In announcing the recognition, the National Sheriff's Association cited Baca's record for providing educational opportunities for jail inmates and his efforts to reach out to various religious groups in the community. It also noted that Baca commands the largest sheriff's office in the nation and has relatively low crime rates in the areas the department patrols.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore says Baca is the most progressive sheriff in the nation, and the honor is deserved.
"It's an amazing thing when the leader of an organization is recognized for the hard work that he or she has put in to any agency," Whitmore said. "But this is done as a team ... That's why the sheriff keeps saying that this award belongs to the men and women of the sheriff's department."
But the ACLU was surprised by the honor.
"It's astonishing. In the last year, it's been publicly disclosed that the FBI is doing a massive investigation into conditions in deputy on inmate abuse in the jails," said Peter Eliasberg of the ACLU. "The board of supervisors appointed a blue ribbon jail commission which found that there has been a persistent pattern of illegal activity in beating of inmates in the jails over many years. And said, simply put, there has been a failure of leadership from Sheriff Baca and his high commanders."
Sheriff's officials say even before problems in the jails became public, the sheriff had already begun to make corrections.
"The county jail system, which is the largest jail system in the nation, is the safest and most secure it's ever been," Whitmore said.
ACLU officials say they have recognized the sheriff has made some positive steps particularly in the jails.
"Finally, after all of these years of bringing all of these problems to his attention, it is true that the force numbers and the violence numbers in the jails are going down, but those changes ... need to be made permanent," Eliasberg said.
There are about 2,700 members in the National Sheriff's Association.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.