Baca choked up as he reflected on his career, but said stepping aside would spare the department from a bruising negative campaign.
"I know I'm 72 in May, and I don't see myself as the future," Baca said. "I see myself as part of the past."Baca's resignation will take effect at the end of the month. He asked that the Board of Supervisors appoint Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald to serve out the remaining year of his term.
Baca also encouraged two other assistant sheriffs, James Hellmold and Todd Rogers, to enter the race to succeed him. After Baca's press conference, Rogers announced that he would pull papers to run for sheriff today.
Baca's troubles began three years ago, when the ACLU and clergy groups began sounding the alarm about rampant abuse in the jails. In 2011, the ACLU issued a report citing testimony of numerous jail chaplains who recounted excessive violence meted out against inmates. The ACLU said Baca had turned a blind eye to the abuse, and called on him to resign.
The L.A. Times and other media outlets published a series of reports on jail violence, and the FBI also launched its own investigation. The county Board of Supervisors created a citizens' commission to investigate the claims. The commission's report, issued in 2012, was damning of Baca's leadership, stating that if he were a CEO, he would have been fired. The report also blamed much of the violence on a culture of poor accountability fostered in large measure by Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. The report recommended that Tanaka be removed from command of the jail system.
At first, Baca was defiant, saying that his critics were overstating their case and ignoring the innovative educational programs he had created in the jails. But by late 2012, he had begun to take the criticism more seriously.
Last spring, he forced Tanaka to retire. Tanaka turned around and launched his own campaign for sheriff, taking aim at Baca's mismanagement and saying that he would restore clear and consistent leadership to the department.
Bob Olmsted, a retired commander who had blown the whistle on jail violence, also announced that he was running.
Early last summer, Baca promoted Rogers to assistant sheriff, and put him in charge of reorganizing the department and implementing reforms. Many reforms have in fact been implemented, and violence in the jails has been on the decline.
But Baca could not escape the scandal.
Last month, the Department of Justice brought charges against 18 deputies, including allegations that they had abused inmates and obstructed the FBI's investigation.
That appears to have been the final blow. Parke Skelton, Baca's political consultant, said that Baca feared he would be forced into a runoff campaign with Tanaka.
"I think he knew it was going to be a tough race," Skelton said. "I don't think he wanted to put the department through that or himself through that."
Baca does not relish confrontation. He also might well have lost the race.
Baca was asked repeatedly during his press conference whether he was resigning under pressure from federal prosecutors. While he did not give a clear answer, a source close to him later said his decision was not connected to any sort of deal with prosecutors or pressure from them.
Before he publicly announced his resignation, Baca encouraged both Rogers and Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold to run. Rogers, a councilman in Lakewood, has been mulling a campaign for some time and was ready to announce right away. Rogers cast himself as a reformer within the department.
"There has been a catastrophic failure of leadership in the Sheriff's Department," Rogers said. "The sheriff's biggest mistake was trusting the wrong people, and they let him down, and some of them have stabbed him in the back."
Rogers said that Tanaka was "a big part of the problems" at the department.
Hellmold, who was once one of Baca's drivers, said he had not yet decided what he would do, though he stressed he is not a politician.
Also in the mix is Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell. McDonnell had announced last summer that he would not run against Baca, but has since been reconsidering. He was not expected to make any announcements today.
In a statement, Tanaka said he would "put politics aside for today and applaud (Baca) for his dedication to public service."
Olmsted issued his own statement declaring himself the frontrunner.
"It's a new day in Los Angeles County - and I think it's a sunnier one with Lee Baca gone - but we've still got a lot of work to do to make sure that we replace Lee Baca with a transformational leader who can reform the department, not somebody who will continue the same corrupt practices under a different name," Olmsted said.
The primary election is in June. The deadline for candidates to file is in March.By stepping aside in early January, Baca gives new candidates enough time to organize campaign teams and raise money.
Baca became emotional when reciting the department's core values, including opposition to racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry.
"I will go out on my terms," he said. "To the people of the county, I extend my deepest gratitude for you allowing me to serve you for the past 48 years. It has been a true dream come true."
LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara said he was also considering a run. Hara ran for the 9th council district last year, finishing fourth.
"This announcement by Sheriff Baca is a game-changer for a lot of people," Hara said. He said he would bring a perspective from outside the department.