- Reporters Desk
With Baca Out of the Race, the Former Undersheriff is No Longer Shielded from Men’s Central Jail Violence Report.
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor – February 20, 2014
When Paul Tanaka, the former undersheriff of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department sat down for an interview with Random Lengths News, the question I wanted to ask was, ‘Why are you running?’”
Not because I needed him to talk immediately about the reforms he would enact, but because Tanaka was the second most-named person responsible in the 2012 Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence report at the Men’s Central Jail.
Tanaka began answering that question without the context of the commission report, focusing instead on where he and Sheriff Lee Baca parted ways and became arch rivals before Baca’s retirement last month.
“Lee Baca [and I] had our differences,” Tanaka explained. “They were largely philosophical in leadership and management. A chasm started to grow, especially in the last year-and-a-half or so. I saw the department going in a direction that I felt it was getting further and further away from the mission of what we cops do for a living…. We fight crime and take the bad guys off the street. They keep the community safer. Whether it is in San Pedro, Compton, Gardena or Antelope Valley,” he said.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formed the commission the previous year with a mandate “to conduct a review of the nature, depth and cause of the problem of inappropriate deputy use of force in the jails and to recommend corrective action as necessary.
The report ultimately characterized the department’s command staff as an emperor with no clothes surrounded by yes-men, beset with organizational dysfunction and a culture of impunity.
Tanaka said he largely agreed with the report’s assessments and recommendations, but he vehemently disagreed with the report’s characterization of him as some sort of charismatic cop beloved by the most aggressive ones.
Tanaka grew up in Gardena and graduated from Gardena High School in 1976. He was a part of the Japanese American community that settled there following World War II. Tanaka recalled a period when Japanese Americans made up 25 to 30 percent of Gardena’s demographic make up.
“Of course, it just slowly whittled down almost with the exception of myself, at least from my age range. Everybody else that left are my friends’ parents,” he said.
Tanaka graduated from Loyola Marymount University earning a bachelor of science in accounting. In his third year, Tanaka took a sociology class as an elective.
“One of the class requirements was to go on a ride with a local agency,” Tanaka recalled. “I just happen to go on a ride with the sheriff department. I just took an interest in what I saw and what they were doing to help folks, and that’s what really piqued my interest. So when I graduated on Saturday, on Monday I was enrolled in the police academy.”
Tanaka served as a police officer with the El Segundo Police Department for two years before lateraling over to the sheriff’s department in 1982.
Almost from the moment he became sheriff’s deputy, Tanaka’s career was a steady climb to the top, breaking barriers along the way. After holding various line assignments in patrol, custody, and serving as recruitment deputy, Tanaka was promoted to sergeant in 1987 and sent to work at Lynwood Station, which turns out to be a defining moment in Tanaka’s career, shaping his views about discipline, people management and deputy cliques.
Baca promoted Tanaka to commander in 2001 and assigned him to the Office of the Undersheriff as one of the commanders of the department. In 2002, Tanaka was promoted to chief, charged with directing the Administrative Services Division. In 2005, Baca appointed Tanaka to assistant sheriff,, becoming the first Asian-American ever to be named assistant sheriff in the department’s history. In 2011, he was appointed undersheriff, a post he served until he retired in August 2013.
While getting promoted up the sheriff department’s chain of command, Tanaka was elected to the Gardena City Council in 1999 and served there for several years before running and winning the mayor’s seat overwhelmingly in 2005. He won his third term as mayor in 2013.
Tanaka and Community Policing
Knowing Tanaka’s biography is a pretty important in understanding his views on police culture and how to address departmental dysfunction. We asked Tanaka if he was familiar with Connie Rice’s book Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand or any of Erwin Chemerinisky’s published work on the Los Angeles Police Department. He has a copy of Rice’s book sitting on the shelf (unread) and he seemed only familiar with Chemerinisky in passing.
So when we asked if he believed in community policing and whether the Sheriff’s department needed a consent decree to change the culture at the department, Tanaka prefaced his reply by recalling his experience the first time he served on Gardena’s city council in 1999.
“I remember going on a ride [along with an officer] and a little kid … gave the officer a one finger wave,” Tanaka recalled. “And I said, is this what the community thinks about our cops? We’re changing that.’”
Tanaka noted that attitudes aren’t changed over night, particularly when a city’s demographic is 85 to 95 percent people of color.
“So the first thing we did, I told the [Gardena] city manager, before I became the mayor [in 2005] ‘I know my role: My role is not to tell you what to do. You’re the boss, but that chief has got to go,” referring to Chief Michael J. Skogh. “So we brought in an African American chief,” Tanaka said, referring former Gardena Chief Rod Lyons. “And we kind of settled down the community and we settled down especially the officers. And right after that, we started to change.”
He explained that they formed a citizens’ advisory panel to give local residents a voice and suggested that they ensure the inclusion of people who would be most critical of Gardena’s police department.
