans to run again when his term is up in two years. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.