For years, Sheriff Lee Baca had a statue of a Buddhist warrior in his office, a gift from someone who thought the symbol of strength and peace reflected the sheriff’s character.
But the statue now rests in the undersheriff’s office.
“The undersheriff liked it, and I have a tendency when people like what I have, I give it to them,” said Baca, who faces four challengers in his June 6 bid for a third term.
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More recently, Baca videotaped a birthday message for Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and wrote a letter in support of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility outside Leona Valley with ties to the church.
“A law enforcement agency that does not have strong relationships with the religious community is basically exempting one of the great tools of public safety, and I just think public safety needs all the help it can get,” Baca said Friday, his 64th birthday. “Without the religious community, our crime would be doubled or tripled.”
Political experts expect Baca to win re-election, largely because he has reached out to diverse ethnic and religious groups throughout the nation’s biggest county who admire his offbeat approach to law enforcement.
He’s also got a $1 million campaign war chest – more than twice as much as his four challengers combined.
“It’s tough to unseat an incumbent, but when you have challengers with little resources, it’s an enormous task,” said political consultant Rich Lichtenstein.
During his two terms in office, the sheriff has sought to change the reputation of a department with a racist and sexist past and open it up to public scrutiny with the creation of the Office of Independent Review, which oversees internal investigations.
Baca, who holds a doctorate in public administration from USC, is especially proud of creating the LASD University to help his employees obtain higher degrees, spearheading efforts to build a new crime lab set to open in January at Cal State Los Angeles, and the upcoming opening of a sheriff’s station in Palmdale.
He also touts the creation of programs to rehabilitate substance abusers, spousal batterers and the mentally ill throughout the county.
But Baca, who earns $249,603 per year, has faced accusations that he’s mismanaged his department’s $2 billion-a-year budget and allowed violence and racial tensions to fester in the jails, which exploded in rioting earlier this year.
His opponents, including three members of his own department, say Baca made critical errors in suspending deputy hiring and closing jails a few years ago.
The department is hundreds of deputies below its authorized strength, and Baca has granted early releases to more than 150,000 inmates, including thousands who committed violent crimes shortly after leaving jail.
Challenger Paul L. Jernigan Jr., a sheriff’s sergeant, said he’s seen an increase in recent years in “frequent fliers,” repeat offenders who cycle in and out of the jails.
“I find I’m handling the arrest of someone for the same crime I handled with them six months ago,” said Jernigan, an 18-year veteran. “When I question them, they said, `I only did 10 days in jail. I steal cars for a living and by the time you caught me again, I had stolen 30 to 40 cars, getting $200 to $400 a pop. It’s easy money.’
“It sends a message to criminals that crime does pay.”
If elected, retired sheriff’s Capt. Ken Masse said he intends to go through the entire budget and eliminate waste and unnecessary programs, freeing up funds to hire more deputies and fix the jails.
“I know from years of experience that there is a lot of waste,” said Masse, who was endorsed by the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
He said the most important thing the department needs to do is restore its staffing levels.
“In the last four years, more than 400 deputies have left the department to go to other agencies,” Masse said. “The morale in the department is the lowest I’ve personally ever seen it in my 35 years.”
Opponents also criticize Baca for his plans to have inmates build a pond for employees at the North Facility at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.
“When our people see him intent on building a meditation pond and building trails to walk on instead of trying to repair our infrastructure problems and not providing the resources and tools we need, they say our priorities are all wrong,” said Capt. Ray Leyva, a 25-year department veteran who oversees the North Facility and is vying for the sheriff’s job.
If elected, Leyva said he won’t seek a quarter-cent sales tax increase or a bond measure to raise money for law enforcement. Baca said those measures are still in the planning stages.
“We have the money in our budget to get refocused on making infrastructure changes and supporting without going to the people for another tax increase, or up to a $750 million bond measure,” Leyva said.
The only outsider running for sheriff is Glendale Police Department Lt. Don Meredith, who said he would focus on recruiting military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“In the city where I work, we have recruited a number of prominent and decorated veterans,” said Meredith, who has been a police officer for 34 years. “You can create an environment that is attractive to officers from throughout the country who would want to transfer here.”
Baca said his challengers aren’t qualified for the job and noted that a recent pay raise and an aggressive recruitment campaign have reduced deputy vacancies from 1,100 to 700 now. He expects that number to fall to 400 by the end of the year.
Baca said he’s already added 2,000 beds to the jail system and expects to add 1,000 more by the year’s end.
“We’re rebuilding the entire jail system in the county so that we’re making more efficient use of our jail space,” Baca said. “We also have a current plan in place that allows us to enhance our unincorporated patrol staffing.”
If re-elected, Baca said, he intends to continue to embrace all the cultures in the county. And as the official who would coordinate the response to any terrorist attack, Baca has made a special effort to reach out to the Muslim-American community.
“Our strong premise in Los Angeles is that Muslim Americans are the most capable of turning the tide against terrorism,” Baca said.
“And we have a very vibrant leadership of Muslim Americans in Southern California who are totally opposed to terrorism, and this is a very important social development that helps not only protect the United States, but Southern California.”