“Don’t put a bunch of softies in there — people who will say what you want to hear,” Tanaka said. “You really need to hear what is going on because we have to have a culture change here in this organization…. Rod Lyons did a fantastic job. In fact, we did a polling … we were going to get an initiative on something, but we got a 92 percent favorable rating. Police chiefs never get that.”
There are two things that can be taken away from this response:
1. Tanaka has the basic skills necessary to navigate identity politics.
2. He believes police problems are human resources problems.
The Los Angeles Police Department, following the 1992 riots, later tried Tanaka’s prescription for its ingrained problems, too. Two African American chiefs later, the Rampart scandal broke and the department found itself under a federal consent decree.
Tanaka takes credit for Los Angeles County’s precipitous drop in crime from 2007 to 2010, when he was in charge of sheriff patrol. But then again, nearly everyone has been experiencing falling crime rates, a phenomenon that makes one wonder if its due to better policing or something else.
Tanaka and the Report
Tanaka’s name is featured as prominently in the commission’s report, which was highly critical of Tanaka’s leadership and his role in promoting an aggressive police culture within the department.
When asked about this, Tanaka didn’t mince words about the report’s findings.
“I’m implicated [in this study] because people have made it a point to point that out, suggesting that I was involved,” Tanaka said. “When you look at the study, when it all began — the period, ‘08, ‘09 and ‘10 — I didn’t have responsibility for the jails,” he noted. “I had responsibility for patrol and investigations countywide.
“When I was in charge of the jails for the brief period from ‘05 to ‘07, we didn’t have those problems, because we had people that were there,” Tanaka said. “And again, it goes to leadership,”
According to the commission report, Baca faulted his senior staff for failing to keep him fully informed about the problems in the jail. The commission agreed without absolving him of responsibility. The commission noted the chain of command failed to address excess force problems even when the Men’s Central captain raised concerns as early as 2006 and again, when a commander of the jail raised the issue in 2009 and 2010.
When he was confronted with these passages, Tanaka admitted to Random Lengths that trouble was brewing in 2006, but that he instituted changes to address the issue.
“I went down there to meet with them, because that is part of our obligation when you have over 200 employees expressing vocally their dissatisfaction,” Tanaka recalled. “It turns out that the captain, the commander of the station, was going to rotate everybody out every two months to different jobs to break up the subgroups that he believe were cliques.”
“Nobody can plan their life,” said Tanaka said recalling his conversation with the captain. “That is a National Labor Relations nightmare…. You cannot do that to people.
“‘What is the problem?’” he asked the captain. “He said a handful of problem employees. And I said, ‘You’re a captain. You don’t mass punish an entire facility of 650 deputies because you’re afraid to take on a handful of deputies. If they are the problem, get rid of them.’ But there was a genuine fear it seemed on his part, and on the part of the staff, to take on these problems to deal with these individuals.”
The commission, however, saw the problems at the Men’s Central Jail in 2006 as being more about the permissiveness of excessive force and deputy cliques within the department than labor code infractions and captains failing to lead.
The commission reported comments that Tanaka made in 2006 in a meeting with the supervisors at the Men’s Central Jail following his dressing down of the captain who tried to institute shift rotations.
The commission reported of the incident:
Several witnesses told the Commission about a meeting Tanaka held with supervisors at MCJ [Men’s Central Jail] in 2006 after he had vetoed the Captain’s proposal to rotate deputies among jobs to address the problems of excessive force and deputy cliques. The witnesses reported that Tanaka called supervisors who tried to maintain discipline at MCJ “dinosaurs,” and told them that they needed to “coddle” the deputies and leave them alone. At one point in the meeting, he berated a supervisor for purportedly referring to the deputies as “gang members” and harshly shut down the Captain’s attempt to respond to his criticisms.
Tanaka maintains that he has never condoned, encouraged or tolerated the use of excessive force by sheriff’s deputies. But from his interview with the commission and his comments to this paper, one gets the impression that excessive force is only perpetuated by a few bad apples and that the existence of deputy cliques—sworn officers mimicking the behaviors of gang members—is more the stuff of urban legend than department reality.
The commission cited a parallel incident that occurred a year later at the Century Station in which Tanaka reportedly encouraged deputies to be aggressive. The commission said of the incident:
In a memorandum to the Chief of Region III, the Captain of Century Station documented a talk that then-Assistant Sheriff Tanaka gave at the Station in June 2007, at a time when the Station was in the throes of dealing with a group of deputies who called themselves the “Regulators.” At the meeting, Tanaka reportedly instructed the deputies to “function right on the edge of the line” and “be very aggressive in their approach to dealing with gang members.” He has neither disputed nor provided an explanation for these comments.
