Reaction was decidedly mixed this week to Sheriff Lee Baca’s retirement announcement, with some officials hailing his decades of public service but many activists saying his departure was necessary to improve the operation of the department and the jail system.
Baca said Tuesday he would not seek a fifth term in June but would instead retire by the end of this month.
“I’ve been proud and honored to serve the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the people of this greatest of counties, Los Angeles County, for the past 48 years,” Baca said, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion.
“I can’t even imagine anyone working 48 years at anything, but I’ve done that, which has made this decision in my life probably the most difficult.”
Baca, 71, said he wanted to “go out on my terms.”
“The reasons for doing so are so many,” he said. “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.”
He denied that his decision to step down was prompted by the possibility of federal charges against him. Eighteen current and former deputies were recently indicted on a variety of charges, including mistreating jail inmates.
“My decision is based on the highest of concern for the future of the Sheriff’s Department,” Baca said.
Baca’s abrupt announcement caught many by surprise.
County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he spoke with Baca Monday and the sheriff gave him “no indication” he was thinking of stepping down from his post. The supervisor said his feelings about Baca’s decision were mixed.
“He’s seen as one of the most enlightened law enforcement officials in the nation and I think in many ways he is,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Somewhat unpredictable, typically progressive, he tried his best to be responsive, so it’s mixed. You can’t deny the problems that are stalking the department.”
Ridley-Thomas has pushed for a permanent citizens’ commission to oversee the Sheriff’s Department. Discussion of that matter by the board was postponed today, but Ridley-Thomas said he and Supervisor Gloria Molina would continue to seek the third vote on the board needed to create such a body.
“The call for an oversight commission was without regard for who would be the sheriff,” Ridley-Thomas said. “This sheriff embraced the idea of a citizens’ commission.”
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union was less conflicted.
“Well, the ACLU called for his resignation two years ago, so, yes, we are pleased with this,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. “We believe that the major reform that is necessary for the Sheriff’s Department can’t happen with him at the helm
“But it’s not the only issue. It’s not only about who is the sheriff, but if the department really changes its direction and introduces a dramatic number of reforms.”
Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of Baca’s most vocal critics, said she was surprised by the decision.
“It was very shocking and very surprising and really caught me off guard,” Molina said.
She had no idea what ultimately prompted Baca’s decision, she said, but felt it offered a chance for a “new day” for the Sheriff’s Department.
“Very frankly, I think this job has gotten to a point where it became so overwhelming for him and his style of leadership, it gives us an opportunity,” she said.
The Board of Supervisors will need to appoint a successor to Baca, and staffers are researching the requirements for the post, which include residency. Baca suggested that Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald “hold down the fort,” but mentioned two others, Assistant Sheriffs Todd Rogers and James Hellmold as possible candidates in the June election.
Ridley-Thomas said the list of potential appointees would include all the assistant sheriffs, adding Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo’s name to the speculation. But the supervisor said he wasn’t ready to comment on the campaign.
Molina said she was looking for both a strong leader and a talented manager, someone who would follow all the policies set out by the Board of Supervisors. She said Baca had, over the years, relied too heavily on his second tier of managers.
“He’s a smart, talented, capable man,” Molina said of Baca. “I just think that he trusted people a little more than he should.”
Eliasberg said he would favor someone from outside the department.
“It’s been a very insular organization for a long time,” Eliasberg. “I think the Board of Supervisors should consider what the benefits would be of bringing somebody in from the outside.”
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck called Baca “a tremendous leader” who has “done an immense amount of good for the county.”
“All of us in leadership positions have to decide when is the right time for us to go and I talked to him last night and he feels this is the right time,” Beck said. “He feels this is in the best interest of his family and of the organization. I told him what I tell you — he should be proud of the work he’s done as sheriff of L.A. County.”
City Councilman Bernard Parks hailed Baca as “a remarkable public servant for almost 50 years.”
“There are very few that get the opportunity to start at the entry level of an organization and eventually reach the top leadership position,” Parks said. “Sheriff Baca should be commended for his many achievements and personal sacrifice. I wish him well in retirement and he will soon find out there is life after LASD.”
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is campaigning for the sheriff’s job and left the department after being named in a county commission report blasting management of the jail system, said that while he and Baca had their “differences,” he respected the sheriff’s work.
“He’s voiced his opinions publicly as have I,” Tanaka said. “I’ll talk about that during my campaign, but I want to put politics aside for today and applaud him for his dedication to public service. This is a tough job and I want to thank Sheriff Baca for his decades of public service to Los Angeles County.”
Former sheriff’s Cmdr. Bob Olmsted, who has been vocal in his criticism of Baca and is also running for sheriff, said Baca “can run from the job, but he can’t hide from the culture of corruption.”
“It’s like cleaning up after a hurricane,” he said. “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.”
Patrisse Cullors, executive director of the Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in L.A. Jails, hailed Baca’s decision to step down, but said the county needs to continue working to ensure changes are made in the Sheriff’s Department to improve conditions in the jails.
“The Board of Supervisors’ moral burden is massive and their decisions will go down in history,” Cullors said. “Whether Sheriff Baca acknowledges it or not, there is no greater failure than stepping because of the shameful conditions of the department.”
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said Baca has left the department “mired in controversy and shame” and “has been no friend to the immigrant community.”
“Whatever his reasons for leaving, Sheriff Baca will not be missed by our community,” she said. “We expect (Baca’s successor) will have a lot of cleaning up to do should it expect to regain some of the community trust it lost as a result of missteps, overreaches and violations gone unchecked under Baca’s administration.”