Two weeks after Muslim terrorists attacked America, L.A. County Sheriff Leroy "Lee" Baca stood in front of an audience at the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, clutching his personal copy of the Quran. After some preliminary remarks to an audience of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and others whom he had called together, the chief law-enforcement officer for the County of Los Angeles leveled his dark-brown eyes at the audience. "What," he asked, "does God want from us?"
It's about the last question you'd expect coming from the man who oversees the largest sheriff's department in the United States, the man responsible for 1,400 bailiffs serving 50 courthouses, 22,000 inmates, one of the nation's largest food service operations (for the inmates), an enormous hospital system, mental health program and drug rehabilitation center, a staff of 13,000 sworn and civilian personnel, a police department serving some 40 contract cities and a $1.4 billion annual budget. But there he was, spending a long afternoon asking about God.
After rabbis, ministers, a priest and an imam delivered messages of unity, Baca told the 100-person audience that they need to worry about understanding one another, about learning the peaceful traditions of their faith and about getting on with their lives.
"I am in charge of your fear," he said. The words seemed very comforting: Baca has a firm, deep monotone and speaks with a lawman's certitude. I'll protect you, he seemed to be saying, you just look out for one another.
The meeting at the mosque on Washington Boulevard was the latest in a series of interfaith gatherings the sheriff has convened since Sept. 11. The first took place on Sept. 12, before Osama bin Laden was even on America's "most wanted" list. Baca called about 60 religious and ethnic leaders, including rabbis Leonard Beerman, Steven Jacobs and Alan Freehling, to a meeting room in the Sheriff's Department headquarters in Monterey Park.
"I knew we had to get our faith groups working together," he told The Journal, "or hate crimes will evolve to where we have no control."
A second interfaith meeting, convened by Baca on Sept. 20, drew California Gov. Gray Davis, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and some 70 participants, representing the spectrum of the county's religions.
Out of that meeting came a consensus that dialogue was not enough. Baca called another meeting at the Museum of Tolerance on Sept. 28. There he put local television producers and directors on the stage with Muslim and Jewish representatives, in front of an audience of handpicked religious leaders. Because of that gathering, the stations joined in airing "Together," a 30-minute series of segments by 10 TV news departments explaining Los Angeles' diverse cultures and stressing tolerance.
Baca relishes the coup. "How many people read an article in the Los Angeles Times from start to finish? 100,000?," he told The Journal. "But half a million people or more will watch the TV news."
There have been other gatherings, too. Baca helped organize an event at which the Islamic Center in Northridge hosted Rabbi Steven Jacobs' Kol Tikvah synagogue on Oct. 14. About 700 people, including hundreds of young children, spent the evening together.
"The challenge is to demystify the Muslim faith," Baca said later of such meetings. "We don't know enough about it. And I tell the Muslim community that in the interest of tolerance, they should come out and support the right of the State of Israel to exist. We need to allay the fear of the Jewish community that the Muslims hate Jews."
Interfaith dialogue is hardly a new idea in Los Angeles; entire institutions have grown out of it: county and city human relations commissions, nonprofit dialogue groups, long-running faith-based programs. There have been as many efforts at dialogue as there are previous participants who have soured on them as, at best, endless jaw-boning or, at worse, attempts by extremists to gain status by association with more mainstream groups.
But following Sept. 11, dialogue became high-profile, and Baca was stepping onto a near-empty stage. Following the attacks, L.A. Mayor James Hahn was first in Washington, D.C., at policy meetings, then focused here on airport safety and other issues. Baca stepped into the vacuum. His vast jurisdiction includes a swath of ethnic groups. His deputies were already responding to the post-attack rash of Muslim- and Sikh-directed hate crimes. Organizing meetings around tolerance and understanding seemed an obvious next step, and it earned the sheriff the spotlight.
And criticism. Baca's entry into the field, while widely understood, has not been entirely above suspicion. Some critics see it as naive and simplistic, others as clever campaigning in a run-up to the 2002 sheriff's race.
"It's a short-term feel-good solution," said David A. Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. Lehrer and Baca have known each other for years, and in recent phone calls have found themselves disagreeing over the efficacy of bringing Muslim and Jewish leaders together. Mainstream Jewish leaders, Lehrer said, "understand the reticence of Arab Americans to speak up and they don't have much truck with it."
Another Jewish dialogue veteran, who didn't want his name used, was even more blunt, saying the effort rings of dilettantism. Baca chooses religious leaders who often represent relatively small constituencies, usually outside the mainstream, the veteran said. "This is what the sheriff should be doing?" he asked.
The question goes to Baca's sincerity, which the sheriff, in the course of an hour-and-a half interview in his office, took pains to demonstrate.
The son of divorced parents, Baca grew up in his grandparents' house in East Los Angeles, then a melting pot of Jewish, Latino and Asian immigrants. The pattern held: Baca, a Latino, is married to a Chinese American, and has a Palestinian brother-in-law. Dinner table discussions are heated interfaith dialogues. "I tell him what is the incentive for Israel to give you anything? Did the Palestinians go through the Holocaust? The pogroms? The two Crusades? The Inquisition? You don't trust a partner who puts a gun at your head."
Merrick Bobb, Board of Supervisors-appointed special counsel to the Sheriff's Department, acknowledges that the sheriff's efforts are a first for the department. "It is not normal," said Bobb, who has sparred bitterly with Baca over inmate treatment and spending priorities. But, he said, the sheriff is in this case acting in the county's best interest. "I think it is appropriate. The strength of community relationships is one part of what makes for effective law enforcement."
Beyond Baca's personal history, in his career in the Sheriff's Department he has shown evidence of real commitment to tolerance. He pushed through a new department core mission statement that affirmed the rights of minorities (including sexual minorities), reached out to form advisory boards in different ethnic communities, and earned the accolades of civil rights groups by launching an oversight board to investigate his own department's actions.
The campaigning Baca might never be completely separate from the crusading Baca, but that's the life of an elected official, said Donna Bojarsky, the co-chair of L.A. Works and a participant in the dialogues. "Every single person elected to public office politics," Bojarsky said. "But what's impressed me about him is he went out and started to do this at a time when it's important to do. You wouldn't equate that with the sheriff. He walks around with a Talmud and Quran and he feels it in his kishkes. He has respect for all, but he is willing to call it as he sees it."
For supporters and critics alike, the questions that may help voters judge Baca's effectiveness and sincerity on these issues have yet to be answered. They'll want to see how long he sticks to his commitment to bringing the county's faith groups together. Also, they'll be looking at hate crime statistics. In the wake of Sept. 11, the sharp spike has leveled off for now.
The sheriff's strongest critics say they'll want to see how the values of tolerance and respect are manifested in the one L.A. community over which Baca really does wield power: the L.A. Sheriff's Department.
In the meantime, Baca has a ready answer to those who use pulpits in the county to preach violence or intolerance. As he said at the King Fahd Mosque that day, and numerous times since, "I know this: God is not an accomplice to murder, and we cannot allow any religion to give God a bad name."