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LA County Supervisors vow to watchdog Sheriff Baca’s jail reform efforts

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca takes part in a memorial ceremony for a slain deputy at Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca takes part in a memorial ceremony for a slain deputy at Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011. Baca is under pressure to adopt jail reforms proposed by a citizens commission. County supervisors want a jail reform "watchdog" to oversee Baca's efforts.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca Tuesday clashed with the Board of Supervisors over his efforts to reduce violence inside his jails. An independent blue ribbon panel last month described a persistent problem with excessive use of force against inmates, and blamed Baca.

In an appearance before the board, Baca was scolded almost immediately when he said he'd be willing to collaborate on filling a new inspector general position recommended by the Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence.

“I’m open to a collaborative selection process, if there’s a member of the board,” said Baca.

Before he was able to finish the sentence, Board Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky interrupted.

“Stop right there," said Yaroslavsky, sitting across the stage from the sheriff. "You’re not going to select the inspector general. The inspector general as proposed is to report to the Board of Supervisors. So the Board of Supervisors is going to select the inspector general.”

Baca, under increasing political pressure over the jails, agreed.

Later, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he believes the sheriff should not be left alone to fix the jails.

“If the department is to fly solo on this matter, I think we will get more of what we’ve gotten," he said.

What has L.A. gotten? The blue ribbon panel said county lockups are fraught with a culture of violence – especially the downtown Men’s Central Jail, which houses more than 4,000 inmates.

The board voted to hire a compliance monitor to make sure the sheriff follows through on 63 recommendations for reform. He provided the board with a written progress report shortly before the meeting.

Supervisor Molina was unimpressed.

“When I read the report that you gave us last night, I was tremendously confused," she said.

Molina asked about a new use of force policy for the jails. When pressed, Baca said there is no one policy, and that a new single policy will be out in January.

The sheriff said there’s been a dramatic drop in the use of force against inmates at the jails, although the blue ribbon panel called Baca’s current efforts “stop gap.” It called for Baca to hire an outside custody professional as an assistant sheriff to run his jails, and to create a special jail guard job at the department.

He’s agreed to those ideas, and to others.

"The most challenging of course is when the commission has recommended bulking up the investigative staff within the Department for Internal Affairs purposes," said Baca. "That does take some money.”

Baca has said he would implement the reforms whether or not he gets more money for them.

Voters elect the sheriff, and he is not bound to follow the recommendations of the Board of Supervisors. But the sheriff is under increasing political heat for his handling of the jails – lockups into which the FBI launched an investigation last year.