After stepping down as Los Angeles County sheriff in January, Lee Baca largely has avoided the spotlight. Former aides don't know how to reach him. Reporters looking to interview him have been rebuffed. His last tweet was a link to his farewell address.
But this week, Baca took center stage once again — this time as a guest speaker at a Loyola Marymount lecture hall where he offered a contemplative, and at times, self-critical view of his 15-year tenure.
Speaking to a group of undergraduates Tuesday night, Baca said his biggest regret as sheriff was spending too much of his time at public events instead of managing his department.
"What I'd do differently is … manage more," said Baca, looking relaxed during the two-hour question-and-answer session.
The former sheriff said he's also coming to terms with criticism over his leadership of the department, which has been mired in various scandals including an FBI investigation into inmate abuse.
"You won't hear anyone giving me credit for much of anything, which is OK," he said. "Did I give it my heart and soul? I didn't leave much space for anything else but the Sheriff's Department."
Baca said when he looks back, he realizes he spread himself too thin and should have focused more on the inner workings of the department. Baca was known for his community outreach as well as his frequent trips abroad for various cultural and law enforcement events.
"It's amazing how hindsight is always clearer than foresight. I think what I can be clearly faulted for is I tried to do all things for all people. That's asking for the impossible," he said. "It doesn't mean that the public doesn't come first. It just means that your time comes first."
One student asked Baca if he would have stayed on "if the scandals were not front page news."
Baca, 71, blamed his age instead, saying that being sheriff "is definitely a younger man's type of work."
"People who were political professionals" told him he would have been the front-runner, but that the campaign was going to be tough. "I decided to say this is one for the future. I'm not the future," he said.
Stepping down, Baca continued, was the hardest decision of his life.
"As I moved toward the idea, I talked to myself extensively in terms of what is this going to mean," he said.
Baca said he's now advising several of the candidates in the race but did not disclose which ones.
He said the tenor of the campaign has disappointed him.
"I have never believed in running for a law enforcement job and putting down the rest of the candidates and making them appear to be something unqualified," Baca said. "People are disparaging other people to a degree that to me is inappropriate."
Baca didn't mention whom, if anyone, he favored in the race. But when he announced he was stepping down, he tapped two of his top assistants, James Hellmold and Todd Rogers, as qualified successors.
Amid the talk of his shortcomings, Baca pointed out his successes and boosted the role he played as a transformational law enforcement figure who helped bring minority communities into the fold.
"With all the controversies that have happened in the jails recently … the most amazing thing about this is: Where do you see the public picketing the Sheriff's Department?" Baca said, referring to the lack of public outcry about conditions in the jails. "You know why? The communities know we care about them."
In the years before he retired, Baca was hit with a slew of problems. Federal prosecutors charged 19 of his current and former deputies as part of an investigation into jailhouse abuse. In the Antelope Valley, Baca's deputies were involved in searches and detentions that federal authorities said violated the constitutional rights of black and Latino residents. Internal records surfaced showing Baca's agency hired dozens of applicants even after background investigators discovered histories of serious misconduct. And Baca was accused of cronyism, including launching criminal investigations on behalf of donors.
Still, the former sheriff said the appreciation of him has continued: "What's amazing when I retired … there have been 12 community farewell tributes to me … it's not that it's happening because I'm calling for it."
Other than that, Baca shared little about his post-retirement life. He said he still runs 30 miles a week. And he checks up on the news, "depending on the newspaper, at least once a week."