The Former Undersheriff Couldn’t Keep a Lid on Pandora’s Box
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
On May 14, former undersheriff of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Paul Tanaka, was indicted, along with alleged co-conspirator William Thomas Carey, in what Tanaka called “Operation Pandora’s Box,” an effort to conceal an FBI informant during its investigation of corruption and excessive-force incidents in the sheriff’s department in 2011. The recent announcement was somewhat anti-climatic since six deputies directly involved in the operation were already charged, tried and convicted in 2014. Tanaka and Carey testified in those cases.
The writing has been on the wall since at least May 2014 when the deputies were officially indicted. At the time, Tanaka was actively running for election to become the next sheriff by participating in town hall meetings and a couple of debates against rivals. When the announcement was made, Tanaka fell silent, effectively halting his campaign.
When Random Lengths News interviewed Tanaka in February 2014, the blue ribbon commission report on violence in the Men’s Central Jail released in 2012 had taken a toll on both the sheriff’s department and the former undersheriff.
During our interview, Tanaka denied he even had jurisdiction over the Men’s Central Jail during the periods the reports said he did, chalking the criticisms of his leadership up to a few deputies angling to become sheriff.
“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. I had responsibility for patrol and investigations county-wide. 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 also complained that witnesses interviewed by the blue ribbon panel weren’t under oath or were cross-examined, a situation that allowed witnesses with ulterior motives to speak unchecked.
In the months that followed, four grand juries had indicted up to 18 deputies linked to excessive force incidents and other misconduct. This wasn’t the first report to document problems in the department. But what made this report different is that it also documented how the department failed to implement reforms suggested by previous reports.
Sheriff Lee Baca, the “Teflon Lawman” who had been winning re-elections with little effort for 20 years, saw his chances for reelection in 2014 come into doubt. So much so that opponents both within and outside of the department signed up as candidates for the top job, including Tanaka, the second most-mentioned name in the Men’s Central Jail report.
Baca’s retirement in January 2014 came as a shock. The field of candidates, in a race with a weakened incumbent, now only had each other and their ideas of how to reform the department.
Still, the main question remained: was Tanaka running?
Operation Pandora’s Box
The conspiracy, according to the indictment, began in August 2011, when the sheriff’s department discovered a cell phone wrapped in a glove inside a potato chip bag in the possession of inmate Anthony Brown.
Brown was an informant working for the FBI. At the time the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a federal grand jury were investigating abuse and corruption allegations in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He did so, following a number of internal reports on excessive force and corruption kicked up to the U.S. Attorney’s Office over the years.
U.S. attorneys in the Tanaka indictment cited two special counsel reports sent to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2005 and 2007 that noted, among other things, the Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau was not doing enough to uncover criminal misconduct by LASD employees. Also, too many misconduct allegations made against department employees were not investigated criminally or administratively. And, perhaps more critically, the department was not conducting sting operations to test the integrity of its deputies.
Prosecutors noted that Tanaka was told about problem deputies assigned to the Men’s Central Jail in February 2006.
A special counsel report to the county supervisors noted in 2007 that about half of the Internal Affairs Bureau investigations were not thorough. A separate report released by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review published a warning to those in authority of the harm of disparaging internal investigations and of outside scrutiny of the sheriff’s department.
This was the backdrop against which Tanaka’s alleged conspiracy to impede the federal investigation in 2011 was set.
The report found that the alleged conspiracy ostensibly failed at keeping Pandora’s Box closed, as prosecutors laid out the lengths to which Tanaka and alleged co-conspirators went to hide Brown.
Alleged co-conspirators, which include Gerard Smith, Maricela Long, Stephen Leavins, Scott Craig, Mickey Manzo, James Sexton and Greg Thompson, had already been indicted, tried and convicted. Tanaka and Carey, a former captain of the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, are the higher-ups who the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association president said should have been charged for giving the orders in the first place.
