"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca. The following interview was conducted Aug. 12. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
SCVTV: Tell us about your half-cent sales tax proposal.
Baca: Earlier this month the Board of Supervisors finalized the approval for placing on the ballot a half-cent sales tax measure that the voters will decide upon on Nov. 2. So I'm kind of energized by this, and of course the board I appealed to them a couple of years ago and they flat-out turned it down. This time they are on board with it, and I think there's a lot of reason for that.
SCVTV: What will this mean to taxpayers?
Baca: The Los Angeles County sales tax is 8 1/4 percent. What this will do is kick it up to 8 3/4 percent. What it means to the average consumer is that if you buy $200 worth of groceries, it's one more dollar on the bill. It's about, on average, about 15 cents to 20 cents a day.
I think that what makes it palatable to those who support it is that it's a dedicated tax, meaning that money is going to go to law enforcement, public safety. It's not going to spread out to other services of government. I think that the key argument that I make, and there are several, that in a county of 10 million people, Los Angeles County, the largest in the United States, we only have and it's shocking to me I thought it was 26,000 cops; we have only 22,500 cops. Now, this unbelievable.
SCVTV: You mean sheriff's deputies, LAPD officers and other agencies
Baca: Sheriffs, LAPD, and I've lost 1,000 deputies, which is still something that is unacceptable because of the impact on the jails and other parts of the county. But when you look at LAPD with 9,200 cops and the Sheriff's Department with 8,200 cops, and then all the remaining 45 police departments are only 5,000 cops. This is an amazing thing that I wasn't really picking up enough on. I knew we needed more, but I didn't realize how low our number of police officers are in this biggest county in the United States.
SCVTV: So we've got 22,500 cops for 10 million people. You've made a comparison to New York City; how many do they have?
Baca: Well, they have 7 million people with 39,000 to 40,000 cops. And you have got to ask yourself, why is it this way? Why is it that in the budget processes, where the hard-earned taxpayers' dollars are kicked in to the largest state budget in the United States, we in local government are suffering through lack of enough funds? That's, I think, because we have had a sense of losing control over how the taxpayers' dollars are allocated.
Public safety, to me, is the driving force behind any state or city or county's success. I could assure you, in this great part of our county, which is one of the safest city areas in the United States, that if crime were running rampant here, it wouldn't be as attractive a place for people to invest in business and to also live and raise their families and have the kind of success that Santa Clarita has.
SCVTV: FBI figures do show Santa Clarita is safe compared to cities, but this year it seems we've seen more brazen crime more carjackings, bank robberies, that sort of thing. Do you get the sense that crime is on the rise here?
Baca: Crime countywide is not on the rise. As a matter of fact, it's in that zone of going down. Even murders, which I'm very concerned about, particularly gang murderers, are going down in the county areas. But we still have too much crime.
You know, the fact that it would be more felt is an important message, even if it's the same amount or a little less. The key here is, victims are real. If your car is taken, if your business is vandalized or in fact robbed, if you're a victim of a carjacking, this is a very big deal in the life of a person who is basically minding their own business, not trying to do anything to attract any attack on themselves. And criminals are in fact brazen. I mean, it takes a lot of nerve to go into a business with a gun in hand and scare people into giving you money. I think that, to me, is a sign that Los Angeles County the largest county in the United States (with) the biggest gang problem we're the murder capital of America, we are also the bank robbery capital of America as well as the armed robbery capital. So people are feeling it.
I think that is the issue that I am bringing forth with the half-cent sales tax: that you can't protect 10 million people with 22,500 cops and say you're doing a good job. I think our officers are overworked, I think they are stretched thin, I think that they have a lot on the plate. And the county jail, where everything is supposed to go and get the punishment accomplished, is no longer holding on to people who are sentenced to the county for jail time. We have a revolving-door system, and that makes for a more brazen-type criminal who says, "Hey, I can do a lot of stuff in L.A. County and they don't even have enough money to keep me in jail, so I can just get away with stuff."
SCVTV: There's the old adage that when the economy's bad, larceny rates go up. Do you see a connection between the economy and the crime we're seeing? What's the profile of the today's crook?
Baca: The profile of the crook that commits the most crime is under the umbrella term, "career criminal." We have a crime analysis system in the Sheriff's Department that focuses on people who are recidivists and repeat offenders is what we're really talking about. Because Los Angeles is about 32 percent of the whole state's population, of the 160,000 people in state prison, Los Angeles County has more parolees, in the thousands here, who are released from prison, many of them going back to committing crime. Thus, the whole context of why we here have so much crime is based on the fact that, one, it isn't purely the economy; it's just, there are a lot of criminals who have experienced some success in committing crime, and they haven't weaned themselves from the impulses it takes to be a criminal.
