Innovation has its price E-mail
Written by Lee Baca   

baca.jpgThe recent criticism of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reminded me of a statement President Kennedy made in 1961 regarding his reform-minded approach to Latin America, which at the time was causing consternation among many of the old guard in government: “My experience in government is that when things are non-controversial, beautifully coordinated and all the rest, it may be that there is not much going on,” he said.

“We are attempting to do something about Latin America, and there is bound to be ferment. If the ferment produces a useful result, it will be worthwhile.” Soon after this statement, Kennedy and his administration averted a global nuclear disaster that has come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Obviously the recent criticism of the Sheriff’s Department is not by any stretch of the imagination on the level of U.S. foreign policy in the early 1960s.

However, Kennedy was trying something new and it was causing controversy. Since I have been elected sheriff, I also have been trying something new, and it too has caused some controversy. I want every department member, regardless of their standing, to be leaders in this department so that they can act independently of the bureaucracy to do their jobs right. In fact, when I address a room full of deputies or professional staff, I always start by saying, “I see a room full of leaders.” Furthermore, I always ask department members,“What new thing am I willing to do to make a difference?” Most recently, a leader in the Lakewood station undertook an informal arrest competition among deputies. This idea was to boost morale and increase productivity among the deputies. It was a well-intentioned, but ill-conceived idea. When you try new things, there will be mistakes. We will not hide from them. We will be accountable.

When I learned of the contests, I stopped them. I also was criticized for not being aware of the informal contests sooner. The station’s captain knew about the contest and allowed it to go forward. But the key to growing as a leader is making decisions without constant interference from your superiors. Again, I applaud the initiative but not the result. Law enforcement is not about contests, it is about quality. I am called by some a “public safety reformer.” Perhaps there’s some truth to that, but that does not mean I ignore best practices of law enforcement.

My deputies know what is right and what is wrong. They will stay well within the legal and moral boundaries while applying common sense and fairness in all they do. So how are we doing with this leadership approach to public safety? Crime is down in Los Angeles County, with homicides and rapes down by 13.02 percent and 13.36 percent, respectively. Homicides in Compton alone are down by nearly 50 percent over the spike in 2005.

We are on the verge of opening a gang emergency operations center that for the first time in the history of this great county will bring together all resources under one roof to combat the scourge of gangs. We have recently opened a new state-of-the-art regional crime lab. Our Office of Independent Review is considered the model of law enforcement oversight nationwide, with one of our OIR attorneys recently selected to run the oversight of Chicago’s police department.

Our Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department University has graduated scores of sheriff’s department personnel with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, with the full support of this department. I have long held that the better the education, the better the department. And finally, by the end of this year, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will have recruited more than 2,600 new deputy sheriffs.

When you try new ideas, pave new roads, pioneer new innovations, there is bound to be ferment. If the ferment produces a useful result, it will be worthwhile. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is producing a public safety result much more than worthwhile. It is one that is essential to keep us safe and secure well into the 21st century.

Lee Baca is sheriff of Los Angeles County.

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