By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The embattled Los Angeles County sheriff, whose department has been plagued by allegations of civil rights violations and corruption, said on Tuesday he will retire at the end of the month rather than seek re-election.
Sheriff Lee Baca's announcement came about a month after federal prosecutors accused 18 current or former sheriff's deputies of beating or wrongly detaining inmates, as well as visitors, at two downtown Los Angeles lockups and trying to cover up the abuse.
"I'm not going to seek re-election for a fifth term as sheriff and I will retire at the end of this month," the 71-year-old Baca told a news conference. He expressed gratitude to the people who elected him and said he wanted to go out on his own terms.
Among the factors he said contributed to his decision was concern about the "negative perception" the campaign for sheriff was bringing the department. He described the department as the "greatest law enforcement agency in the world," to applause from officers.
Baca joined the Sheriff's Department as a deputy in 1965 and was elected in 1998 to lead the 10,000-member department that oversees the largest county jail system in the United States and its roughly 18,000 inmates. He won a fourth term in 2010, but has faced mounting criticism as a June vote approached.
The recent arrests stemming from the probe of inmate abuse came more than a year after a commission blamed Baca for failing to halt what it determined was a persistent pattern of excessive force against inmates by his deputies, dating back years.
Baca embraced a series of reforms recommended by the panel but declined to resign from his post, as some critics had urged.
A separate report released by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011 cited the department for a number of abuses, including a finding that some deputies had formed gangs that encouraged assaults against inmates.
In another case, the U.S. Justice Department said last year that a probe had found sheriff's deputies in towns north of Los Angeles illegally engaged in a pattern of "intimidation and harassment" of African-Americans in the area who received benefits from the federally funded Section 8 affordable housing program.
Baca, whose voice at times shook with emotion during the news conference, said he began thinking about retirement only three days ago. He did not say whether his retirement was directly tied to the federal probe of his jail system.
In announcing his move, Baca called out two assistant sheriffs, James Hellmold and Todd Rogers, as "highly qualified to run" for sheriff but stopped short of formally endorsing either of them for the post.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr, who in December announced the charges against the 18 current and former sheriff's officials, declined to comment on Baca's retirement.
Peter Eliasberg, a spokesman for the ACLU of Southern California, told City News Service the organization welcomed Baca's pending departure and had called for him to step down.
"We believe that the major reform that is necessary for the Sheriff's Department can't happen with him at the helm," Eliasberg said.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will need to appoint an interim sheriff to fill in for Baca from the time of his retirement until the newly elected sheriff takes over.
(Additional reporting by Dana Feldman in Los Angeles, writing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Dan Grebler)