Los Angeles’s Long Tradition of LASD Scandals

Lee Baca’s not the only sheriff in town known for shady deals
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In 2011, the FBI began investigating claims that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies were brutalizing jail inmates. In response, the department hid a federal informant from them and sent two sergeants to an FBI agent’s home to intimidate her. This month former sheriff Lee Baca receives his sentence for lying to federal officials when hedenied knowing of the plan to send those sergeants. But a quick ride-along through time reveals that Baca’s not the only sheriff in town known for shady deals.

 

Buzz_MAY.inddJames R. Barton
Though generally liked, L.A.’s second sheriff was considered “brave but reckless,” writes John Mack Faragher in his new book, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles. In 1851, Barton ordered the massacre of Cahuilla Indians who had tried to torch a home, and he shot a gambler to death in a duel a year later. In 1857, Barton and three deputies became the first L.A. lawmen to be killed in the line of duty, after being ambushed.
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John C. Cline
Between 1914 and 1921, Cline embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars before the county Board of Supervisors fired him. He had a particular fondness for profiting from prison food funds and was skilled at fixing traffic tickets, taking county vehicles on “pleasure trips,” and appointing thousands of honorary deputies for political purposes.

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Peter J. Pitchess
Many credit Pitchess with modernizing the LASD, but his department was notorious for its violence. During the 1970 National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in East L.A., journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by “poorly trained” deputies who shot a tear gas canister into a crowd, striking his head. After Pitchess tried to quash the subpoena for an officer’s records in another brutality case, the motion was rejected, but today “Pitchess motions” allow defendants alleging excessive force to access records of police misconduct.

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William I. Traeger
In the 1922 “Inglewood Raid,” three Ku Klux Klansmen caught ransacking the home of alleged Basque bootleggers were outed as cops. Traeger publicly condemned the KKK, vowing to fire officers on Klan membership rosters. When Traeger’s own past membership was revealed, he claimed that he’d been unclear about the Klan’s purpose when he signed up. Perhaps he just liked the hats?

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Sherman Block
For much of his 16-year tenure, Block kept the LASD running smoothly. But as his health declined, the department suffered scandals involving narcotics officers skimming money, inmates being mistreated (deputies allegedly burned a cross in front of a black prisoner), and fraud. Days before voters could decide his fate in 1998, Block died, allowing Lee Baca to sail into office.

Illustrations by Kyle Hilton

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