1999 "Person of the Year"

Los Angeles County Sheriff

Metropolitan News-Enterprise
Friday, Dec. 31, 1999


By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca won't be riding on the Sheriff's Department float tomorrow, but in spirit he'll be sitting high above the Rose Parade crowd, waving in triumph.

That's because the mere existence of the floral creation, moving up Orange Grove and across Colorado Boulevard in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, is a vindication of sorts for the sheriff, who just completed an eventful first year in the post.

Baca, 57, prevailed in an odd election after having mounted an emotionally draining campaign. In the press, he has faced skepticism over many of the new ideas he brought to the department's Monterey Park headquarters, from establishing an Asian Crimes Task Force, to reopening an old jail as a recovery center for drug addicts and wife beaters, to creating an abortive unit of celebrity deputies, complete with badges and guns. To the Rose Parade float.

So far, Baca has been lauded above all for his candor, such as his straightforward admission that the celebrity unit wasn't thought through. Ongoing struggles over sexual harassment among deputies have gotten some press, too, but the sheriff's quiet successes, such the recovery center, and programs to teach inmates to read, have drawn less attention. It's as if Baca's attempts to reinvent the culture of the nation's largest sheriff's department have been so sweeping that it's taking some time for observers, both inside and outside the department, to catch up.

The reaction to the float was typical. The Sheriff's Department? A New Year's parade float? People asked whether that's what the department really needed to be spending its time and money on, especially after news reports that fundraising was lagging.

Sheriff's Department Float

But Baca persisted, and the private donations came through. Money raised above the amount needed for the float—by award-winning designer Raul Rodriguez—will support youth programs.

Now, in a year in which several important sesquicentennials are all but obscured by the turn of the millennium, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department will open the celebration of its 150th anniversary a step ahead of the county itself—and the state. Because of Baca, county residents will be reminded, on the first day of the Year 2000, of the service and sacrifices of sheriff's deputies.

At the close of his first year as county sheriff, Baca is being honored as the Metropolitan News-Enterprise 1999 Person of the Year. He will be feted at a black-tie dinner at the Biltmore Hotel on March 9.

Focus on Prevention

Baca, who formally goes by Leroy but is almost universally known as Lee, describes his job as going far beyond the traditional realm of law enforcement. As sheriff, he must also focus on prevention, he says, and that means knowing the community, and knowing it well.

"As sheriff, I'm on a platform," he explains. "I can see everything going on in the community."

That includes the legal community. Baca is in effect the head bailiff in a force that includes about 1,400 bailiffs and other sworn officers providing courtroom security, lockup, transportation and other services in nearly 50 courthouses around the county. His deputies who work in court services get an additional 40 hours of training in weapons screening and public service.

It is a function increasingly relied on by the courts, which have seen an upsurge in courtroom violence. Bailiffs must simultaneously be "user friendly" to the jurors, the public, and above all the judges, who receive their services on a contract basis, while still remaining alert to any public safety situations.

In addition to the bailiffs and other security personnel, the courthouses are filled each day with hundreds of deputies on hand to testify on criminal cases.

Deputies also serve as jailers for the 22,000 inmates in Twin Towers and the other holding and incarceration facilities scattered around the county.

Baca runs one of the nation's largest food service operations, feeding the inmates. Similarly, he runs an enormous hospital system, a huge mental health program, a growing drug rehabilitation center.

He has 71 commands across the county.

Baca's staff of 13,000 sworn and civilian personnel serve the nation's most populous county, where demographic changes and immigration from far-flung countries complicate an already complex law enforcement system.

In addition to providing police services for the county's vast unincorporated area, the Sheriff's Department also serves as the police department for some 40 cities with which it contracts, such as West Hollywood and Lynwood.

$1.4 Billion Budget

He manages a $1.4 billion annual budget, with a plethora of funding sources that carry spending mandates. As to the $500 million or so over which he has discretion, he must struggle with a Board of Supervisors with its own notions of how best to spend his money.

