LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nearly a month ago, embattled Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca stood at a podium outside the department's headquarters and declared he wasn't retiring despite 18 of his current and former employees being indicted for various alleged crimes.
On Tuesday, the 71-year-old reversed course and said he planned to step down at the end of the month, ending a 48-year career with the department that has been mired in recent years with allegations that inmates have been abused in his jails, poor hiring practices and discrimination against minorities in one of the communities his deputies patrol.
Greeted by applause from his employees, Baca said he was leaving "on my terms" and wouldn't seek re-election for a fifth term to lead the nation's largest sheriff's department.
"The reasons for doing so are so many, some are most personal and private," Baca said in an emotional statement. "But the prevailing one is the negative perception this upcoming campaign has brought to the exemplary service provided by the men and women of the Sheriff's Department."
Baca is the first Hispanic-American to hold the department's top post in several decades and he said his greatest accomplishment was helping reduce crime. But after thinking about his job this past weekend he decided it was time to step aside and give someone else a chance.
"I don't see myself as the future, I see myself as part of the past," he said.
Baca oversaw a staff of 18,000 and a budget of $2.5 billion. During his time as sheriff he weathered controversies but last month's indictments that included allegations of beating inmates and jail visitors and trying to obstruct an FBI probe came as the strongest challenge to his legacy.
Federal prosecutors said the charges showed that some sheriff's employees thought they were above the law and exhibited behavior that had become institutionalized.
Baca sidestepped questions Tuesday about whether he was worried that he might be indicted as part of the federal probe but acknowledged more of his employees might face charges.
"I'm not afraid of reality. I'm only afraid of people who don't tell the truth," he said.
Because Baca is not serving out his term the five-member Board of Supervisors will be tasked with choosing an interim sheriff. Baca has recommended one of his assistant sheriffs.
Baca has acknowledged mistakes while strongly defending his department and distancing himself personally from allegations of misconduct.
The sheriff said he made improvements, including creating a database to track inmate complaints. He has also hired a new head of custody and rearranged his command staff.
"I think he was insulated by some of his upper management," said Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers who said he plans to run for the office. "The sheriff relied on the wrong people."
The swirl of negative publicity only grew in the past couple of years as alleged abuse of inmates by his deputies dogged Baca.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the department in 2012 saying Baca and his top commanders had condoned violence against inmates. The organization released a report documenting more than 70 cases of misconduct by deputies.
A federal jury in October found Baca personally liable for $100,000 for failing to stop inmate abuse by deputies in Men's Central Jail in a case brought by a man who said he was severely beaten while awaiting trial.
Last year a Justice Department investigation found deputies made unconstitutional stops, searches and seizures, and used excessive force against blacks and Latinos in the Antelope Valley on the outskirts of the county. Baca disputed the findings but said he had instituted reforms.
Baca also was criticized in 2007 when he ordered Paris Hilton released from jail under house arrest after serving only a few days of a multi-week sentence for driving-related offenses. The sheriff said the socialite developed psychological problems, but a judge put her back behind bars for another 2 1/2 weeks. The case also drew attention to the overcrowded jail system.
A year earlier, Baca had to defend his department's handling of Mel Gibson's drunken driving arrest in Malibu, rejecting claims that deputies tried to cover up anti-Semitic comments made by the actor who had helped a charity organization for the sheriff's department.
The department also faced recent scrutiny over hiring and announced it was reforming hiring practices last month after it was disclosed that 80 deputies had criminal convictions, histories of misconduct or other problem backgrounds.
First elected in 1998 when his incumbent opponent Sherman Block died days before the vote, Baca was re-elected to a fourth term in 2010 and remained a popular figure for much of his time in office.
Less than a year ago he was picked as the nation's sheriff of the year by the National Sheriff's Association, which cited his providing educational opportunities for inmates and efforts to work with religious groups.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed to this story.