During a recent interview, Baca sat at a conference table in his Monterey Park headquarters and reviewed his tenure. Over the course of a meandering eight-hour conversation, he said he was not concerned about the appearance of impropriety but with doing what was best for his department. He insisted that he has the agency on course and that no one understands its needs better than he.
New Age Sheriff
Leroy D. Baca is the least typical of lawmen.
Tall, with a sinewy runner's build, the county's top cop rarely wears a gun on his hip and calls the National Rifle Assn. a "political bully."
Once a community college dropout, he earned a doctorate in public administration from USC at age 51.
Baca's musings on law enforcement frequently leave listeners befuddled. Asked about whether it made sense for the department to take on additional contracts, he quoted Sir Robert Peel, founder of London's Metropolitan Police Force, who said, "The people are the police, and the police are the people."
When interviewed on video recently by the Church of Scientology for the annual L. Ron Hubbard birthday celebration, he spoke of the positive influence Hubbard's teachings have had. (Hubbard died 20 years ago.)
"It was the right thing to do," he said. "The people that are Scientologists are trying to do good."
Baca, 64, grew up in East Los Angeles, raised by his paternal grandparents after his parents' divorce. He shared a bedroom with his disabled uncle Willie, whom he often helped bathe and dress.
The early lesson in compassion made a deep impression. Open in his affections, Baca often kisses male friends on the cheek and tells them he loves them. During the final illness of former Undersheriff William Stonich's father, Baca sat at the elderly man's bedside for hours, holding his hand.
Baca joined the Sheriff's Department in 1965, after a stint in a Culver City oven factory. At the plant, he befriended Mel Block, whose brother, Sherman, was then a sheriff's sergeant. Sherman Block went on to become sheriff. Baca, who revered Block as a mentor, followed him up the ranks.
His 1998 bid to take Block's place, however, set off a bitter, divisive battle. County sheriffs typically had anointed their successors. Many assumed that Block — a four-time incumbent who was in failing health — would not run again. Once he decided to do so, he saw Baca's candidacy as a betrayal. Tension built until Baca resigned as division chief, saying in a 2002 deposition that Block had threatened to demote him and "cut my legs off."
Baca did well enough in the primary to force a runoff. The campaign took a strange turn when Block died of a cerebral hemorrhage days before the general election in November. Baca won comfortably, with 61% of the vote.
He inherited a sprawling, complex organization beset with problems. The department had earned a reputation for racism and sexism, as well as for being unresponsive to the public and county leaders. It had come under fire for financial mismanagement. Racial violence simmered in its jails.
Baca's early years brought a whirlwind of new initiatives.
To the surprise of those long frustrated by the department's secretive culture, he partnered with the county to create the Office of Independent Review, inviting half a dozen civil rights attorneys to monitor internal investigations of officer misconduct.
Intent on using county jail time to turn around inmates' lives, Baca created programs for drug addicts, domestic abusers and the mentally ill. He set up the Deputy Leadership Institute, a corporate-style training program, to tap employees' potential.
Baca also expanded his department's territory, taking on contracts to police the city of Compton and to provide security for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and nine campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District.