Sheriff Lee Baca may be retiring at the end of the month, but he plans to continue wearing a badge.
"I'm looking forward to being a reserve deputy again," Baca said Thursday, his 71-year-old face taking on a boyish expression.
"I'll take all this stuff off," he added, pointing to the five stars on his uniform, "and go back out there."
A reserve deputy sheriff is a duly sworn and professionally trained law enforcement volunteer who can be assigned the same duties as full-time deputy sheriffs, with the same powers of arrest.
They have a badge, uniform and weapon, and receive the grand total of $1 a year in compensation from the Sheriff's Department.
Baca has repeatedly said that the title he was proudest to earn was deputy sheriff, not sheriff.
"When I was a young man, I prayed for it," he said. "A deputy sheriff is out there, every day, with the people, and that's really something."
Despite commanding the largest Sheriff's Department in the nation, Baca has always been willing to do the work of those in the lower ranks.
To avoid overtime costs during the Great Recession, he occasionally covered for absent deputy sheriffs, taking on such responsibilities as patrolling a train station and checking inmates for concealed weapons inside a courtroom.
Steve Whitmore, his spokesman, does not doubt the septuagenarian can withstand the rigors of fieldwork.
"He starts his day by running eight miles -- every day," Whitmore said.
Despite seeming eager to give himself what amounts to a demotion -- "to be a reserve deputy, that sounds gooood," Baca said with a relish -- he staunchly defended his 15-year tenure as sheriff.
Under his watch, the department grew from 13,000 employees in 1998 to 18,000 currently. He expanded the scope of its responsibilities to include patrolling community colleges and public transit facilities, as well as several cities.
Baca also added three police stations, and created a crime lab at the Cal State Los Angeles campus, the Deputy Sheriff Leadership Institute, and the Office of Independent Review.
He believes his greatest achievement, however, is bringing the crime rate down to 40-year lows and creating the Education-Based Incarceration Program.
"This is the only county in the nation that has shifted from punitive incarceration to education-based incarceration," Baca said. "At the end of this year, our goal is to have two-thirds of the jail population in an educational program."
"With my power as sheriff, I must care for these inmates," he added. "They're the discarded, and what I want is for them to come out better than what they were when they came in."
Even county Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of his most vocal detractors, acknowledged his accomplishments.
"There's a lot of positive things that the sheriff did," she said. "He brought a lot of confidence to the department and really believed in creating opportunities for (inmates) to find a path out of their life of crime."
Over the past several years, however, Baca has received more criticism than praise.
Several deputies in his jails were charged with beating inmates, while those in the Antelope Valley were accused of discriminating against blacks and Latinos. Last month, the FBI indicted 18 of his deputies, sergeants and lieutenants on corruption, obstruction of justice, and civil rights abuses.
"The sheriff's biggest mistake was that he trusted the wrong people, and they let him down, and some of them stabbed him in the back," Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers said.
"Some of the people that he brought up through the organization failed him and were unethical -- some would say corrupt -- and that has permeated several aspects of our organization's operations."
While acknowledging he could have done better, Baca said, "There are 18,000 people in the department and just one sheriff -- how can one person personally supervise 24-hour operations seven days a week?"
Baca said drastic budget cuts during the recession did not help.
"When you start cutting out hundreds of millions of dollars in resources, supervision will wane," he added. "We were more interested in saving money for the county, quite frankly, and to do that, you're going to weaken your infrastructure."
That was far from being the only problem, said American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California legal director Peter Eliasberg.
"There has to be a deep commitment to constitutional policing and running a proper corrections entity, but what I've seen from the Sheriff's Department is an unwillingness to even acknowledge the scope of the problem."
"Until you get somebody running that department who really is willing to acknowledge how serious this is, it's going to be hard to get it fixed," Eliasberg said.
"When my brother was beaten by deputy sheriffs in jail, nobody called us back," Coalition of End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails founder Patrisse Cullors-Brignac said.
"Years ago, when Baca was first being questioned on allegations of abuse, he denied it over and over again," she added. "It took him so long to listen."
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