By City News Service
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced today that he will retire as head of the beleaguered Sheriff's Department at the end of January.
"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, was first elected in 1998 and was facing a tough re-election campaign this year for his fifth term, including a challenge from one of his former deputies.
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.
He said he was recommending that the Board of Supervisors appoint Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald to oversee the department once he steps aside.
Baca hailed members of the Sheriff's Department for helping bring crime to record lows.
"They have conducted themselves with the utmost integrity and professionalism resulting in yet another year of historic crime reductions in nearly half a century. In my opinion, your Sheriff's Department is the greatest law enforcement agency in the world. I want to thank the men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for their hard work, dedication and their daily sacrifices to serve the great people of this county. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say we love the people of this county, and we do it every day without exception. And to the people of the county, I extend my deepest gratitude for you allowing me to serve you for the past 48 years."
He later added: "I may have run 70,000 miles in my lifetime, but i know I'm 72 years old in May and I don't see myself as the future, I see myself as part of the past."
Baca had announced Monday that he would support a citizens' commission to oversee department operations. He described the citizens' commission as "consistent with my view on strengthening transparency and accountability."
In December, the Los Angeles Times reported that the department hired dozens of officers in 2010 despite evidence of significant misconduct found during their background checks.
Federal prosecutors filed charges against current and former deputies in December, accusing them of beating jail inmates and visitors and trying to intimidate an FBI agent.
The charges related to a long-standing corruption investigation of the jail system, which is administered by the sheriff's department. The department is also facing civil lawsuits relating to the actions of some of the deputies charged with misconduct.
Additionally, the U.S. Justice Department last year accused sheriff's deputies of engaging in widespread unlawful searches of homes, improper detentions and unreasonable force as Antelope Valley authorities conducted an effort to discriminate against African Americans who received low-income subsidized housing.
At the local level, the sheriff's department was under criticism by a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the Board of Supervisors to examine allegations of jail abuses and was facing the prospect of official oversight, with the board last month approving the appointment of the county's first Inspector-General.
Max Huntsman, a former deputy supervisor of the public integrity division of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office started his new position with the county Jan. 2.
Huntsman had previously prosecuted public corruption cases in Los Angeles, as well as investigating law enforcement officers and police use-or- forces cases.
Baca had given no previous indication of his intention to stand down in the face of negative publicity.
Baca was facing at least four declared challengers in a two-stage re- election this year, with a primary election on June 3, and a potential general election on Nov. 4.