The measures undertaken to hide Brown include:
• Removing Brown’s hard copy file from the records center, so that there was no physical record showing he was ever in the department’s custody
• Making false entries into the computer database so that it appeared as though Brown had been released from custody, when in fact, he hadn’t
• Rebooking Brown under false name and fake booking information without fingerprints
• Moving him from a cell in a high-security area to a medical floor within Men’s Central Jail, where there were no cameras
To gather information about the investigation, Tanaka allegedly ordered his underlings in the conspiracy to interview Brown, and went so far as to conduct undercover operations by posing as Brown’s cellmate who had been beaten by deputies.
They allegedly even tried to convince Brown that he had been abandoned by his handlers in order to pressure him not to cooperate with the federal investigation.
They reportedly reviewed old complaints by inmates investigated by the department but deemed unfounded and closed. They also reportedly interviewed deputies they believed were connected to the federal investigation, essentially tampering with potential witnesses by attempting to deter them from cooperating with the federal investigation.
Tanaka allegedly directed a co-conspirator to draft a new policy that would require the FBI to get his approval before they could interview any inmate in sheriff department custody. He shortly thereafter approved it. Tanaka allegedly subsequently ordered that his name be removed from the draft policy.
U.S. attorneys also reported that Tanaka deployed lies, threats, blackmail and the force of chain of command to keep deputies from speaking to the FBI.
News of high-ranking deputies hiding an FBI informant from a grand jury broke four months after Random Lengths interviewed Tanaka. Our interview produced neither a hint nor a clue of what was to come. But that interview did hold a few takeaway impressions that now seem most prescient.
Tanaka’s cynicism was one. In reply to a question about his position on constitutional and community policing, he recalled his first run for city council in the city of Gardena in 1999, noting that the relationship between residents and its police department was at an all-time low.
“I remember going on a ride and a little kid in a certain part of town where we were driving around gave the officer a one-finger wave,” Tanaka said in February 2014. “And I said, ‘Is this what the community thinks about our cops?’”
Changing this relationship between the community and the Gardena Police Department became his all-consuming mission as a city councilman and later, mayor.
Tanaka’s solution was to replace a white police chief with a black police chief. For Tanaka, this was a no-brainer for a “minority-majority” city like Gardena comprised of 40 percent Hispanics, 30 percent African Americans and 25 percent Asian Americans.
That a citizen’s advisory committee was formed following the elevation of a new police chief was secondary in the improvement in relations between the community and the police.
When Tanaka was asked to respond to the Men’s Central Jail report’s characterization of him as an important element in the department’s culture of abuse and impunity, he rejected the characterization and steadfastly argued that he wasn’t in charge during the periods of time on which the report focuses.
Rather than the abuse statistics the report documented, Tanaka focused on emails he received from deputies and jail personnel complaining about proposed changes to their work schedules in response to rising abuse claims.
Tanaka characterized the change as a National Labor Relations Board case waiting to happen. He subscribed to the notion that the department just had a few bad apples that needed to be removed. The effort to rotate the work schedules was ultimately dropped, due to his applied pressure, as he made clear.
The Butterfly Effect
Mathematician and pioneer of chaos theory Edward Lorenz coined the term, “the butterfly effect,” to explain “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.”
Put another way, the flap of a butterfly’s wings can influence the formation of a distant hurricane several weeks later.
Tanaka’s failure to keep Pandora’s Box closed has resulted in consequences that reverberate far beyond Southern California. One such consequence is that advocates for police reform and civilian oversight in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department such as the Black Lives Matter movement co-founder Patrisse Cullors, were invited by local activists in Ferguson to teach them effective organizing techniques to address police abuse following the police killing of Michael Brown.
More police killings of unarmed black people led to more places for the Black Lives Matter Movement to spread and more people to train in languages and tactics of direct action and civil disobedience. The lid that has kept pent-up frustration about police abuse, killings and institutional racism in the box is now starting to come off.
The allegations in the Department of Justice’s indictment of Tanaka are still to be tried in court and Tanaka continues to deny his culpability in the cover up and corruption of the LASD scandal. This continues to undermine the trust in law enforcement.