By Hector Villagra, Executive Director
Say my five-year-old decides she needs to grab something from a high cupboard. So she rolls the computer desk chair up to the counter, stands on the chair, and stretches every nerve to reach as high and far as she possibly can — and falls, scared but unhurt, in a heap on the kitchen floor. She says she knows she messed up, but doesn’t want to talk about what happened. I smile at her cleverness, but I say no, we need to talk about it. That’s because I want to understand her thought process and make sure she truly understands her missteps, in the hopes that she won’t repeat them.
As the parent of two young children, I often face situations like this, so I was amused to hear that Sheriff Baca, in testifying before the L.A. County Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, said he wants to look ahead, and not back. Many politicians play the let’s-not-revisit-the-past card when scandal breaks out, but no parent worth his or her salt would ever accept this ploy from a child.
As in the semi-imaginary scenario involving my five-year-old, Baca told the commission, “We know we screwed up,” apparently hoping that his mea culpa would be the end of the discussion. It’s not. Because Baca holds a position of public trust, he needs to show not only that he has accepted responsibility for his and his subordinates’ mistakes, but also that he is taking all the necessary steps to prevent them from recurring in the future. How can he expect to do this without confronting the errors of the past, making every effort to understand them and how or why they occurred, and communicating his assessment to the public?
This is particularly important when two central problems seem to be the culture of violence in the jails and the culture of keeping the sheriff in the dark about it. It’s a deadly combination, one for which the sheriff ultimately must be held accountable. But accountability requires transparency. How can we know that the sheriff has even acknowledged the nature and extent of the culture of misconduct and cover-up, much less taken steps to address it, if he won’t talk about all this publicly?
Baca showed just how adamant he was to avoid revisiting the past when he interrupted a question and asked “What good does it do to talk about it now?” as well as when he suggested that there’s a limit to the value of “digging up dirt that doesn’t have any water going into it.” Talking about it now does a lot of good, because it promotes the values of transparency and openness, affording the public the opportunity to become reasonably confident that there is no water going into the dirt, and that the purported fix is not a makeshift one and there won’t be water going into it tomorrow.
For instance, he told the commission, as he has said repeatedly in the past, that his subordinates kept him in the dark. Well, this assertion simply begs critical but as yet unanswered questions: What has he done to discipline them or correct their behavior? What has he done to encourage his command staff to bring bad news to his attention? And is there more that he could do?
But Baca has pointedly refused to answer some of these questions. When asked whether he had held his command staff accountable, he responded, “You’re not going to tell me how to discipline my people.”
If he refuses to answer such basic questions, helping us to understand his thought process, the sheriff takes the risk that the public will conclude that he has done nothing or at least nothing worth touting publicly. That he seems so willing to take this risk should worry us, because it suggests either that his incumbency makes him impervious to it — perhaps this is why he said, “Don’t elect me!” when asked how he could be held accountable — or that it would be worse for him to discuss publicly just how bad the situation in the jails has become. Either way, the public lacks the information it needs to cast an informed vote when the time comes.