By Shirley Hawkins
Many colleagues were shocked and saddened when Sheriff Lee Baca announced Tuesday in a press conference that he would be retiring at the end of this month after 16 years as Los Angeles County Sheriff.
Baca’s announcement comes a month after federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against 18 former sheriff’s deputies who were accused of beating jail inmates and visitors. They were also accused of trying to obstruct the FBI and other crimes after an investigation centered on corruption.
Facing a bank of television cameras and flanked by nearly a dozen sheriff’s personnel, an emotional Baca insisted his decision to step down was “based on the highest concern for the future of the Sheriff’s Department.
The upcoming June reelection campaign seemed to weigh heavily on his mind, as he cited that it had already brought a “negative perception” to the department.
“I didn’t want to have to enter a campaign that would be full of negative, contentious politicking,” said Baca, 71, whose career spans 48 years in the sheriff’s department.
“I don’t see myself as the future,” Baca said. “I see myself as part of the past.”
Baca’s retirement comes on the heels of a study submitted to the Board of Supervisors this week, marking the first time that Baca has acknowledged that some of the new sheriff department’s hires committed wrongdoing in his department.
The report also comes a month after The Los Angeles Times reported that the Sheriff’s Department hired dozens of officers in a controversial mass hiring in 2010.
The employees were among about 280 officers hired from a small county police force called the Office of Public Safety that patrolled county facilities and parks. The OPS was disbanded as a cost-savings measure, with the Sheriff’s Department taking over its responsibilities.
Sheriff’s investigations found many had problems in their backgrounds, but department brass hired them anyway.
Fifteen officers who were hired went on to be disciplined for violating department rules, even after background investigators concluded that they had committed serious misconduct, including excessive force, falsifying records, firing their weapons, committing theft and soliciting prostitutes while on duty.
The investigation also discovered evidence of officer dishonesty, such as making untrue statements. At least 15 were caught cheating on the department’s own polygraph exams, hiring records show. Twenty-nine of those officers given jobs previously had been fired or pressured to resign from other law enforcement agencies over concerns about misconduct or workplace performance problems.
After The Times’ report became public, the Sheriff’s Department has admitted that 84 of the OPS officers should not have been hired. Of the 84, the new report said, three have since violated department rules.
The study found that 28 of the OPS officers hired as deputies have been the subject of administrative investigations, with five of them being investigated more than once.
The misconduct findings resulted in suspensions and reprimands. Of the 15 cases, 13 involved sworn deputies and the other two involved non-sworn officials.
The new sheriff’s report indicates the problems are more extensive than initially believed. The study found that 28 of the 199 OPS officers hired as deputies have been the subject of administrative investigations, with five of them being investigated more than once.
After the Times report, Baca acknowledged in a letter to the board that the hiring standards were violated. He said that he had delegated the authority for making the hiring decisions to his undersheriff at the time, Larry Waldie, who has since retired.
Waldie has told The Times that he was under pressure from county officials to hire as many former county police officers as possible.
Nearly a dozen additional misconduct investigations involving employees hired in 2010 are still pending.
“We respect Sheriff Baca’s decision to retire and spare the fine men and women of his department further ridicule,” said Brian Moriguchi, president of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association. “Sheriff Baca was a true visionary and should be judged by his 16 years as sheriff and not solely on the recent problems. He was one of the most creative and compassionate sheriffs in the country and has served the people of Los Angeles County well.”
Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers said he plans on “making some swift changes” and the department is now evaluating what to do with the problem hires.