In particular, drug usage is the overriding factor in most criminals' lives. I think what we're trying to say to the American public in particular in our county is that we can do a better job in preventing crime and intervening in the lives of people who are drug addicts and help them get recovered, but if we don't have enough resources, we're pushing sand against the tide.
SCVTV: Proposition 66 on the November ballot would affect career criminals by changing California's three-strikes law. What's your position?
Baca: I am opposed to that proposition. The devil is always in the details. If you look at the fine print, just beyond what appears to be a common sense thing, which says, if a person steals a pizza, they shouldn't be serving prison time for the rest of their life well, there are other offenses such as attacks on individuals that are violent, including sexual attacks on women, that could fall under this category of being removed as a strike. I think (the proposition) was not done properly. I think that if there are going to be any changes to the three-strikes law, there has to be a committee of people district attorneys, law enforcement people, sheriffs and police and there thus has to be a sensible approach to what is the appropriate modification.
But this initiative is the brainchild of a very wealthy man whose son is in prison for an offense, a murder, and he's wanting his son to get out, but the three-strikes situation affects his ability to be released. And so I think that there's a little sinister aspect that's going on with this initiative. I'm opposing it, and I'm writing my name in the state ballot as one of the opponents of it, so when people look at this, I say, "Don't vote for it."
SCVTV: So you're firmly in the "No on 66" box, but "yes" on your measure on the Los Angeles County ballot in November. Has your measure been written?
Baca: The ballot measure's written and the designation of the letter is in (Measure A). (LAPD) Chief (William) Bratton, all chiefs of police every one in the county supports this measure. The (California Police Chiefs Association) is behind it, along with mayors of a variety of cities. Hundreds of elected officials are on board. Big cities like Long Beach. ALADS (Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs), L.A. Police Protective League is there.
SCVTV: And it doesn't just fund sheriff deputies?
Baca: It funds support staff to any policing service. It could be crime analysts, it could be people who work as criminologists in the crime lab, it could be helicopter pilots, mechanics, secretaries
SCVTV: But not just the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department?
Baca: Correct. Every police department (in Los Angeles County) will get an allocation based on population. For example, the population in the city of Santa Clarita is so high that they will get an allocation of over $7 million. And I know that the city has good financial managers; the City Council has done a terrific job; the city manager is on top of things. The biggest complaint I get about Santa Clarita is not that we don't have enough deputies in our city, but that they are pulled away to go into the county areas that surround the city because the county is so depleted in its resources. So I say, "OK, if the city doesn't need all that money, then take the money to build a new sheriff's station, which you do need." The one we have now in the city is not large enough. So we can do that with the money as well.
SCVTV: It doesn't just fund personnel?
Baca: Correct. Equipment, (capital) projects such as a sheriff's station, radio cars, things that are part and parcel to police work, including interoperability for communications, which is interesting.
SCVTV: Tell us about that.
Baca: Well, the big problem in 9-11 was, the fire and police, as they rushed into the World Trade Center buildings, couldn't talk to each other. That's true here in this county now, where first responders, fire and police, and medical folks don't have a system where they can exchange knowledge in real time as they are going into the nucleus of an attack. So part of this money could be used for that.
There's another 9 percent set aside to reopen two jails that I closed because of money pulled out of the Sheriff's Department budget. We want to correct that side of the house, and even the district attorney will get about $20 million, because if we are going to add 5,000 more cops, then we are going to be making more arrests; there's going to be more prosecution that has to be done. And that, I think, is a good thing that this initiative is that flexible to ensure that every part of the justice system is going to be supported.
SCVTV: The Fire Department was hoping to get some piece of your tax so it could staff back up from three-person crews to four person crews. Does the Fire Department get anything?
Baca: Well, what the Fire Department gets is funds that would deal with terrorist-related kinds of equipment, training, and some limited level of personnel who are coordinating with police and medical services over Homeland Security-related responsibilities. But it is not designed to bolster up, adding up another person up into the fire truck and that sort of thing.
The depletion and the weakness in the county public safety plans, or the county public safety programs, is not that we have weak fire departments; we have weak police departments, and thus this is a measure to build up the number of men and women in radio cars patrolling streets. I mean, Santa Clarita sees a lot of sheriff's black-and-whites, but you go over the hill to the San Fernando Valley, and there's an occasional sighting of a police black-and-white. That's part of the problem here that criminals move around in such a way that if they think they have an opportunity to commit a crime, they're going to do it, and one thing that stops them is seeing those police cars going down the streets.
