It’s sunny, the freeways are jammed and there’s a police brutality scandal brewing downtown. So far so normal. Los Angeles has always been a city in which some angels, the ones with badges, beat the shit out of others, four against one, and then try desperately to cover their angel tracks afterwards.
Only this isn’t your everyday “isolated incident.” You hear the word “institutionalized” from time to time, so you know it goes deep. This is a scandal fit for The Wire, or House of Cards – a proper web of corruption, savagery, federal agents and campaign cash.
A gift from the noir gods, in other words. And it hovers like gun smoke around one man in particular – the Sheriff of LA County, Leroy D. Baca, who’s 71, but by no means done. In fact, even as the water heats up around him, he’s running for re-election.
When I moved out here, I didn’t realize LA had sheriffs as well as cops. NWA never rapped about sheriffs. It wasn’t sheriffs that battered Rodney King and then sat on their hands as rioters burned the city right way up to a few blocks from my front door. That was the LAPD – the police department. (Sheriffs are the same thing, essentially, only in different jurisdictions and different uniforms.)
I’d see the LAPD cruise around in their pandas, all wraparound shades and steroids, and I knew at once that this was a firm that brooked no banter, no pleas, no appeal to a common humanity. They made the London bobby with his nipple hat look like Trumpton in comparison. They made Robocop look like a documentary. I knew my fear was founded.
Now, it seems the baton – or the taser – has been passed. Though the LAPD has cleaned itself up – thanks largely to Chief William Bratton who’ll be running the NYPD next year (having turned down David Cameron’s offer to lead the Met) – the stench of corruption now dogs the LASD (the Sheriff’s department), a department Baca has run for 15 years.
It all started a couple of years ago with reports of chronic beatings in county jails – even visitors were getting bashed according to reports by the Citizens Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union. So the FBI waded in, sneaking a phone to one of the inmates, on which he recorded the violent incidents. And earlier this month 18 deputies were charged with misconduct, obstruction and conspiracy among other things.
It feels like exactly the scandal that LA deserves. It comes in the context of several incidents of shoot-first policing in southern California, September’s 30,000 strong hunger strike among California prisoners protesting the torturous use of solitary confinement and the increasing militarization of police forces throughout America.
And the plot has only thickened since. The LA Times revealed that Baca’s department has been knowingly hiring dodgy cops, men with records. A couple of deputies have even been caught on tape threatening an FBI agent who brought the case. And yet Baca doesn’t fit the profile – he has a reputation as an intellectual, not as Bad Baaad Leroy Baca; a progressive liberal with a phD who drinks nutritional shakes because he aims to live to 100 (a very LA touch).
To date, he hasn’t flinched, insisting that it was actually his deputy, Paul Tanaka, who was responsible for all the egregious acts. The same Paul Tanaka who is now saying he was just following Baca’s orders, and is also fighting Baca in the election for the next Sheriff…
LA’s good at this sort of thing – a juicy city hall scandal, full of secrets and violence and drama. It may be a symptom of the city’s newness, the sense that the clay hasn’t set here yet, that it’s still up for grabs. Perhaps it’s just a proximity to Hollywood that imbues LA’s scandals with a natural noir narrative.
In any case, get comfortable. This third act promises to be a corker.