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Departure of Tanaka stuns sheriff's officials, critics

Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in July 2012. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Dogged by allegations of misconduct and mismanagement, the second in command at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department announced Wednesday that he was stepping down from his position managing the law enforcement agency.

The exit of Paul Tanaka, 54, stunned people inside and outside the Sheriff's Department because he was considered Sheriff Lee Baca's righthand man and once held wide authority over the 18,000-person department's daily operations.

But Tanaka had become a magnet for criticism amid a federal probe into allegations that sheriff's jailers abused inmates at the Los Angeles County Jail.

Last year, a blue-ribbon commission issued a searing critique of Baca, Tanaka and others, accusing them of fostering a culture in which deputies beat and humiliated inmates, covered up misconduct and formed aggressive deputy cliques in the Los Angeles County jails.

Current and retired sheriff's officials publicly blamed Tanaka for some of the department's woes, saying that he helped create a climate in which aggression was prized, loyalty was placed above merit and discipline was discouraged. A federal grand jury investigating the jails heard testimony about the role Tanaka played in allegedly hiding an inmate informant from the FBI.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the county commission that examined jail violence, welcomed Tanaka's departure, saying that the panel's members had been deeply troubled by his handling of the jails and felt that new management was needed.

“It was clear to us that the impact of the undersheriff on the problems we saw in the jails could not be underestimated,” she said Wednesday.

A department spokesman said Tanaka's departure was not connected to the criticism he faced in recent months and was voluntary.

“It's time. He's been here 31 years,” sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. “The sheriff didn't ask him to leave. This was done by his own volition.”

Tanaka declined to comment Wednesday. In the past, he has defended his management of the Sheriff's Department. During testimony before the jail abuse commission last year, Tanaka accepted some blame for problems in jails but said his role had been overblown. He said he was the target of critics with personal agendas against him.

“There are people that maybe don't get to where they believe they should and I'm an easy target,” he said.

Once mentioned as Baca's heir apparent, Tanaka saw his standing erode when the jail scandal broke in 2011. But despite calls to push him out, Baca stood by him. The sheriff portrayed Tanaka as a skilled and invaluable bureaucrat with a knack for accounting. Still, Baca reduced Tanaka's authority after the jail commission released its findings.

The undersheriff has long been a polorizing figure in the department.

As a sergeant, he was assigned in the late 1980s to the Lynwood station, one plagued with allegations of brutality. It was about then that he was tattooed as a member of the Vikings, an unsanctioned group of hard-charging deputies at the station. The county would later pay  $7.5 million to settle lawsuits claiming abuse by members of the group.

When Baca ran for sheriff in 1998, Tanaka was one of several confidantes who worked on his campaign. When Baca took office, he promoted Tanaka, then a lieutenant and a certified public accountant, as a top aide.

Around the same time, Tanaka jumped into local politics. He won a seat on the Gardena City Council in 1999 and successfully ran for mayor six years later.

Helping his political career were sheriff's colleagues and subordinates who donated $108,311 to his four Gardena election campaigns, with 43 contributing more than $38,000 between them, according the jail violence commission. Many of those donors were awarded highly coveted promotions, creating the perception that loyalty to Tanaka was essential to a department career.

One retired commander said in a sworn statement that Tanaka ordered him to manipulate the department's promotional scores to benefit certain candidates.

Others raised concerns about the messages that Tanaka was conveying to deputies. On several occasions, he encouraged the department's troops to work “right on the edge of the line” and in the “grey area” as one captain put it in a memo to a supervisor.

After his statements became public last year, Tanaka issued a memo to the department saying they were being misinterpreted.

“I've come to learn in recent months that the term “grey area” can be easily misinterpreted by those that choose to do so,” he wrote. “Some would like to believe that the grey area is the area between right and wrong, that it characterizes certain police misconduct as acceptable, and that the end justifies the means.”

Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and head of the Drug Enforecement Administration who served as one of the commission's members, said he was astonished at the way Tanaka helped run the department, saying he undermined discipline.

“It's probably a good thing that he's stepping down,” Bonner said, “because he was the center of so much of the controversy within the Sheriff's Department.”

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the problems at the Sheriff's Department extend well beyond Tanaka and that real reforms will require changes in the department culture.

Tanaka will retire on Aug. 1 but will probably remain in public office. Preliminary results from Tuesday's elections show Tanaka winning a third term as Gardena mayor.

City and county officials recently called for probes into hundreds of ballistic vests that were funneled by the Sheriff's Department to Cambodia, through Gardena, where Tanaka was a council member at the time.

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--Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard

Photo: Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in July 2012. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

 

 
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