Sheriff Lee Baca
Photo credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca had something on his mind Friday and needed some advice. He summoned a top aide to his office and let him in on a secret: Baca was thinking about stepping down.
The sheriff's leadership was under attack after a string of scandals. He faced the prospect of a nasty reelection bid. But most of all, Baca said, he wondered whether his departure would help the rank-and-file move beyond the controversies of the last few years.
The aide, who got his start as Baca's driver and owed the sheriff for his rise, did not try to dissuade his boss from retiring. Rather, he told him it was time to move on.
"I told the sheriff I was getting feedback from deputies on the front line that there's a lot of negativity, and they felt like it was impacting their ability to do their work," Assistant Sheriff Jim Hellmold said. "It was a good decision for him to step down."
Baca continued to mull over what to do over the weekend.
By Monday, he had made up his mind. The sheriff pulled his top assistants out of their offices one by one and told them.
He was done.
He called his campaign consultant and relayed the same message. That evening, Baca broke the news to the county Board Supervisors.
Baca made it official Tuesday morning in an emotional, and at times nostalgic, news conference in which he talked of his 48 years in the Sheriff's Department.
"I don't see myself as part of the future," said Baca, 71. "I see myself as part of the past."
His retirement comes after a grueling few years in which his department faced multiple federal investigations involving allegations of abusive deputies and racially biased policing. Baca was accused of negligent management and allowing a culture of favoritism and lax discipline.
The scrutiny of his leadership became more intense last month when 18 of his deputies were charged by federal authorities as part of a jail abuse investigation. (Baca has said he has been assured he is not a target of the federal probe.)
Meanwhile, into the agency's hiring practices found that dozens of officers were given jobs even after background investigators found they had histories of serious misconduct. The newspaper also reported that some job applicants received special treatment because they were friends and relatives of department employees.
The sheriff took some blame for the problems but also publicly faulted his underlings, which in turn cost him some support internally. Several top aides who stood behind him during his farewell address Tuesday had privately been acknowledging they had lost confidence in their boss.
"Long time coming," one said before Baca's news conference.
In recent months, some sheriff's officials described a malaise hanging over the department's headquarters amid the onslaught of scandal and investigations.
But this fatigue did not make Baca's announcement any less startling to those who know him. Being sheriff was Baca's life, people around him have said, his free time filled with ribbon-cuttings, neighborhood meetings and other community events. Baca would readily give his phone number to members of the public and take their calls at all hours.
The thinking was that Baca enjoyed being sheriff too much to ever leave office on his own accord.
"He cares deeply about being sheriff," said one member of Baca's command staff. "When you know him personally, you know it's very important to him. It showed how serious he was to say, 'You know what, I'm putting the department first.'"
Baca's political consultant, Parke Skelton, said he was taken aback when Baca broke the news to him at his Pasadena office Monday. Baca, he said, had previously been committed to fighting for reelection.
"It was clear that he had thought long and hard about it," Skelton said. "I didn't feel that it was up to me to persuade him otherwise."
Skelton said the sheriff told him he didn't believe that a highly contentious reelection campaign was in the best interest of the department or himself. He also didn't appear to have the stomach for a vicious reelection battle.
In 1998, Baca had seemed uncomfortable with the idea of attacking the then-incumbent, Sheriff Sherman Block. After forcing a runoff, Baca at one point appeared to consider dropping out before rallying and winning the election after his rival died just days before the election.
"He's never been enthusiastic about politics as a blood sport," Skelton said.
With three former subordinates already in the race, and more possibly in the fold, Baca could have faced a brutal reelection battle.
Instead, he chose to leave office by the end of the month.
At his news conference, Baca focused on his accomplishments, such as reducing crime, promoting ethnic and religious tolerance and providing prisoners with educations.
But he also said he regretted anything he did to tarnish the department's reputation.
"It's the public's department," he said, "not mine."
Copyright 2014 - Los Angeles Times
McClatchy-Tribune News Service