SCVTV: You mentioned earlier that you lost 1,000 deputies. Where did they go?
Baca: Well, we attrited them. There was a number who I had about 400 deputies I didn't have money for. I had to move money out of various budgets, cut overtime down to a place where we weren't even training our people at the level we should. So the effect of my reduction over a two-year period was $168 million. The first phase of that was $84 million. So what I did was stop hiring people, and we'd lose, on an annual basis, about 300 to 400 deputy positions through retiring, through transfers, resignations and the like, each year. So that's how I did it without laying anyone off.
I will not lay off a young deputy sheriff who joins in, goes through the background investigation, works hard to get to this point, ... starts to buy a house and then (is told), "Guess what? We don't have money to pay your salary." So I took money from everything I could maintenance budgets, services and supply budgets, overtime budgets and I said, "I've got to keep these young men and women working." And in a two-year period we dropped down 1,000 people.
SCVTV: Why was your budget $168 million lower over two years?
Baca: Because of the recession. And because of some of the high jinks going on in the state. You know, the state wants to take, when it feels that it's got the opportunity, $1.3 billion from local county and city governments. I mean, this is unacceptable. There's another measure on the ballot that I'm supporting that will block that particular thing from happening again. I think the legislature and the governor worked this out where, hey, if you keep on raiding local governments' dollars for your own mismanagement this isn't the right thing to do. So I have a big concern what its impact to my budget has been. And it has been so severe that this county, the largest county in the United States, still has this fragile budget system that needs to be fixed, and part of it is to get the state to unload some its tax dollars and bring it back to the cities and counties for schools, for roads, for the things that we know are necessary, (for) health care as well as children and family services and justice services. We need to restructure the state budget because we already know in Sacramento, you've got some pretty poor money managers up there.
SCVTV: Our local supervisor, Mike Antonovich, said the problem isn't only mismanagement of money in Sacramento, but also right here in the county. He cast the lone vote against placing your measure on the ballot, saying there's enough money right now to hire more deputies. He said there is $400 million in a reserve account that's supposed to go to the health department, and if it actually went to the health department, it would free up $400 million that could be used to hire deputies. What do you say to that?
Baca: Well, I think he makes a good point, but what he's mixing is apples and oranges, because it's not $400 million, it's $200 million, and it's tobacco (settlement) money, and that's health care money. He says, "Shove that money over to health care, then take money out of health care and put it into the sheriff's budget." He thinks that will fix the problem. (But) that will only fix the problem (for) 18 months, and then, when that money is all dried up, where are going to go to get the replacement for all the additional deputies we are going to be able to hire with that one-time money? He knows better.
What I think is going on here because he did propose a quarter-cent sales tax with a matching quarter-cent, which was not approved, from cities like Santa Clarita, city of Los Angeles. And that didn't fly because the cities don't have that matching amount of dollars. For example, that would mean, in Santa Clarita's case, that if this passed, they could get $3.5 million from the quarter cent and then they'd have to find $3.5 million of their own money to get that money.
I have to commend Supervisor Antonovich for coming up with a real idea instead of just saying no, but then when the real idea he came up wasn't approved, what's the difference between a quarter-cent and a half-cent in the logic of anything when it comes to a sales tax? If you can afford a quarter cent, you can afford a half cent, and my feeling about it is, he should have supported this measure not for the sake of saying, "I like it," but let the voters say what they'd like to do with it. And the Board of Supervisors did not say they support this. They believe those four who said, put it on the ballot that the public out there has the right to refuse it as well as accept it.
SCVTV: And the idea involving the health department money would be a one-time fix, but the half-cent sales tax lives forever?
Baca: Well, the half-cent sales tax will go for about four or five years, and then if the board were able to garner a two-thirds vote, they can remove that half-cent sales tax in the event that the economy becomes so prosperous that there's no evident need for it. In my opinion, that's a good thing. There is a closure point that could occur at any point beyond the first four or five years.
SCVTV: How much money does it raise for law enforcement each year?
Baca: Phenomenally speaking, it's a lot. It's about $560 million.
SCVTV: How many sheriff deputies and police officers does that buy each year?
Baca: It has the ability, if everything was shoved into personnel alone, to buy over 5,000 more men and women in uniform.
