Lee Baca: Talk to people — Then arrest the right ones
For many, the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. For Lee Baca, who had been elected Los Angeles County Sheriff three years earlier, his job changed, too.
“It had to change radically,” Baca said.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was Baca’s job to tamp down tensions between Jews and Muslims locally. What he gained from that experience led him to establish an Interfaith Advisory Council of clerical leaders to foster better communication between faith communities and his department.
Baca also has focused particular attention on engaging with Los Angeles’ Muslim community. In response to the London bombings in 2005, he established the Muslim American Homeland Security Congress in an effort to uncover “homegrown violent extremism.” His department also has a Muslim Community Affairs Unit, staffed by Arabic-speaking Muslim deputies, in support of this effort.
Baca also established a Sheriff’s Department office of Homeland Security — and as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the department is increasing its presence across the Los Angeles public transit system.
“Transit systems are the highest targets,” Baca told The Jewish Journal, “even more than airports.”
But Baca’s job is hardly limited to counterterrorism. The sheriff’s department staffs the county’s jails and has 24 sheriff’s stations across the sprawling county. In July, to the surprise of many, Baca made an unsuccessful bid for his department to take charge of the county’s parolees, which would have added a new area of responsibility for the department.
But it is Baca’s counterterrorism strategy — particularly in establishing meaningful ties with local Muslim leaders and communities — that has brought Los Angeles County’s top cop both national and international renown.
Baca plans to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a speech to the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. In an interview at sheriff’s headquarters last month, he offered a preview of what he plans to say in Israel.
“You have to engage Muslim support as best as possible,” the 69-year-old sheriff said. The goal, Baca said, is “to have common-sense relations that are based on mutual interests of national security.”
Baca has spoken at the Herzliya conference once before and has been to Israel on multiple occasions. He was in Sderot during the Gaza war in January 2009, where he had to take cover in a bunker during a Qassam rocket attack. The sheriff acknowledged that Israeli law enforcement officials probably understand as well as anyone the importance of engaging local Muslims.
“I knew the prior police chief in Tel Aviv,” Baca said. “All the police chiefs in Tel Aviv have a great rapport with the [mostly Muslim] citizens of Jaffa.” Baca travels widely, and he receives at least as many international visitors as he visits. Among the items in his fourth-floor office at the department’s headquarters in Monterey Park are law enforcement officers’ hats from around the world. One came from a Beijing police chief who visited Los Angeles in 2007 to see how the city handled the Olympics in 1984.
The hats fill up about half of the sheriff’s bookshelf. The other half is filled with the books given to Baca over the years. Baca, who calls himself “a weak Catholic” and “a God-fearing man,” has collected a handful of scriptural books, including two copies of the Torah and four different translations of the Quran.
“The Quran — and this is a big part that needs to be said constantly — the Quran refers to Moses and the Bible and Judaism, and refers to Mary the mother of Jesus,” Baca said. “And to be a true, practicing Muslim, you must honor Judaism and Christianity as well as the prophet Muhammad. All three are part of the teachings of the prophet. Not many people know that.”
In just the last few years, Baca has become a vocal defender of Islam against attacks on the religion and its practitioners — and for this, he has drawn intense criticism from a cadre of anti-Islamic activists and writers.
Baca doesn’t use a computer — “a public official that is a computer junkie is determined to get toppled,” he said — so he presumably hasn’t read the posts by blogger Pamela Geller referring to him as “Hamas-Linked CAIR ‘International’ Sheriff Lee Baca.”
But Baca has heard the criticisms of his engagement with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) directly. Twice in the last two years, Baca has vociferously defended his attendance at CAIR fundraisers on Capitol Hill.
“CAIR is not a terrorist-supporting organization,” Baca said to Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) in his feisty testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security in March 2010. “That is my experience. That is my interaction. And if you want to promote that, you’re on your own.”
When Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) announced his hearings into “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response,” the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, was entitled to call one witness for every three called by King. He invited Baca to the first hearing in March, which was widely covered.
At that hearing, Baca was again asked about his connections with CAIR. “We don’t play around with criminals in my world,” the sheriff said. “If CAIR is an organization that is a criminal organization, bring them to court, charge them.”
The sheriff knows who the anti-Islamic writers are — there are two copies of Robert Spencer’s “Stealth Jihad” on the sheriff’s bookshelf alongside copies of “They Must Be Stopped” by ACT! for America founder Brigitte Gabriel and “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The books were gifts, Baca said, and he hasn’t read them.
“They perpetrate fear by what their messages are,” Baca said. “They’re on the shelf because you should know what people are doing.”
And Baca said he pretty much knows what’s in those books.
Baca paraphrased: “You cannot trust Muslims, no matter who they are. That you must stamp them out because they are determined to take over the world, and they have extreme views.
“And so,” Baca continued, “a vulnerable person will believe those things as though they’re truth — and then they’ll go over the edge, over the top, and they’ll plan a violent, extreme act.”
The sheriff was referring specifically to Anders Behring Breivik, the self-described “anti-jihadist” who admitted to killing 77 people in Norway in July. In his lengthy manifesto, Breivik quoted Geller, Spencer and others who see Islam as an irredeemably malevolent force that must be defeated.
Those writers, Baca said, are offering interpretations of Islam — while simultaneously walling themselves off from Muslims. What Baca does, instead, is to talk to people — all people.
“You have to be with people to know who they are,” Baca said. “You can’t be distancing yourself and using interpreters. And I see those books as interpretation books, as opposed to books based on relational knowledge.”
In his pursuit of that kind of knowledge, Baca has traveled to mosques around the county as well as to Muslim countries around the world.
“I know what the Muslim society is essentially challenged by — and it’s not by their religion,” Baca said. “It’s by the common political realities that all governments are challenged by: feeding their people, jobs, health, education — that’s what most of the focus is in all societies.”
Which isn’t to say that Baca has all the answers when it comes to the challenging law enforcement situation facing those societies — especially now that the events of the Arab spring have upended a number of longstanding, powerful leaders.
In October 2010, just a few months before Egyptian protesters filled Tahrir Square, Baca visited the country’s chief of police,who is now being tried for ordering attacks on anti-government protesters, but before the 2011 protests, he was, Baca said, “very instrumental in calming the violence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sinai region in the early 1990s.”
Baca said he understood the need for “accountability for police activities that are violent,” but at the same time he believes that the methods employed in fighting the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sinai might be worth emulating.
“They did not do random sweeps of suspects,” Baca said. “They took the patient approach and were building the trust of the public in order to acquire a rapport that would be valuable for the future.”
“The people got fed up with the murderous ways of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Baca said — which is when the police acted.
“The police were arresting suspects that were precisely the right suspects,” Baca said. “And that’s what you have to do. If you arrest the wrong people and charge them with crimes they didn’t commit, it’s not a good counterterrorism strategy. You have to get the right suspects.”