The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (my former agency) and the Los Angeles Police Department have historically tag-teamed their turns in the infamous limelight. Some cop will screw up, and the chief is called on the carpet; a deputy does something stupid and the sheriff is held to answer for it.
Regardless of who's been at the helm of either agency, my reaction to their scandals has historically been one of ambivalence. That all-too-human part of me that enjoys the misfortune of otherwise privileged others—that human instinct that accounts for society's intrigue with Lindsey Lohan's shoplifting sprees, David Hasselhoff's Heineken and hamburger diet, and Hugh Grant's back alley courtships—always perks up when I'd see some honcho getting his ass chewed out.
Still, I've been objective enough to recognize that they are being held responsible for the transgressions of a relative few in their commands and that the vast majority of LASD and LAPD personnel are pretty good guys and gals.
As of late I am seeing something different, though. A series of simultaneous revelations calls into question just what kind of department L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca is helming. These revelations include tales of custodians staging fights inside the jails, visitors being beaten absent sufficient provocation, deputies beating the crap out of one another, and no less than Baca's own recent admission that he has basically been clueless as to what was happening in his jails, the largest custody system in the otherwise free world.
True, Baca's mea culpa came with a mitigating excuse as he cited a lack of candor from his executives as a contributing factor to his living life as a mushroom. Perhaps there's something to it; his predecessor Sherman Block was criticized for having been insulated from many a sordid truth, too. Yet one would have thought that Baca might have learned from Block's example and taken protections against falling victim to it, particularly as his history of Machiavellian success elsewhere would have suggested as much.
It is quite possible that Baca did try to keep abreast of things, only to find his efforts undermined by another all-too-human factor-the fear of alienating one's self from the marginal affections of el jefe. Face it, nobody wants to get caught playing Mr. Blackwell—the fashion critic-to the emperor with no clothes.
It's disingenuous to believe that with so much innuendo in the air and allegations in the pipeline that nobody in the LASD brass didn't know what was going on. I have heard through the grapevine that one man actually did try to do something about the jail problem while it was under his watch and he ended up getting punitively reassigned for it. I don't even like the man in question, and was surprised to hear of the incident as it smacked of a rare political misstep. But I will readily give the man his due: On this matter, he apparently tried to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, he belatedly learned a lesson that those of political ambition generally learn early in their career: the value of prudence. While it might be great to embrace outdated notions such as "meritocracy" and "fair play," to try and do things by the numbers and believe that people ultimately would want to hear the sometimes unpleasant truth if it would save them from some greater heartache down the line, life sometimes disabuses you of such fantasies. Left-wing country signer Kris Kristofferson might be full of crap on a lot of things, but he was dead right when he wrote: "The truth remains that no one wants to know." (Is it any wonder that my candor has found pea-brained administrators vilifying me more than they would others who routinely betrayed their confidences and who disparaged them behind their back?)
Whatever the reasons for Baca's problems—and no doubt they are myriad—schadenfreude (taking delight in the suffering of others) means that there's a terrible temptation for me to jump on the beatdown bandwagon (but then, is there ever a better time to kick a man than when he's down?).
Knowing that ideas such as installing audio and video monitors in Men's Central Jail were laughed off when I proposed them two decades ago makes my temptation toward schadenfreude all the stronger as my prescience has since been vindicated. And the reason given back in the day for not installing such technology? Supervisors were fearful that their interactions with subordinates would be taped.
One would think that there'd be little to inhibit me from criticizing Baca and company (they've got bigger fish to fry). But I always ask myself if in condemning some act, might I not be making myself even more of a hypocrite than the average man is resigned to being? Moreover, in calling further attention to yet another LASD drama, might I unnecessarily be further diminishing the reputation of a once fine department?
These are legitimate questions, variations of which could probably be asked of anyone who makes assertions of others.
But for my part, there are two things that encourage my willingness to comment:
One, Baca has put himself in the position to have his actions commented upon; indeed the man has campaigned for the privilege, and not just once.
Two, while people may not want to know the truth, it is better to point out the ways things actually are than to color-code them as they are not. A momentary sense of discomfort can sometimes save a helluva lot of pain and anguish later.
Finally, I've never been shy about acknowledging my own screw-ups and parceling them out over the years. No doubt, more will follow, such is my lot as a cautionary parable for the politically aspirant. One might think it exhibitionist zeal that accounts for my fessing up on having screwed around on duty (in every sense of the word). But aside from time, I have never stolen anything on duty.
When it comes to committing moral infractions, sliding down that silicone-enhanced slippery slope of ethics, and violating the law and all its permutations, I suspect the day will soon come when technology will leave damn little doubt as to our individual and collective credibility. And when that day arrives and the prevaricators and controverts are culled from the herd, there will be little doubt as to who did or did not do what had been expected of them, and who knew what and when (are you listening Eric Holder?). Those who have acted responsibly will get the belated recognition due them, and a greater accountability will be made of others.
I can't say I'm really looking forward to that day, as I am sure that there are any number of questions that could be asked of me that would leave me either making a categorical denial or invoking the fifth.
But I'll tell you what: These days, when it comes to the prospect of volunteering myself for some cutting-edge lie detection technology, I'd feel pretty confident about going up against many of the LASD upper echelon and coming out looking pretty damn good by comparison.
In the meantime, we will have to take Baca at his word when he says he really didn't know what was going on in the jails. If he was truly ignorant of the sordid incidents, then at least he should be savvy enough to recognize that confession is good for the soul.
And contrition is great for the polls.
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