This is not a job someone can do, he says, by thinking small.

He raised eyebrows with a laundry list of programs he set before the supervisors during budget season, together with a demand that they all be funded. He was, and remains, quite serious.

"You have to think big," Baca explains. "If you don't start off ahead of the curve and stay there you are never going to be prepared for the crises and the emergencies. It's a personality characteristic of mine. I'm always vigilant about these issues. I think it's a cop on the beat mentality. You're never relaxed. And I shouldn't be relaxed. You have to put pressure on yourself to turn the opportunity key."

Controlled, Unflappable

Baca may not be relaxed, but he certainly comes across as controlled and unflappable. He says that's just the way he is. But his optimism he attributes to strong role models, including the people who raised him—his paternal grandparents.

Thomas Baca came from Albuquerque, N.M., and married the former Clara Bottom of Silver City. Her father came from Louisville, Ky., a fact that the sheriff says must explain his own love for country music.

Lee Baca's parents divorced when he was 7, and he grew up in his grandparents' household in East Los Angeles.

Young Lee Baca with grandparents,
Clara and Thomas Baca

A quick mind and a healthy impatience led Baca to skip ahead in fourth grade. He was in high school by age 14. Using his father's address, he enrolled at Benjamin Franklin High School, rather than stay at Garfield High where his East Los Angeles address would have put him.

East L.A. was a melting pot of Jewish, Latino and Asian immigrants and their families, and Baca early on developed a connection with people from other cultures, all of whom were striving to remake themselves and seek opportunity in the U.S. But the area was also beginning a slide toward poverty, and its success rate for high school graduates was low.

Highland Park offered a new environment. Baca did well at Franklin, earning good grades and becoming class president.

It was at Franklin that he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement, after hearing a police officer describe his job.

He studied police science at East Los Angeles College, but took a year off to work at a plant in Culver City building ovens for airlines. As fate would have it, one of his co-workers in the tool crib was Melvin Block, whose younger brother Sherman had left his job as a delicatessen counterman to become a deputy sheriff. Sherman Block was motivated by an encounter with a police officer that left him impressed with the way law enforcement seemed to be handled on the West Coast.

Baca recalls being told, "You ought to join the Sheriff's Department because my brother's a sergeant and he loves it."

Sherman Block, of course, went on to become the 29th sheriff of Los Angeles County. He mentored Baca, and made him a top department commander.

Marine Corps Training

Before completing his training at the sheriff's academy, Baca enlisted in the Marine Corps reserves. It was 1964, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating, but Baca was never called up.

Still, he says his Marine training was crucial to his development.

"I'm very proud of that experience," he says. "The Marines helped instill a sense of duty, and an understanding of leadership."

Baca was sworn in as a deputy sheriff trainee in 1965, and worked his way through the standard deputy assignments—custody, patrol, recruitment. He also served as a staff instructor at the Sheriff's Academy.

Then-Sheriff Peter Pitchess made Baca a captain in 1981 and assigned him to command the Norwalk Station. As a commander under Block, Baca supervised field operations in the western part of the county and the special enforcement and aero bureaus. He also ran the custody division and administered courthouse security services.

As chief of court services, Baca supervised the bailiffs and other deputies who serve the county's more than 500 bench officers. The job carries a high level of responsibility under the best of circumstances, but Baca was in charge when the Board of Supervisors voted to eliminate the Marshal's Office, which provided bailiff services to the municipal courts, and fold that function into Baca's division.

When the merger took place in 1994, Baca was faced with a sudden increase in the number of bailiffs and courtrooms for which he was responsible. By all accounts, he handled the situation well.

"He was a problem-solver," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Mallano, who at that time was presiding judge, recalls. "I found him to be very responsive to the needs of the court."

By then Baca's goal was clear. He earned a doctorate in public administration from USC in 1993, and was a dark horse finalist to succeed Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates following the beating of motorist Rodney King and the racially charged troubles that followed.

