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Los Angeles sheriff admits he lied to FBI over jail beatings: A turning point?

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Nick Ut/AP

(Read caption) Former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca, middle, leaves U.S. Court House building in Los Angeles on Wednesday. He signed a plea agreement saying he ordered deputies to intimidate an FBI agent and that he later lied to federal prosecutors and the FBI about it.

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A jail abuse scandal took a new twist Wednesday, when a Los Angeles sheriff admitted that he had lied to FBI investigators.

Lee Baca, who retired as Los Angeles County Sheriff two years ago, admitted in an unexpected plea deal that he allowed deputies to intimidate an FBI agent investigating police beatings inside the prison system, Joel Rubin, Cindy Chang, and Harriet Ryan reported for the LA Times. Sheriff Baca had previously denied knowing anything about it, even when his deputies were facing charges, but he now admits he told them to "do everything but put handcuffs" on her. 

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"It’s really shocking that they would threaten an FBI agent," says Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology and a police accountability expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. "That’s just outrageous."

Dr. Walker says the admission is particularly shocking because under Sheriff Lee Baca's tenure, the county police force was known as a model for good police work. It was the first in the nation to have not one but two auditing systems in place to detect and rectify misconduct. 

"He had the opportunity to lead,” David Bowdich, the FBI assistant director for the Los Angeles office told the Associated Press. “He did not lead.... There’s no excuse for the decisions that were made.”

This could mean a new low for the Los Angeles police and American policing generally.

"Police departments are in some respects really fragile," Walker says, as both quality police work and public trust take time to build and rebuild.

US Attorney Eileen Decker said Baca's admission was no cause for celebration, but that accepting a plea deal was the right thing to do because he came forward before prosecutors requested a grand jury indictment. 

"A law enforcement representative, particularly a former sheriff, has come forward in a way that no one else has at that level to accept responsibility," she told the LA Times.

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With responsibility now resting at the highest level, the best the public can hope for is that the standard for accountability has now been set.

"I made a mistake and accept being held accountable," the sheriff wrote in a statement his attorney read to reporters. "I will always love the men and women of the Sheriff's Department and serve human life no matter whom and where they are."

The case itself is shocking, but the bigger question is how a "model" police force, led by a sheriff who required his deputies to memorize a "core values" list that included respect for everyone, reached this point. 

"There’s a bigger lesson here," Walker says. Even in "really good departments, ... if you take your eye off the ball, things can happen."

Baca could be sentenced May 16 to a maximum of 6 months in prison and probation.