"Whoever said that all police work was arresting people?" he said. "I've widened the job of what my people can do to solve human needs."
Perhaps the defining moment of Baca's stewardship came when the Sheriff's Department was swept up in a countywide budget crisis.
Until then, the sheriff had spent freely — in 2001, he had exceeded his $1.5-billion budget by $25 million, prompting rebukes from the Board of Supervisors.
In fiscal 2003 and 2004, he was forced to reduce spending by more than $80 million a year, a devastating prospect no matter how the cuts were implemented.
Calling it a "last resort," Baca chose to eliminate thousands of jail beds, releasing criminals who had served as little as 10% of their sentences, in order to avoid layoffs and preserve the number of deputies patrolling the streets.
"None of us thought it was the right thing to do," he said. But, he concluded, it was the best choice available.
Others in law enforcement said Baca should have made do with fewer patrol cars or taken on the deputies union and replaced some sworn officers with cheaper civilian labor for jail duty. They said he hung on to pet programs, such as a special unit to help inmates transition into life on the outside, at the expense of more fundamental areas.
"I'd give him an 'F' grade," Tom Higgins, head deputy of the district attorney's central complaint division, said of the way Baca led his agency through tough times. "The core function of the sheriff is to protect the public from today's crime and today's criminal. It just seems as if he was in over his head."
Avoidable or not, Baca's choices have had a deep impact on his department and may continue to affect it for years to come. By the end of a three-year hiring freeze, the department had dropped from a peak of just under 9,000 sworn officers to just over 8,000.
Working conditions suffered as officers throughout the department were forced to work extensive overtime.
In another blow to morale, the freeze meant that deputies — given the unpopular assignment of guard duty in the jails at the start of their careers — were stuck there an average of five to seven years instead of two to four.
A year ago, after the Board of Supervisors allocated additional funds, the department resumed hiring but could barely outpace attrition. At least 80 deputies left for other law enforcement agencies in 2004-05, many of them lured away by police departments in places where they could afford to buy homes.
"Ten years ago, the vast majority of deputy sheriffs would say, 'Come here. It's a great career. You have endless opportunities,' " said Steve Remige, president of the union that represents more than 7,000 deputy sheriffs and district attorney investigators. "I haven't seen that recently."
Last month, Remige's union endorsed retired Capt. Ken Masse, one of Baca's opponents in the coming election. Baca won the backing of less than 10% of the 1,300 members who voted.
Baca called the endorsement "an act of mischief" by the union's board, insisting that he had broad support among his agency's rank and file.
"I have my hand on the pulse of this organization," he said. "I know what deputies feel more than the union knows, more than any one of my captains or commanders know . I know when they're hurting. I know when they're happy . I have a tremendous amount of radar internally in the Sheriff's Department."
Baca said his biggest accomplishment as sheriff has been increasing public trust in his department, making it more open and more accountable for its officers' actions.
"He's in the avant-garde," Undersheriff Larry Waldie said. Even the executive director of the ACLU of Southern California praises Baca as a "humanitarian."