Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Los Angeles sheriff’s departure shows need for revising office

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Were one to identify California’s 10 most powerful political offices, the list would, of course, begin with the governor.

The two top leaders of the Legislature would follow, along with the attorney general.

Arguably, the next five slots would be occupied by Los Angeles County supervisors, once dubbed “the five little kings.” Governing a county with 10 million people means big-time clout, which is why two rare board vacancies are drawing heavy political attention this year.

But what about No. 10? Would it be the mayor of the city of Los Angeles, or that of San Diego or San Francisco?

A strong argument could be made for making the sheriff of Los Angeles County No. 10.

Sheriffs are always powerful local politicians, because they represent law and order to the public and spend big chunks of county budgets.

But the sheriff of Los Angeles County is especially powerful, with influence that reaches into the state Capitol on issues that involve a lot of money and a lot of visceral impact.

Lee Baca has been Los Angeles County’s sheriff for 15 often tumultuous years and has not been shy about wielding his political heft to protect his empire, fending off critics of his management. But reality caught up with Baca this month when he announced, contrary to prior expectations, that he would resign and retire rather than seek a fifth term.

He made his announcement just a month after federal prosecutors levied criminal charges against 18 of Baca’s current and former deputies, accusing them of corruption inside the nation’s largest local jail system.

It also came a year after the U.S. Department of Justice accused deputies of routinely violating the civil rights of black residents in the rural Antelope Valley and more recent revelations that his department had hired dozens of officers despite adverse background investigations.

The recurrent investigations and scandals had encouraged potential rivals to Baca to emerge, and his resignation is creating a political feeding frenzy among would-be successors.

What’s happening echoes the situation that brought Baca into office in 1998. He was challenging then-Sheriff Sherman Block when Block died just days before the election. Baca cruised to a win and never faced serious opposition thereafter.

The larger issue is whether county sheriffs should be politicians at all.

City police chiefs are hired, and sometimes fired, by mayors and city managers. Ditto with fire chiefs in cities, counties and special districts. Judges are nominally elected, but in reality virtually all are appointed by governors.

Only sheriffs and district attorneys, among those on whom we depend to protect life and property, are also politicians – a throwback to a much simpler era.

The Baca situation should, but probably won’t, spark a modernization of the office.