The melancholy end of Lee Baca's 15 years as sheriff of Los Angeles County was of a piece with the man himself -- awkward in manner and unfocused in sentiment, but without much bluster. Baca has always been an anomaly as one of LA's top cops. His nearest analog in public life might be Jerry Brown -- part philosopher, part politician, and part dreamer.
What Baca was not was an agent of institutional change in a department that is unlike any other in California. Besides being the county sheriff, Baca is the "chief of police" of about half of the county's 88 cities, those that contract with his department for law enforcement services. His "span of control" extends from Hawaiian Gardens to Antelope Valley and includes the warrens of the largest jail system in world.
In hindsight, the voters might have asked in 1998 if Baca had the right mix of skills to be the right manager for this job, but the way in which the office of sheriff evolved in the 20th century -- and the way county government has been interpreted to voters -- disallowed meaningful review of either the office or the man.
The system that allowed a retiring sheriff to anoint his successor was always naked cronyism. An inbred culture of patronage and loyalty to patrons tamped down the ambitions of sheriff's chiefs and undersheriffs who might have been better prepared for the job. The cost of running for a countywide office made the incumbent sheriff all but immune from challenges outside the system. Decades of hands-off oversight by the County Board of Supervisors were hardly ever questioned. Voters routinely acquiesced to the badge without knowing exactly why the man behind it should be elected.
The media gave voters conflicting signals. In 1998, for example, the Los Angeles Times commented bitterly on the institutional failings of Sheriff Sherman Block and regarded Baca, then running his first campaign, as erratic. The paper made no endorsement in a race that Baca won when Block died days before the election. In 2002, the paper presented Sheriff Baca as a "humane" alternative to the pre-Bratton LAPD. In 2006, while praising his progressive aspirations, Baca's management of the department's budget was a bigger campaign issue than management of his deputies. By 2010, when Baca ran unopposed, he seemed immune from critics, including those at the Times.
The bitterness in this week's reactions to Baca's resignation is hard to swallow. What didn't we know in 1998 or 2002? What did we chose to forget by 2010? Outrage seems belated and even counterproductive. Whoever becomes the next elected sheriff of Los Angeles County shouldn't get a honeymoon as the "not Baca."
"I am the past," Baca told reporters in announcing his resignation, illustrative of the introspective qualities of the man, who really was a thoughtful progressive among police chiefs. The past of the sheriff's department was Baca's problem as much as his limits as a manager (and he eventually recognized both kinds of problems).
Learning from that past is the essential task for the Board of Supervisors today and for candidates and voters tomorrow. We need to stay focused.