Tanaka steps down as undersheriff to Baca

paul-tanaka-wla.jpgThere hasn't been a stormier career lately in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department than that of Paul Tanaka. Today the department announced that Tanaka will step down as the number two sheriff's official and retire on August 1, after 33 years. "Dogged by allegations of misconduct and mismanagement," is how the LA Times put it. "A sort-of shadow sheriff...who, many in the force felt, held the real power in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department," wrote Celeste Fremon at Witness LA, which has published several investigative reports on the troubled department.

Tanaka announced his departure to other top staff just hours after he was re-elected the mayor of the city of Gardena. The LA Times has been in front on many of the recent stories about LASD. From tonight's story by Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi:

The exit of Paul Tanaka, 54, stunned people inside and outside the Sheriff's Department because he was considered Sheriff Lee Baca's right-hand 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 in L.A. County jails.

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 county jails.

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

Tanaka was "a polarizing figure" in the LASD long before he became undersheriff, the Times also said, noting that around the time he was a sergwant in the Lynwood station in the late 1980s, "he was tattooed as a member of the Vikings, an unsanctioned group of hard-charging deputies at the station. The county would later pay out $7.5 million to settle lawsuits claiming abuse by members of the group." When Baca ran for sheriff in 1998, Tanaka worked on the campaign and was promoted from lieutenant to become the new sheriff's top aide.

From Fremon at Witness LA:

WitnessLA’s Matt Fleischer first broke the news that the largely unknown Mr. Tanaka wielded a startling amount of control in the LASD, which—with 18,000 employees—is the largest sheriff’s department in the world, and runs the nation’s largest jail system.

While the announcement suggests that Tanaka’s retirement was his own idea, sources inside and close to the department tell us otherwise. They portray “an uneasy rift” between Mr. Tanaka and the sheriff in the last few months, which became “very noticeable” before Christmas 2012.

While the sheriff forced into retirement many of those who who had some responsibility for the deputy-abuse-of-jail-inmates scandal, [Baca] seemed stubbornly disinclined to hold his second-in-command accountable, telling the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence during his testimony last year, that he had no intention of getting rid of his undersheriff, that he was too crucial, particularly when it comes to balancing the department budget.

Then as the year came to a close, reportedly Baca’s attitude changed.

“I think that all the things began to add up for the sheriff,” said one source. “The talk of pay-to-play, the cigar club, the whole thing of working the grey, the way the federal investigations were handled, the problems in the jails, and all the rest.”

Tanaka was reelected Tuesday to a third term as Gardena mayor, receiving 58.6 percent of the vote. Tanaka first won a seat on the Gardena City Council in 1999. From the Daily Breeze, which led with the observation that the announcement followed by hours the election results.

Tanaka said his decision was not made in response to criticism in recent months over his management of the county jails, or his involvement in a 2002 sale of department Kevlar vests to Cambodia.

Instead, he said he is retiring to spend more time with his family and to focus on the city of Gardena. He might also spend more time running and golfing, he said.

"I've been working two jobs since I was 15," Tanaka said. "I've done a lot in 33 years in this business. The last 12 years, I've been responsible for the budget and the war on gangs. I'm very proud of that, and that I've had an opportunity to work with so many great men and women over the years.....

Tanaka joined the Sheriff's Department in 1982 as a custody deputy before becoming a patrol deputy at the Carson station. There, he developed a high-impact community-based policing program and the Asian Crimes Task Force. He went on to direct the Gang Crimes Enforcement Program before shooting up the administrative ranks of the department.

Over the past nine years, he has managed the department's $2.5 billion budget.

Meanwhile, the new sheriff's official in charge of the county jail system is Terri McDonald, who has been operations chief for the state’s prison system. She will be the highest-ranking woman in the history of the LA Sheriff's Department. She talked to ZevWeb recently at Folsom State Prison about prisons and jails.

On this day, during an interview with a caller from Los Angeles, she sounds more like a social scientist than a prison boss. “They are their own communities,” she says of the state institutions, “each with its own ebb and flow, each with its own subculture.”

Behind the walls, she says, you’ll find “the most complicated people in California,” men and women “too problematic to be in society,” thrown together with an undercurrent of “gang allegiances and sociopathic influences.” Some inmates might be only 18 years old, she says, others 90. Some may have developmental disabilities, others Ph.D.’s.

“It’s just fascinating,” McDonald says enthusiastically. “I can’t wait to see how L.A. works.”

Photo illustration: Witness LA

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