Baca was ranked third, but eliminated from the list of six after losing points for being an LAPD outsider. Latino activists blasted the procedure, noting that it led to a final list that excluded any Hispanics. In a move that the public would come to know as typical of Baca's approach, he called for a "creative solution" that would add him back to the list, send a message of fairness to the Latino community and the public at large, but not force the process to begin all over again.

If no such solution could be found, Baca said—surprising many, including his supporters—he would not sue.

Having pointed out the problem in the Civil Service rules that discriminate against outsiders, Baca said, it was time to move on.

People remembered the tall, quiet sheriff's chief who could make a point, but know when to back off. It was clear Baca would be heard from again.

And he was. Ironically, the LAPD chief's job went to another outsider, Willie Williams, but Williams was not kept on for a second five-year term. Baca again landed on the list of finalists. But this time the job went to LAPD insider Bernard Parks.

Meanwhile, Baca was becoming known for his outreach efforts to communities around the county and his innovative approaches to opening the lines of communication. Not content to simply serve out his term on Block's Cultural Diversity Committee as an advisor, Baca sought to link law enforcement officials with community groups.

Typical was his embracing of Emek Hebrew Academy, a Jewish elementary school in the San Fernando Valley. School leaders complained about intimidation by young Latinos in the area, and Baca helped persuade the Los Angeles Police Department to boost patrols, especially on Saturdays, when because of the Jewish Sabbath Orthodox Jews went on foot, instead of by car or bus.

The academy honored Baca, who also assisted the Anti-Defamation League in organizing Jewish-Latino unity programs.

It was just natural for him, Baca explains, especially given his upbringing in East L.A., where Latinos and Jews grew up together.

Besides, he says, it is important to introduce law enforcement officers to the community whenever possible.

"I think people like to be in contact with law enforcement officers," Baca says. "Officers should be in contact with everybody, and we are. There isn't a community in this county that I can't go to and have a warm reception."

'Beat Mentality'

Baca helps hone that "cop on the beat mentality" with a morning run, usually starting at 5:30 or 6 a.m.

"I've done it for 21 years," he says. "Eight miles every morning, all over Pasadena, San Marino, Arcadia. It's important to me for emotional and spiritual and physical reasons. There are certain trees I'll look up and see changing—the composition of the leaves. There are homes and flowerbeds that are important to see and appreciate. It's kind of going through a nature run. I bring my own human nature to meet what is essentially nature."

But Baca's morning run isn't merely a Zen-like contemplation of nature. It is also an act of personal conquest.

"I wanted to face a predictable difficulty and beat it," he explains. "If a person can self-impose the difficulty and conquer it, then all other difficulties pale in comparison."

Baca notes that he also runs competitively, distances from 400 meters to half-marathons.

"I win more often than I lose," he volunteers.

The starting point for the sheriff's morning run is his new house in San Marino. It is perhaps a measure of the celebrity that comes with being sheriff that Baca's purchase showed up in the "Hot Properties" section of the Los Angeles Times.

That article—as well as numerous articles in the Times and other papers—mistakenly asserted that Baca is the county's first Latino sheriff, or its first Latino sheriff this century. Neither statement is remotely true (Eugene Biscailuz was only the most recent, before Baca, of several Los Angeles County Latino sheriffs). Baca simply shrugs his shoulders over any possible meaning to such gaffes. What's important, he says, is that the sheriff opens up his department to the entire spectrum of the county's people.

Baca's marriage (his second) also made the newspapers. Highlighting a year of personal and professional changes, in which he challenged his boss for his job, changed his appearance (eliminating the comb-over hairstyle in favor of the more straightforward bald pate), and once and for all became a public figure, Baca married longtime girlfriend Carol Chiang.

Chiang grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, coming to the U.S. in 1979. She earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at USC.

Baca has 34-year-old twins, a son and daughter, from his first marriage.

Even Baca's post-wedding trip to Taiwan drew scrutiny from the media, which he noted insisted on calling the trek a honeymoon. It was not, Baca says. It was an official visit to help address the problem of Asian gangs that have opened up shop in Los Angeles County, especially in the San Gabriel Valley.

