Sheriff Lee Baca commands the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), the largest sheriff’s department in the United States, with an annual budget of $2.4 billion and over 18,000 sworn and professional staff. Baca joined the department in 1965, was elected Sheriff in 1998, and was re-elected in June 2006 to his third four-year term in office. Over 4 million people are directly protected by the department, which is the law enforcement provider to 40 incorporated cities, 90 unincorporated communities, nine community colleges, and hundreds of thousands of daily commuters of the county’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Southern California Rapid Rail Transit District. The department also protects 58 state superior courts and 600 bench officers, and manages the nation’s largest local jail system housing more than 20,000 prisoners.
Baca is the director of homeland security-mutual aid for California Region I, which includes neighboring Orange County and serves 13 million people. He has also served since June 2009 on the federal Homeland Security Advisory Council, which provides advice and recommendations to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Baca developed the LASD’s Office of Independent Review, comprised of six civil rights attorneys who manage all internal affairs and internal criminal investigations concerning alleged misconduct by department personnel. He earned his Doctor of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California (USC), and is a life member of the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi’s USC Chapter. A strong advocate of education, he developed the LASD University in conjunction with 13 universities where over 950 members of the department are enrolled in Master’s Degree programs. Baca manages four non-profit Youth Athletic League Centers serving at-risk youth in after-school programs involving academics, sports, and the arts, and is a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
Q. What are the responsibilities of your office?
A. The state of California is organized into seven emergency management regions, which are multi-county regions. I am mutual aid coordinator for state Region I, which consists of Los Angeles County and Orange County. There is a Region IA that I’m also involved with that includes Ventura, Santa Barbara and Riverside counties, and a portion of San Bernadino County. The region consists of two counties and it has a population of over 13 million people. The regional mission involves coordinating resources, which would be fire, police, medical emergency, and any of the attending equipment that we have that would be used in any kind of emergency. This regional mutual aid program has been in existence for 50 years. Before 9-11 because of our extensive fires, floods and earthquakes, along with some significant disturbances in terms of riots and so forth. We have essentially taken the pre-9-11 model and ramped it up into a counterterrorism model, and in that counterterrorism model you have the all-hazards context. And so we were very prepared before 9-11 because we had a Terrorism Early Warning Group system in place and we were creating threat assessments and playbooks for response.
Q. What unique approaches to leadership and administration are required in such a large jurisdiction?
A. Well the most important aspect is for the individual in my position—the mutual aid coordinator—to assemble all the data on resources and personnel available within the 45 police departments in Los Angeles County, 30 fire departments, and then all the hospital and medical health components of the county, of which there are dozens, and make them operate smoothly and cohesively in emergencies. The sheriff of Orange County does the same thing for his jurisdiction, so whenever I need something from Orange County or if Orange County needs something from Los Angeles County, we’re prepared to respond to each other’s needs with all the equipment, the logistics, and personnel necessary.
Q. Is there a single system used to manage resources and data?
A. Yes. We have an extensive emergency operations center (EOC) in every county in California but Los Angeles being the largest, we have managed to accomplish something that no other regional EOC has to this date. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has authorized our EOC to replicate its National Operations Center, technologically and physically. The National Operations Center hosts a network for all of the high-risk targets in America, and we will have the same data in our county EOC. So, if, say they have a major incident occurred and we needed to bring in the federal government’s assistance, then they could operate here with their staff and smoothly coordinate the response strategy and the resources that accompany it. It’s exciting because Los Angeles County is seamless with the federal system, and that’s what we want. We don’t want the county to be an island and if a disaster hits. All the federal assets and resources will be smoothly integrated into the Los Angeles system.
Q. Given the persistent hazards in Southern California, what is new to the region’s approach to homeland security since 9-11?
A. What’s new is we have a two-pronged approach to terrorism in particular, and that is we have a prevention approach. And that’s another additional responsibility is intelligence gathering and prevention and then enhancing response capabilities in the event that there was a terrorist attack. Our department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI stood up the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC), our regional intelligence fusion center, because the first mission is just prevent the terrorism to begin with. That really is the primary goal. And so we’ve had extensive amount of planning done in that respect because terrorist attacks are manmade disasters as you know, and I think it takes a lot more ingenuity to deal with it.
At the same time, because of all of the federal involvement with funds, we’ve had to organize ourselves administratively in a way that allows us to spend these funds that they’re giving us as effectively as possible.
Q. What do you see as your region’s greatest success in the homeland security mission since 9-11?
A. The greatest success that we have is that we were 90 percent capable of handling any kind of disaster before 9-11 occurred. And then the remaining 10 percent we’re filling out with the prevention element. And it’s critical to do that because all forms of natural disasters with the exception of earthquakes—and we’ve had a lot of experience with earthquakes—there’s no early warning with an earthquake, they just happen. And that’s true of a terrorist attack, there’s no early warning to speak of. But if there is an early warning, the goal of the federal strategy and the local strategy is one and the same, and that is we want to prevent any overt terrorist act from occurring at all.
Q. What is the greatest challenge that remains?
A. The greatest challenge is on the prevention side. Quite frankly, and as we witnessed recently with on Christmas Day with the individual on the plane headed to Detroit, he basically was an amateur brought forward to commit a terrorist attack that a more professional terrorist might have succeeded in carrying out. And it speaks well that they couldn’t find someone of a greater quality to do that job, which fortunately worked out to the benefit of the American people. But at the same time, it shows that they’re trying to recruit people who are susceptible to their message. So the big challenge is how do we prevent this from occurring and I think that we have our JRIC and we have a Joint Terrorism Task Force that the FBI operates, and we have a fairly good understanding as to what the federal resources are but as you know mistakes will be made, and the biggest challenge that I see is to not make a mistake.
Q. What is your view of the federal government’s performance in the homeland security mission, and how that has changed over time?
A. The federal government has thrust itself into the law enforcement role worldwide, but also in doing so they have used the military for some of the work that should be done by law enforcement. There should be a law enforcement program that they’re building on internationally to help seamlessly track all of these jihadist terrorists. And in terms of combining resources at the federal level with resources at the local level, we’re a very big way off from achieving that success.
Q. Does your agency collaborate with the private sector? If so, how?
A. We have a regional Homeland Security Advisory Council in Los Angeles County as well. And because the county is so large, that the business sector, the private sector, have to be an integral part of whatever our tactics are, and our ability to respond. When there’s a major explosion, as you noticed in the response about suicide bombers in Baghdad, you know there’s a tremendous amount of damage to hotels, to public buildings to schools, to targets that are structurally designed where people are, restaurants and the like. Well, you have to clear everything out of an area that’s been damaged, and the private sector has the ability to do that. They have the tractors, the cranes, they have a number of tools that allow for the public sector to use those tools so that we can get our job done. And our regional council has a database of resources, whether it’s privately owned airplanes, emergency equipment, whether or not there are some communications capabilities that they have that we don’t, that might be needed in a response.
Q. How do you see technology aiding your mission looking forward?
A. The private sector is developing a lot of technology with detection devices, for explosives and other ordinance, including chemicals. So I have an extensive technical services division that is partnered up with private sector research companies for less-than-lethal weapons, for surveillance devices, for unmanned aircraft, and we have an agreement with DHS to prototype and test unmanned aircraft in an urban area and do research with the private sector and DHS. Things like that are very important for how we secure America, and not just America, but the world at large. The relationships that the private sector has with the scientific community, with the military community and public sector law enforcement have created an environment in which the fusion of resources is truly public-private.
Q. What are your primary goals looking forward?
A. To be ready in the event of an attack, and effective in the response. And then to prevent the attacks from ever occurring.