Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca announces retirement

The notice comes months after a federal judge found him liable in inmate abuse case

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announces his unexpected retirement on Jan. 7, 2014.
David McNew/Getty Images

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced Tuesday that he will retire at the end of the month, after 15 years in office.

The decision comes after a federal court in October found Baca personally liable for failing to prevent guards from beating inmates with heavy flashlights – one of a number of charges filed against the head of the largest jail system in the nation. The department has since challenged the judge's decision. 

Baca's decision was prompted by his opponents in the upcoming local elections, who painted a “negative image” of Baca, L.A. Sheriff Department spokesman Steve Whitmore told Al Jazeera. Baca had been slated to seek a fifth term in office.

Whitmore added that Baca, 71, hopes to step aside so Angelenos can choose from a number of other candidates.

“There are some people in the department who indicated they would not run if he’s running," said Whitmore. "He decided it was time for him to step aside for the benefit of the sheriff’s department and the people of Los Angeles County.”

Whitmore is confident Angelenos will remember Baca's tenure fondly.

“His legacy will be that everybody matters and everybody has a voice at the table,” Whitmore said. “Crime is at historic lows … (Baca) attacks controversy and problems head on – that will be his legacy. If there is a problem, he fixes it.”

But not everyone is as wistful for Baca's sheriff's department.

Criminal defense attorney Mark Pachowicz spoke to Al Jazeera in October, after representing an inmate who had filed a federal civil rights case against Baca for failing to prevent jail authorities from beating him before his trial in 2009. The judge had found Baca liable, and the sheriff was expected to pay $100,000 in damages.

The sheriff’s department has since filed motions for a retrial, Pachowicz said, adding that his client, Tyler Willis, will file a response imminently.

“I think the legacy that (Baca) leaves behind is one of an awful lot of money needlessly spent on defending the outrageous conduct that the sheriff’s department has engaged in over the years,” Pachowicz said.

“It’s a legacy of spending an awful lot of money paying people abused in jails over the years. It’s a legacy of a man who tried to make the Constitution of the United States cease to exist in the Los Angeles County jail system.”

Advocates against police violence agreed that Baca will leave behind a less-than-stellar legacy.  

“We should celebrate his resignation, mourn victims of his violence and keep an eye on him,” said Isaac Ontiveroz, spokesman for Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization fighting law enforcement violence.

 “He’s leaving somewhat suddenly in a somewhat clouded manner in the wake of indictments and arrests of people all along the hierarchy of the sheriff’s department, based on allegations of corruption, torture and violence,” Ontiveroz said.

In late October, Los Angeles oversight body Office of Independent Review ruled that an internal investigation by the sheriff’s department into two-year-old allegations of inmate abuse had been “inadequate” and “slanted.”

Mary Sutton, a member of the L.A. chapter of No More Jails Coalition, a group that has opposed violence against inmates and Baca’s advocacy for expanded jail facilities, said Baca’s prospective successors aren’t very promising either.

In March, The Los Angeles Times reported that Baca “pressured Undersheriff Paul Tanaka” to step down amid a probe into sweeping allegations of abuse.

“Tanaka is going to run,” said Sutton. “Whether it’s Baca or anyone else, there needs to be reform. There needs to be oversight by citizens.”

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