Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will leave a mixed legacy when he abruptly retires at the end of the month without completing his fourth term of office.
Even though Baca was recently honored as the nation's Sheriff of the Year, his department has also faced a slew of federal corruption charges, allegations of mismanagement and claims of giving certain individuals special treatment over the years.
"Lee Baca has not been a shrinking violet throughout his career," said Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at Cal State Northridge. "He's been very front and center, not someone to back down from controversy, someone who in some cases sought out controversy, and I think it suggests to me that the 18 indictments which were laid down by the U.S. attorney, Andre Birotte (Jr.), may just be the beginning."
The latest scandal to rock the department culminated last month with federal indictments of 18 deputies, sergeants and lieutenants who were charged with civil rights violations and other crimes, including beating inmates and their visitors, putting handcuffs on an Austrian consular official without justification and hiding an FBI informant.
In most cases involving persistent problems in the jails, Hogen-Esch argued that Baca has either denied them or minimized their significance, blaming it on just "a few bad apples."
"He's done that throughout his career either through himself or his spokespeople," Hogen-Esch said. "I don't think he's taken a lot of the issues as seriously as he's needed to -- or to rebuild public confidence."
That sentiment was echoed by Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who said Baca's general response to past criticism has been either ignore it or deny it.
"There has been a long pattern of refusal from the sheriff and the department to own up to the scope of its responsibilities," Eliasberg said.
ACLU officials had called for Baca to step down since 2011 with the release of its report on jail conditions called "Cruel and Usual Punishment." The organization filed a class-action lawsuit in early 2012 against Baca, accusing him of condoning a pattern of deputies using excessive force on inmates.
Later that year, the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence criticized his "failure of leadership," saying he "did not pay attention to the jails."
But civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who has sued the Sheriff's Department in the past and worked with Baca to help implement reforms, says Baca has been "forthright" in facing the problems in the jails and made a wise choice in hiring Terri McDonald, a veteran of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as the new assistant sheriff for custody.
"I think it has taken him too long to come to grips with a number of problems but when he does, he comes up with the right solutions," Rice said. "McDonald is fabulous. We (just) needed her four years ago."
Steve Whitmore, a longtime spokesman for Baca and the Sheriff's Department, argued the sheriff has a "head-on, direct" approach to problems, including the creation of a use-of-force response team, which he said has contributed to use of force in jails being "the lowest (it's) ever been."
"If he believes there is a problem, he immediately puts something into place to fix it," said Whitmore, who has worked with Baca for 14 years.
During Baca's 15-year tenure, the department was also accused of harassing minorities in Lancaster and Palmdale. A federal jury held Baca personally liable for $100,000 after deputies broke several bones of an inmate during one jail beating. He was also blamed in a 2007 audit for the mismanagement of a project to relocate the headquarters of a special forces bureau, including authorizing $1 million in payments for work that was done before he obtained the authority to do so.
Baca and his department also came under criticism when reports surfaced that Mel Gibson went on an anti-Semitic tirade during a weekend arrest on suspicion of drunk driving in 2006, and that Baca ordered details of the outburst eliminated from a deputy's report.
But the sheriff, who was named the 2013 Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriffs' Association, has also received national praise for his department's role in keeping the county's crime rate among the lowest among major metropolitan areas, for reaching out to community religious groups and for his initiatives on providing education programs to jail inmates. He also developed the Office of Independent Review, made up of six civil rights attorneys who provide independent oversight on all internal affairs and internal criminal investigations involving alleged misconduct by department personnel.
"Other than the crime rate being at historical lows, Sheriff Baca gave voice to those who he believed didn't have a voice, whether it be a homeless vet, a mentally ill inmate ... whether it be a gang member, whether it be the president of the United States," Whitmore said. "He cares deeply about people."
Staff Writers Rick Orlov and Christina Villacorte contributed to this report. ___