Much to the surprise of many in the greater Los Angeles area, Sheriff Lee Baca on Tuesday announced that he will retire from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department at the end of January.
His decision came almost exactly one month after 18 current or former sheriff’s deputies were arrested as part of an FBI investigation, which probed allegations of civil rights violations (unjustified beatings of jail inmates and visitors) and corruption (conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation).
“I have great gratitude to the people who have elected me …[but] I will go out on my terms,” Baca said during a press conference at the department’s headquarters in Monterey Park. “I’m not going to seek re-election for a fifth term as sheriff, and I will retire at the end of this month. The reasons for doing so are so many — some are most personal and private. But the prevailing one is the negative perception this upcoming campaign has brought to the exemplary service provided by the men and women of the sheriff’s department. They have conducted themselves with the utmost integrity and professionalism, resulting in yet another year of historic crime reductions.”
The sheriff showed emotion when talking about the passion the department has for protecting the residents of Los Angeles County.
“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we love the people in this county and we do it every day without exception,” Baca said. “And to the people of the county, I extend my deepest gratitude for allowing me to serve you for the past 48 years.”
West Hollywood Councilman Jeff Prang said the news was startling, surprising and disappointing. While the city of West Hollywood contracts with the department, Prang had also worked as the department’s senior advisor for public affairs for nine years.
“The fact is the sheriff, I believe, was an uncommonly progressive law enforcement executive who brought compassion to county jails, who made sure law enforcement served all the communities of the county, including underserved constituencies,” he said.
Prang said he couldn’t speak for the council, but believed that his colleagues share his hope that Baca will be succeeded by someone with similar values.
“He was a progressive on issues of LGBT rights, transgender issues,” the councilman said. “He was a strong advocate for community-based policing. He was an exemplary leader when it came to contract cities. …He allowed us to manage the sheriff’s department as if it was our own police department.”
Prang said he has some concerns regarding the upcoming vacancy. He said the LGBT community has had historic challenges with law enforcement, and wants to ensure that the new sheriff is willing to tailor its contracted services to West Hollywood’s needs.
“I want to hear that the new sheriff is as concerned about making sure my community is treated fairly and with dignity and respect [as] Sheriff Baca did,” Prang added.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, 3rd District, said the board of supervisors will appoint an interim sheriff in the near future. Baca had reportedly recommended assistant sheriff Terri McDonald for the job.
“I think the world of her,” Yaroslavsky said, adding that McDonald is smart, plain spoken and clear headed. “I think she’d be an outstanding interim [sheriff].”
He said Baca generally had a good career with the sheriff’s department, and the county has “a lot of good things to show” for his service. The supervisor said Baca was unique in that he was “humanistic.” Yaroslavsky also praised the sheriff’s post-9/11 response.
“It hasn’t been all bad,” he added.
Yaroslavsky said he was sorry that Baca’s 48-year career ended in such a way, but his decision to step down was “courageous,” as he put the department above himself.
“I think he made the right decision of himself and for the department,” he said.
The announcement provided more fodder for the candidates who are looking to replace Baca in the upcoming election. The Primary Election will be held on June 3, with a potential General Election scheduled for November.
“He can run from the job, but he can’t hide from the culture of corruption he oversaw,” candidate Bob Olmsted, a former department commander, wrote in a letter to supporters. “It’s like cleaning up after a hurricane. The storm is gone, but the damage remains. It’s time to clean house, implement major reforms and restore honesty and integrity to this department.”
Another candidate, LAPD police supervisor Lou Vince, said it’s time for the department to move forward with “untarnished” leadership.
“The next sheriff of L.A. County must be a hands-on leader who is aware of all aspects of the operations of the department as well as the actions of his administrative staff and the deputies on the street and in the jails,” Vince said in a statement. “He must possess strong leadership and management skills. He must be ready to work in conjunction with local and federal law enforcement organizations, other governmental agencies and civic groups in establishing, promoting and monitoring public safety for all residents of L.A. County. Most importantly, the new sheriff must not be connected in any way to the current LASD administration in order to move beyond the corruption, scandal, brutality and discrimination that pervades the present and past executive-level personnel.”
Aside from candidates, several public officials, including LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti, had kind words for the outgoing sheriff.
“Lee Baca has been a friend and mentor to me for the past twenty-five years. He was a friend of my family’s. He is somebody that I respect immensely. I know this was a very difficult decision for him,” Beck said.
In leadership roles, people must do things in the best interest of the organization, which is what Baca did, the LAPD chief said.
“He believed that all of the fury and fire surrounding him had caused his department to be impeded from doing its job, and that’s why he stepped aside,” Beck said. “He’s a great man. He’ll be known as a great sheriff — mark my words. But that is an extremely difficult job, and nobody should have to do it forever. Believe me.”
He said the vacancy presents an opportunity for the LAPD and for the sheriff’s department.
“There are some tremendous candidates that I believe will step forward,” said Beck, whose wife is a retired sheriff’s deputy. He said the department is a “great” organization. “It will get through this, and it will get through this stronger. I have great respect for Sheriff Baca, and I hope the people of the Los Angeles do too.”
Garcetti praised Baca, who he referred to as a friend, for making the “right decision.”
“This is a very important opportunity, I think, for the people of Los Angeles — all of us who are affected by the Los Angeles [County] Sheriff’s Department — to shape an incredibly vital department, one that is critical to fighting street crime and also critical to homeland security,” he said.
Beck said he hopes the new sheriff will also be a good partner in law enforcement.
“I hope to see many of the qualities that Lee Baca had. I hope to see somebody who loves their county, that loves the city of Los Angeles, that is willing to make sacrifices to make these organizations better,” he added.
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