SCVTV: How much would go to the Sheriff's Department?
Baca: The way it worked out, (with) the breakout of population allocations and the like, the totals are about, one-third goes to the LAPD, one-third goes the Sheriff's Department, and then one-third goes to the remaining 45 police departments. Long Beach, when they joined in on this by the way, the largest city beyond L.A. well, it's the second-largest city in the county they need 100-plus more police officers. You know, they've got the world's third-largest port there, that they share with the city of Los Angeles. They have a huge shoreline issue, and they have some pretty at-risk neighborhoods within their city. They need that money. Glendale the third-largest city in the county they need 100 more officers in their city. When you check in on these other 45 cities outside of Los Angeles that have their own police departments, there's only 5,000 officers in that population of about 3 million people.
SCVTV: You have 8,200 deputies now, and you've said you need 10,000. If Measure A passes, how long would it take to get where you need to be?
Baca: It will take me about three years to ratchet up another 1,400 deputies or so, and I think that we can do this. When things were going well when I first took the office, things were going well in the county and in the state I hired 2,500 new deputy sheriffs...
SCVTV: That's six years ago?
Baca: Right. And we went for about three years until the recession hit. But I hired 2,500 new deputy sheriffs and trained them, and 25 percent of them were women, which is an unprecedented mix in balance. Usually there's less than 15 percent women in a new academy class. So the Sheriff's Department is an organization that is known for innovation, diversity, thinking out of the box, and creative problem solving, and so because of that, our core values are very definitive. We stand against racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and bigotry in all its forms. This gives women a greater sense of security because it is a scary job, even for a guy. You know, when you go in there, you're not sure you're going to stand up to the pressures of being a police officer or deputy sheriff, and so we want to bring our organization into the future with all the certainty that people who are trained properly, treated properly and given good job opportunities, are welcomed into the Sheriff's Department. So I'm pitching now for all the (readers) here to join the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, because it's a great career in a great organization, and we need many more.
SCVTV: You mentioned that some of this sales tax money would go for things related to Homeland Security. It's an election year, so we're hearing from some quarters that when Secretary Tom Ridge calls an Orange alert, it's just being done to scare people into thinking they need to keep George Bush in the White House. From what you see happening in Los Angeles County, how real is the terrorist threat?
Baca: The threat is very real. We have videotapes some of them are being released through the FBI showing video clips of places in Los Angeles County of the Hollywood sign, which isn't really the sign, it's the communication post behind the sign that has all the city of L.A.'s emergency communications conduits and we have Hollywood Boulevard with the Pantages and Grauman's Chinese Theater, Universal Studios, Disneyland. They've already been here, they are here, there are sympathizers who are here. I know this. I deal with the Islamic community very closely. I have an interfaith council because I think that the religions have to harmonize at times of threat.
We also know that the funding is an issue, in terms of local dollars in the United States going abroad to go help the al-Qaida operation. These aren't things that are imagined. These are things that are real. There is a terrorism early-warning group that we have in this county. We had it before 9-11; it's even stronger since. And we know how to work with the FBI in that they share, in their joint terrorism task-force operations with us, who are in those particular groups, and we are following a lot of clues, and the trials of those who have already been caught in the United States are revealing an awful lot.
The guy who came across the border from Canada to blow up LAX that's real. He's now in prison, serving time. So I don't think we cannot tell the public, "Guess what? You need to know more." And if the public gets a little scared, I think that's reasonable on the public's part, but at the same time, we're all working very diligently around the clock, 24 hours a day, to try and find the appropriate place to interfere or intercept whatever could be a planned attack.
SCVTV: Are you intercepting things in Los Angeles County that we're not hearing about?
Baca: Well, if a terrorist thing (it) is something like any other crime. You've got to catch them in the act of committing the preparation for the crime, or the conspiracy to commit the crime. We have people under surveillance let's be blunt about this who we (suspect), but you can't move on (them under) American law just by virtue of your suspicion. You have to wait until something is tangibly coming forward.
I've been to Pakistan and Israel and I've met with Prime Minister Sharon and President Musharraf and I know exactly what terrorist attacks have been in their countries, and I can say this: that it's going to happen again. It happened at the World Trade Center in the early '90s and they came back and did it again.
And so (people are) just imagining, and not being real, that this will not happen. It will happen again. The key is, can we stop it? And we must try to stop it. Tom Ridge has been to Los Angeles on more than one occasion. He's a friend, someone I talk to a lot, and I feel comfortable that the federal government is really doing its best to keep the American public informed.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.