LA County Sheriff Retires Amid Controversy

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced his retirement today, following a series of scandals that rocked his department. The latest involved federal indictments against 18 current and former deputies. He also faced the first serious challenge to his re-election in years. He will leave office at the end of January.

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca made a surprise announcement today. He is resigning at the end of the month. A series of department scandals in the past few years and the prospect of a bruising re-election race may have been factors, as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Ramrod straight, impeccably creased with the five stars of his rank glittering on his collar, Sheriff Lee Baca squinted into the sunlight and told reporters his decision to leave office after 15 years was exactly that, his decision.

SHERIFF LEE BACA: At the same time that I was elected to four terms, I will go out on my terms. I'm not going to seek reelection for a fifth term as sheriff and I will retire at the end of this month.

BATES: A visibly emotional Baca cited pride in his department and in the organization's determination to treat all citizens with dignity and respect. And while some of the deputies behind Baca grew teary as he spoke, Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California, says it's about time. The ACLU has been criticizing Baca's administration of the county jails for years.

PETER ELIASBERG: Two years ago, when we released our 2011 jail report, we called for his resignation because we believed that the problems that were embodied in that report and other things that we'd said about what was happening in the jails showed that he was unwilling or unable to address the major problems that faced the department.

BATES: The scathing report said Baca's deputies routinely abused and terrorized the inmates in several of the county's jails, including the ancient overcrowded downtown jail. More recently, 18 deputies were indicted by federal authorities and after that, another scandal. The L.A. Times broke news that 80 deputies had been hired with virtually no screening. Some of that number were incompetent, others had convictions no one had asked about.

Former federal prosecutor and Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson says the continued revelations may have factored into Baca's decision to retire.

LAURIE LEVENSON: There has been an ongoing investigation by the federal authorities. Nobody has yet said that Lee Baca would be charged but this has had to be hanging over his head for a long time.

BATES: It's a sad end for a man who entered the sheriff's department 48 years ago because he felt the work was, in his words, a calling.

CONNIE RICE: Baca was a ray of sunlight because he was so upbeat, so humanitarian. He was really kind of like a social worker with a gun.

BATES: Civil rights attorney Connie Rice spent a fair amount of time suing Baca's sheriff's for civil rights violations but she says his personal integrity sometimes put him at odds with his colleagues. She says 20 years ago, Baca went up against a clique of rogue deputies who had abused residents of the L.A. suburb of Gardena.

RICE: You had a vigilante group of sheriffs and Sheriff Baca stood up against them at a time when nobody else in the department would help plaintiffs like my clients. He was by himself, it was a scary thing to do.

BATES: Loyola professor Laurie Levenson agrees Baca's heart was often in the right place but getting the almost 20,000 employees of his sprawling fiefdom to follow suit was an unmanageable task.

LEVENSON: I do believe that he did want fair treatment of the diverse communities, he wanted proper treatment in the jails. But I also don't think that he had the type of oversight or organization that could make that happen.

BACA: I turn 72 years old in May and I don't see myself as the future. I see myself as part of the past.

BATES: So, now, Lee Baca is stepping down. The primary election for his replacement will occur in March. And because there's no one with his name recognition, a critical factor in countywide elections, there will probably be run-offs in June. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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