Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's surprise retirement announcement Tuesday upended the election campaign to lead the nation's largest sheriff's department and added new complexities to reform efforts after a series of scandals and an ongoing federal criminal probe. With Baca out of the race, the field of candidates is expected to widen in what will be the first sheriff's election without an incumbent in more than 50 years.
Immediately after Baca's announcement, one of his assistant sheriffs, Todd Rogers, declared his candidacy.
"My calling card will be 'Back to basics,'" said Rogers, a councilman in Lakewood, who added that Baca had been poorly served by previous top managers. "There has been catastrophic failure of leadership in the Sheriff's Department."
Another assistant sheriff, James Hellmold, said he was also considering a run but has not made a decision.
"I am a crime fighter," he said. "I am not a politician."
Baca described both men as highly qualified to succeed him but stopped short of offering a formal endorsement.
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and former Cmdr. Bob Olmsted had been considered the main challengers in the race. Retired Sheriff's Lt. Patrick Gomez and Los Angeles Police Det. Lou Vince are also running.
"You'll see a number of candidates come out now because the sheriff's not running," said Supervisor Don Knabe. "It changes the dynamics."
Sheriff hopefuls would have to move quickly. The deadline to enter the race is in March, and serious contenders will need to raise enough money to reach voters in a county of 10 million residents before the June primary.
One key question is whether the race will generate a strong candidate from outside the Sheriff's Department who cannot be tied to any of the agency's various problems.
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell would fit that mold. McDonnell, who served as second in command to L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton before moving to Long Beach, was one of seven members of a county commission that investigated allegations of excessive force against county inmates and faulted Baca's management of the jails. He weighed a run last year but decided against challenging Baca, citing the difficulty in raising money to unseat an incumbent.
"I have been strongly encouraged to enter the race, and I am willing to give it a fresh look," McDonnell said Tuesday.
LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara, 56, said he too is weighing a bid.
Baca's exit also raises concerns about the fate of department reforms. He had expressed a commitment to cooperate with a new inspector general appointed by the Board of Supervisors to oversee his agency and this week endorsed a plan to set up a permanent civilian oversight commission.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has opposed such a commission, said Tuesday that he thinks the department needs some sort of federal oversight to address "chronic structural problems."
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he and his colleagues would move swiftly to select an interim department head who would be committed to increasing transparency and accountability until voters choose Baca's successor. Baca plans to step down at the end of the month, well before the June primary.
"The first order of business is to make sure that reform is institutionalized," Ridley-Thomas said.
At a press conference announcing his retirement, Baca insisted his jails were safe and that his reforms aimed at reducing force against inmates were in place. He recommended that the Board of Supervisors pick his head of jails, Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, to temporarily run the department until a permanent successor is elected.
McDonald, previously a top official for the state's prison system, joined the Sheriff's Department last year after the blue-ribbon county commission recommended hiring an outside custody expert to run the county's jails.
Baca's voice cracked as he told reporters he was stepping down after more than 15 years as sheriff. He said he wanted to spare his department more negative publicity during the election campaign and give others a chance to run that they would not take if he was a candidate.
"I will go out on my terms," Baca said.
He said he had held fast to the department's core values, including a commitment to perform duties with "respect for the dignity of all people." He listed his greatest accomplishments as the historic drop in crime the county has experienced over more than a decade and his efforts to help educate jail inmates. About 8,500 of the county's inmates are receiving educational services behind bars, he said.
"The greatest thing I can do is to take people who cause crime and then prevent them from doing it again," Baca said.
But he has also faced a steady onslaught of criticism.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice accused sheriff's deputies of engaging in widespread unlawful searches of homes, improper detentions and unreasonable force as Antelope Valley authorities conducted a systematic effort to discriminate against African Americans who received low-income subsidized housing. The county's blue-ribbon commission found troubling evidence of excessive force by deputies against inmates and sharply criticized Baca's leadership.
In December, federal prosecutors announced criminal charges against 18 current and former sheriff's officials accused of beating jail inmates and visitors, trying to obstruct the FBI and other crimes, after an investigation of corruption inside the nation's largest jail system. Baca also came under fire after The Times reported that his department had hired dozens of officers who background investigators determined had serious histories of misconduct.
Still, the 71-year-old sheriff had continued to attend political fundraisers and was expected to wage a fierce battle for a fifth term.
"It was very shocking," Supervisor Gloria Molina said of Baca's decision to retire.
A frequent critic of the sheriff, Molina said she thought Baca did not move quickly enough to crack down on problems within the department and had "trusted people a little more than he should.... I think there was a second tier of management that had tremendous problems."
The sheriff's announcement that he was stepping down drew mixed reactions around the county.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told reporters that Baca was a "friend and mentor" who would be remembered as a great sheriff. Mayor Eric Garcetti described Baca's decision as "the right move for himself and for his department."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said in a statement that his "departure provides an important opportunity for new leadership to do what Sheriff Baca was either unable or unwilling to do: acknowledge and confront the institutional problems in the department."
Times staff writers Richard Winton, Joel Rubin and Kate Mather contributed to this report.