"This county being as diverse as it is, I as sheriff must be something of an ambassador," Baca explains. "It's part of the job. In countries around the world, people know who the sheriff of Los Angeles County is."

His wife accompanied him to Asia, Baca says, but she doesn't go in for the morning runs.

"She's more of a nocturnal person," he says.

The run finished, a typical day for Baca would continue not at the Sheriff's Headquarters, on a secluded hillside in Monterey Park, but at one of the command posts around the county.

It was a Baca pledge during the campaign against Block to visit each and every jail, sheriff's station, detective facility and other units. That task accomplished during the first three months, Baca did it all over again, and intends to continue repeating the cycle, over and over.

"We do need assessments," he explains. "If we have identified something from the first tour that hasn't been taken care of by the next, the person responsible has to stand up and say why. With so many things to take care of, that's the only way to get things done. As long as I'm giving the bureaucracy my attention, I can rest assured that nothing will fall through the cracks."

After the morning needs-assessment visit, which can cover things as mundane as fixing the fax machines to something as crucial as purchasing more radio cars, Baca's day is typically devoted to a series of meetings, sometimes with community leaders, sometimes with the county bureaucracy.

Board Meeting

On one recent Tuesday, after his morning run, Baca's schedule took him to the county Board of Supervisors to present a request for funding for a special Hate Crimes unit, and to defend proposed changes to the personnel files kept on deputies. Baca wants to be sure that unresolved complaints of sexual harassment or abuse are left in files, but he also must assure that the officers' privacy rights are guarded—as new laws require.

At two minutes after 10, Baca bounds out of his office and downstairs with Sgt. Pat Maxwell, who is presently assigned as his driver and assistant. The sheriff is dressed in a dark suit for his business with the board. On other occasions, he is as likely as not to be in uniform, and he has encouraged his other management officials to wear their uniforms as well, to underscore the department's presence in the community.

One can't imagine the imposing Baca in need of a bodyguard, but if he was to have one, Maxwell would fit the bill. Chatty where Baca is reserved, blond and broad-shouldered, Maxwell spends much of his time on the cell phone, shifting appointments and keeping his boss on schedule. But if there was trouble, you'd want him there.

And, indeed, he was there a couple of weeks later when he was ferrying Baca from another meeting. On the Santa Monica Freeway, near the Harbor Freeway interchange, Baca and Maxwell witnessed an attempted carjacking. Leaving their car, Maxwell held the suspect at gunpoint while Baca slapped the cuffs on him.

It is not often the sheriff of a county the size of Los Angeles actually makes an arrest, and it was Baca's first in a while; but he now joins Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks, who personally made an arrest earlier this year, as a law enforcement leader who still can walk the walk on the street.

But that incident is still two weeks down the road. On this trip, Maxwell and Baca are on the San Bernardino Freeway, headed toward the county Hall of Administration. Stuck in traffic.

Reviewing his notes on the proposed Hate Crimes Unit, Baca runs through the list of reasons for the special program.

"We don't have the sophistication yet to say, 'Here's how hate crimes must be treated,'" Baca asserts. "There's a whole host of other offenses that we don't really identify as hate crimes but that's what they are. The special unit would be able to address them."

Does Los Angeles County rank far behind in identifying and addressing hate crimes?

"I think we're in the middle and we need to be in the lead," Baca says, adding with the candor for which he is rapidly becoming known:

"My strategy here is to present as positive an explanation as possible. But everything I do I do with fallback positions in mind. The nature of my relationship with the Board of Supervisors requires me to give my best-case argument, but what could happen here is that they will say they don't have the financing available. I will figure out another way if I don't get the funding. But the funding legitimizes this effort with the county."

It's 10:11 a.m. At Baca's suggestion, Maxwell gets off the freeway and takes surface streets to Civic Center. Baca reviews his notes on his battle with Special Counsel Merrick Bobb—and the supervisors—over the department's Personal Performance Index.

