By Robert Faturechi
For Sheriff Lee Baca, the last couple years have been rough.
His department is being investigated by the feds. A county commission examining abuse in Baca's jails found him to be disengaged and uninformed, saying he probably would have been fired in the private sector. Secret deputy cliques with gang-like hand signs and matching tattoos have surfaced. And Baca has been accused of using his office for the benefit of friends, relatives and donors.
Despite those challenges, Baca has been awarded "Sheriff of the Year" by the National Sheriffs' Assn.
His spokesman said the honor was appropriate given Baca is "the most progressive sheriff in the nation" and "a guy that works seven days a week."
"This is his best year because people do their best when they face their biggest challenges and he is excelling," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.
Baca's critics disagreed.
"You gotta be kidding," said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. "The years of malfeasance in the jails and the blatant failure of the sheriff to address the problems make his winning this award mind-boggling."
The association that picked Baca represents most of the sheriffs across the nation, with about 2,700 sheriffs as members, a spokesman said. About ten sheriffs were nominated for the award.
A panel of former winners, current sheriffs and corporate sponsors chose Baca after reviewing the applications submitted for him and other nominees.
"It looks at what the sheriff has done in their own community but also what the sheriff has done to advance the office of sheriff nationally," said Fred Wilson, director of operations for the association. "Sheriff Baca certainly embodies that. He is an exemplary sheriff."
In announcing the award, the association cited Baca's record for providing educational opportunities for jail inmates and his efforts to reach out to various religious groups in the community.
It also noted the vast size of the Sheriff's Department and the relatively low crime rates in the areas the department patrols.
"He commands the largest Sheriff's Office in the United States with a budget of $2.5 billion," the association wrote. "He leads nearly 18,000 sworn and professional staff ... the law enforcement providers for forty-two incorporated cities, 140 unincorporated communities, nine community colleges, and thousands of Metropolitan Transit Authority and Rapid Rail Transit District commuters."
Wilson said that although members of the panel focused on the application materials for each candidate, they were free to do their own research.
The recent headlines they would have found about Baca have not been flattering.
Current and former sheriff's supervisors went public with accounts of mismanagement. In addition to the FBI investigation of his jails, federal authorities launched a probe into allegations that Baca's deputies harassed minorities in the Antelope Valley and another investigation into one of Baca's captains, who was accused of helping an alleged drug trafficker.
Baca's department attracted more scrutiny following disclosures of a secret clique of elite gang deputies who sported matching tattoos and allegedly celebrated shootings. The sheriff has also been under fire for giving special treatment to friends and supporters, including launching "special" criminal investigations on behalf of two contributors. Although the homicide rate is at a historic low, recently released sheriff's statistics show serious crime increased 4.2% last year and all types of crime jumped 3%.
Most recently, The Times reported that Baca's nephew was hired to be a deputy despite a checkered past, and is now being investigated for allegedly abusing an inmate.
Last year, the sheriff announced a sweeping jail reform plan aimed at curbing abuses and improving accountability. An attorney monitoring Baca's progress for the county has given him high marks so far.
"Sheriff Baca doesn't step down, he steps up," Whitmore added.
(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times