There are two issues here that should be highlighted. The first concerns Tanaka’s alleged instruction to deputies to “function right on the edge of the line.” The Commission report suggests that Tanaka subscribes to the notion that law enforcement officers sometimes operate in a gray area and that he had never fully or consistently explained what this meant.
When we asked him to explain the “gray area” comment, his reply was the following:
I’ve never preached anything, I’ve never stated, nor have I ever… nobody who has ever work with me will ever tell you it was okay to work in a gray area as it’s generally thought of in a nebulous area on the outside of the line of the gray.
“This is what I used to tell deputies, and I gave this speech hundreds of times, ‘This is the line, it’s the line of the law, it’s the line of policy, it’s the line of whatever you see on this side of the hand… this is the line you learn when you were just five years old. Don’t cross the line. You can work anywhere within this area because the law says you can and society says its okay so lets call it … and I made a mistake and I even told them that. I used the wrong color. This is black, this is white, because that’s our job There is no in between. Then there’s this working area as long as…. In some places I called it the “green area.”
The commission seemed to frown upon the fact that Tanaka only tried to clarify his remarks just before his commission testimony. For his part, Tanaka noted that this issue was not brought up until five years after he gave the speech, though it was a speech he says he has given hundreds of times.
The other issue that should be highlighted is that of deputy cliques and Tanaka’s lax attitude towards them. That may be due to his own life experiences as a member of the Lynwood Station Vikings in the late 1980s. He described the Vikings as being little more than a station moniker that used as form of friendly station identity and bonding, a moniker used for when they have their departmental softball tournaments and charity events.
This is what he said to Random Lengths:
First of all, there’s no clique,OK. It was our station moniker. If you find an old picture of the sheriff’s in the archives, there’s a picture of Sheriff Bloch and all of us there in either our baseball or running uniform with a banner on the wall that said Lynwood Vikings. Firestone had Pirates, Norwalk had Wolverines. We had an intramural teams that played softball, it was mostly involved with the Baker[sfield] to Vegas relay. At some point in the 90s or 80s there was case involving Darren Thomas who sued the department and in front of an African American judge Terry Patter had all of these defendants and someone brought up a white supremacist group. One judge made that statement and the rest is history. Do you know who the lead defendant was in that case? A female African American deputy sheriff. She is not a white supremacist and I was not a party to that case. I worked at that station and I also worked at other stations that had other affiliations. Don’t you think that if the Vikings symbol was so bad, do you think we would have Vikings charities or the Minnesota Vikings?
To put Tanaka’s comments into context, the Lynwood Sheriffs station gained notoriety after having a class action civil lawsuit filed against it in 1991. Seventy-five Lynwood residents joined the suit testifying to the existence of a white supremacist cell operating with official knowledge out of the Lynwood sheriff’s station as well as patterns of deputy shootings, torture, beatings and harassment.
The lawsuit produced numerous accounts of bullying-to-hazing-type pranks. In one account, deputies shot a dog and tied it under their commanders’ car; in another account deputies smeared feces on a supervisor’s engine. There was the map of Lynwood in the shape of Africa, the racist cartoons of black men, the mock “ticket to Africa” on the wall.
U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter, who presided over the case, concluded that many deputies engaged in racially motivated hostility against blacks and Latinos. In 1996, the department was ordered to pay $7.5 million to 75 alleged victims of excessive force in the area the Lynwood station policed and spend $1.5 million for mandatory training.
The Kolts Report
The Kolts report, a commission headed by Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts, charged with investigating the sheriff’s department in 1991, never found conclusive evidence that the Vikings were a white supremacist cell within the Lynwood sheriffs station. However, it but found that there was a core of deputies that closely identified with the Vikings station moniker, and that these deputies engaged in the behaviors reported in the Thomas v. County of Los Angeles Sheriffs Department class-action lawsuit.
Tanaka became a tattooed member of the Vikings after he was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the Lynwood station in 1987 — a year before he was named in a wrongful-death suit stemming from the shooting of a young Korean man. The department eventually settled for close to $1 million.
In a 1999 Los Angeles Times exposé on sheriff department cliques, “The Secret Society Among Lawmen,” a sheriff’s department spokesman was quoted as saying Tanaka had the tattoo removed.
“Paul doesn’t have anything to say about [the tattoo],” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Capt. Doyle Campbell said. “It is perceived by some in a way that was never intended. He’s having it removed. He wants it behind him.”
When Random Lengths asked about the tattoo, Tanaka admitted that he still had it.
“There’s differing philosophies, and I thought about it… you know when I got it…. you know it is not a symbol that stands for something bad and certainly when I got it, it was no secret. It was just our station moniker. And over time if you remove it, what do people say, ‘ah…it was because it was bad.’”
With all of his baggage, whether from his past or these current investigations —the latest being the cloud over his head regarding his role in the FBI informant Anthony Brown controversy—people aren’t asking if he’s the answer to the sheriff’s department’s problems. Observers are asking why is he running for the seat at all?