"This is our computer system that tracks shootings and other incidents," Baca says. "It is the most comprehensive tracking system in the U.S., but there are modifications needed under the law. Merrick Bobb has made some sweeping accusations that are frankly baseless. The key here is I've opened up my office to him. My staff has been working with labor to make sure it was fair. Law requires administrators to remove unfounded complaints from the record after five years, and I don't have any choice but to follow this law. Bobb has changed some of his posturing, but that doesn't eliminate damage in the minds of people."

10:24 a.m. Maxwell parks on the street in front of the Hall of Administration, in a handy spot unavailable to anyone but the sheriff or other high-ranking law enforcement. It is a privilege befitting the Los Angeles County sheriff, and it is a convenience virtually mandated by the sheriff's schedule and responsibilities.

Baca walks in the back of the cavernous meeting room, at the public entrance, quietly grabbing the outstretched hands of those who come forward to say hello and pay their respects. The meeting has already started, and Baca is looking around for people who planned to be on hand to address the hate crimes issue. He confers with Assistant Sheriff Bill Stonich.

"I prefer coming early," Baca explains. "It gets you in the flow of their daily work. You don't want to go up here and talk incessantly about the issues if they're well disposed toward them already. I'm not very optimistic that they're going to approve my hate crimes plan, but I don't want to be unnecessarily confrontational."

10:25 a.m. A steady stream of envoys from department heads and elected officials who spotted Baca standing in the back has approached the sheriff and his aides. Briefly, the focus of the room has shifted from the platform in front, where the supervisors are conducting their business, to the back, where Baca chats.

Miguel Santana, an aide to board Chair Gloria Molina, asks Baca if he wants his item called right away, since he is there and has a busy schedule to keep. It is a courtesy that is also accorded to elected officials such as District Attorney Gil Garcetti, but it falls short of the obeisance the board paid to Sheriff Block, especially in more recent years. When Block would walk into the board room, no one would ask him if he wanted his item called early. Instead, he and his aides would stride toward the dais, and the desk was cleared for him. Automatically.

Political Game

Baca and the board are still involved in the early stages of the political game of testing each other. Each of the board members supported Block in last year's election, even though the sheriff was clearly ailing. In a monumental slap in the face to Baca, several supervisors called on voters to stick with Block in the last week of the election—after Block had died.

The rationale, they said, was to allow the board to select the next sheriff. Some supervisors went so far as to say such a move would support democracy.

"Politics is a strange place," Baca says of the episode. "It brings out the best and the worst. I know the supervisors angered a lot of people. The voters who were most incensed were in the African American community. They saw it as negating the vote. But I think the board quickly understood that was not a very productive stance to take based on common sense."

10:35 a.m. Having decided not to go early, Baca continues to chat with county officials in the back. County Personnel Department chief Mike Henry says hello, and the two men have a surprisingly friendly talk about a matter that has Baca incensed—his employment status.

The problem stems from Baca's resignation as an employee of the Sheriff's Department after he pushed Block into a runoff. It was a step he had to take, he explains, given the nature of the campaign and the fact that he still reported to Block.

He was elected and found to his embarrassment that as a retired Sheriff's Department chief, he was entitled to $142,000 annually in pension payments, on top of the yearly salary of $207,000 that already made him the highest paid elected official in the nation.

Baca wanted to instill a culture of efficiency and selfless service, but he was being virtually forced to take nearly $350,000 a year in pay and benefits.

'Early' Pension

But Baca didn't want to have to give up the retirement benefits to which he would be rightfully entitled upon leaving office, just to be able to waive his "early" pension. He could be reinstated as an employee, he explains, if he did it within a year, and not suffer a loss in pension benefits.

"It is as though you never broke service," Baca contends. "But then the bureaucrats got into definition of 'reinstatement.' The head of department must reinstate the employee. But that was Sherm, and he died. Now I'm the head of the department, but they say I can't reinstate myself. Why is that right denied me, especially in view of the fact that I was elected? I'm going to fight this thing all the way. I want full reinstatement as a county employee. I'm not going to take any more of this...." He provides a slight shake of the head in lieu of a noun.

10:50 a.m. Merrick Bobb finds Baca in the rear of the room. They talk, and the conversation becomes heated at times. Or, at least it does on Bobb's part. Baca stands firm, but his voice does not rise. But it is clear the discussion of the Personal Performance Index won't be smooth.

11:06 a.m. Baca turns from Bobb and addresses his aides. "Okay, we're ready to go, then," he says.

11:10 a.m. Molina calls up Baca and Bobb. The sheriff defers to the special counsel, who lays out his criticisms of Baca's proposed changes to the PPI. What ensues is an hour-long discussion during which the supervisors, the special counsel and the sheriff become bogged down over terms like "founded," "unfounded," "unresolved," and "exonerated." It is clear that they are talking at cross-purposes, and it is clear that the supervisors are using the occasion to repeat public statements of their opposition to sexual harassment and other alleged misconduct by sheriff's deputies.

Baca, who eschewed the drop-everything-for-me approach that Block had, now finds it necessary to remind the board, gently, that he is the sheriff and will run his department as he sees fit.

"When Mr. Bobb responds to what you say," Baca tells Supervisor Yvonne Burke, "without giving me, the sheriff, the courtesy to respond to what you say, I am distinctively undermined in terms of my commitment....I am the sheriff of this county, not Mr. Bobb. We have to make this very, very clear."

The supervisors back off, briefly. The contentiousness does not reach the rancor of some months earlier, when Molina lambasted Baca over his handling of sexual harassment—even though they both agreed on the extent of the problem and how to handle it. But it is clear that the conversation has not set a helpful tone for Baca's coming request for Hate Crimes Task Force funding.

12:10 p.m. The discussion on the PPI ends, with Baca and Bobb agreeing that they have some things to work out away from the board. A week later, Bobb will return, without Baca, with a simple, straightforward solution the two men hammered out. It will meet with board approval.

But now comes the Hate Crimes request, together with strong words of backing from Supervisor Mike Antonovich. The other supervisors aren't so sure.

"The district attorney wants a hate crimes unit," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky thunders. "You want a hate crimes unit. Everyone wants a hate crimes unit. It's a good ticket to an appropriation."

Bottom line: the supervisors tell Baca to make his request next year as part of his budget package. So the pitch has been a failure? Not at all, Baca says. He has stated his case, and he has his back-up plans. At 12:43 p.m. he leaves the board room, and his aides give him knowing looks. "Good board meeting," one of them says.

"The sheriff has a great working relationship with the board," Supervisor Don Knabe asserts. "That doesn't mean we always agree on things. His staff may have gotten ahead of him on some issues. But I think he's had a good first year after a very difficult transition."

As for the different approach the board accords Baca, as opposed to Block, Knabe says it shouldn't be misread as a comparative lack of respect.

"Sheriff Baca," Knabe says, "doesn't demand as much tender loving care as Sheriff Block did. He isn't one who would expect you to drop everything for him. It's just a different style."

In Orange County, freshman Sheriff Mike Carona says he knows exactly what Baca is going through.

"My predecessor was in office 24 years, his was 16, so we know what each other is going through," Carona says. "We face a lot of ingrained ways to do business, and we have to find ways to make people interested in change. And that is part of the excitement both he and I face."

Carona says he and Baca found a lot of "natural synergy," and have made the most of it by joint press conferences and task forces on issues such as drugs and technology crimes.

"He's a bright, articulate individual who understands collaboration," Carona says.

In the contract cities, where officials had deep loyalty toward Block, they are coming to appreciate Baca's outreach efforts.

Jeffrey Prang, the only elected councilman in West Hollywood to have supported Baca over Block, says the new sheriff's commitment to understanding and serving the communities far pre-dates his electoral challenge to the past sheriff.

"When he was in charge of the contract cities he made a point to meet with leaders of the gay and lesbian communities," Prang says. "He showed his commitment to reversing the problems the community has had in the past with law enforcement, and he made it clear he meant it."

Prang has since become one of two Baca field deputies hired specifically to foster community contact.

San Fernando Valley attorney John Moriarity, who served on the board of the sheriff's Youth Foundation under Block and continues to serve under Baca, likewise lauds the new sheriff for his community outreach.

"Sherm had probably a more conservative approach to many things," Moriarity says. "Lee sees himself as a man of the people to a greater extent. He is laying the foundation to be sheriff of Los Angeles County for as long as he is able to do the job."

The board on which Moriarity sits oversaw an anti-drug program for young children, but Baca expanded their role to encompass DARE, the program that covers middle schools and high schools as well.

"That's Lee Baca," Moriarity says. "Everything that can be made bigger and better he is doing all at once. He is working his damnedest, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to improve things for the people of the county."

The supervisors meeting has gone on so long that Baca has missed his lunch appointment. Maxwell drives him back to the headquarters. Monterey Park is close, especially when there is no rush-hour traffic, but Baca wants to be back downtown at the historic, now-vacant, Hall of Justice.

Federal money could finance the whole thing, he says, as part of a proposed federal courthouse project across the street from Times Mirror.

1 p.m. Back at headquarters, Baca is pointing out the Hall of Justice project on one of several "Baca Boards"—white dry-erase slates on which virtually every project at the Sheriff's Department is listed and assigned. These boards grace meeting rooms, and also the offices of top commanders. People must see directly what they have responsibility for, Baca says.

"Computers are repositories of information," the sheriff cautions. "Unless you turn them on, you're not going to get informed."

A sampling from the Baca Boards includes the Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives program, a 16-week course to deal with at-risk youth. There is a day care center for sheriff's employees, a care program for the children of female inmates, "town sheriffs" for unincorporated communities. There are new stations, proposed stations, and re-openings of moth-balled facilities.

All open cases of sexual harassment also get logged on the Baca Boards.

2:30 p.m. An attorney who wants to be named to the state criminal justice board visits Baca to seek an endorsement. Baca says he is impressed. Send a resume, he says, and I'll see what I can do.

3 p.m. Baca is briefed on an officer-involved shooting several days earlier. He peppers the investigators with questions, until he appears satisfied that this was a prima facie justified use of force.

3:45 p.m. A commander notices the sheriff walking by and asks him to step in for a moment. There he meets with a half-dozen or so African American ministers whose input is being sought for a community outreach program in central Los Angeles.

"This is your home," Baca tells the ministers. "I want you to feel you can come here anytime. We're here for you. We've got to work together."

4:10 p.m. Back in his office for the first time since an early morning meeting, Baca consults with one of his aides over a letter from the wife of an employee who died of cancer. In the wake of a flap over the huge pension Sherman Block's widow got after her husband's death was ruled an on-the-job casualty, this widow wants to know why she is not being treated the same way.

"There's very little I can do about this," Baca tells his aide, adding:

"I understand how she must feel. We have to be sensitive about these things."

Now, with a short moment to catch a breath, Baca jokes with his staff. He circulates a box of chocolates, noting that he has already removed and eaten the peanut clusters. Then there is a photo session in his office, which is decorated with a few Asian prints and exudes a serene air.

"There's no way anyone could see this as a power office," Baca says. "It's not focused on me, particularly."

There are few photos. A glamorous shot of his wife makes her look like a movie star. On an end table is a shot of Baca, as a young boy, with the grandparents who raised him.

Baca in his office in Monterey Park

Baca faces an hour or two at his desk, then, at 6:30 his day is over—and a new one starts.

"That really starts the second phase of my day," Baca explains. "I have dinners with groups all over the county, I have evening meetings. There is really no time off in this job. There can't be. There is just too much to do."

He will get a respite, he says, the next morning. At about 5:30 a.m., during his daily eight-mile run.

Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 1999-2000

  For photos from the March 9, 2000 Person of the Year Dinner, CLICK HERE