Crime & Justice

LA jail violence commission turns attention to undersheriff Paul Tanaka

A prisoner in Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles speaks with his cellmates in this photo from December 2011.
A prisoner in Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles speaks with his cellmates in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence has scheduled Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca’s second in command to testify about inmate abuse on Friday. Undersheriff Paul Tanaka is a little known but powerful force within the department who is responsible for day-to-day operations. His testimony comes amid an FBI investigation into allegations of widespread abuse of inmates by sheriff’s guards.

Tanaka’s name has come up repeatedly over the past eight months as the commission examines conditions inside L.A. County lockups.

“Ya know, I receive these anonymous communications,” commission member and former federal judge Dick Tevrizian said at one hearing. “And the term ‘Tanaka-sized’ comes up.”

At that hearing, retired Sheriff’s Cmdr. Robert Olmsted said he hadn’t heard the term, but he knew well that Tanaka controls the department with an iron fist. He accused the undersheriff of promoting people based on loyalty, not merit.

“You’re in the car— we call it 'in the car' with Mr. Tanaka — you’re on his good side,” Olmsted said. “Don’t piss him off, because he’ll alienate you and roll you up and send you somewhere.”

Olmsted said that when Capt. John Clark became outspoken about jail violence about five years ago, then-Assistant Sheriff Tanaka transferred him to a lesser position.

At the most recent hearing, Sheriff’s Capt. Michael Bornman expressed concerns about Tanaka’s attitude toward deputy misconduct at the jails, and “a lack of desire to hold people accountable.” Bornman said that when he raised questions about a videotaped incident where deputies repeatedly struck a subdued inmate, a fellow captain suggested he ignore it.

“He said, ‘What are you going to tell Paul Tanaka when he asks you why you’re disciplining deputies?’”

Tanaka declined to be interviewed for this story. He rarely talks to the media.

Baca appointed Tanaka as his second-in-command a year ago. Baca owed him a lot. As a certified public accountant, Tanaka played a key role in a department budget crisis in 2004.

“He, as a CPA, came in when one of my former managers overshot the management of the Sheriff’s Department budget by about $25 million,” Baca said. “We’re the only department in the history of county budgeting that has ever paid back an overrun of the budget. That’s Mr. Tanaka’s work.”

In an interview late last year, Baca suggested the growing chorus of criticism was reaction to Tanaka’s demand for improvement at the department.

“He has been able to counsel people about being more productive,” he said. “That became a point of revenge on the part of those who don’t like being counseled.”

Some have raised questions about Baca’s top leadership and their role in jail violence. Merrick Bobb is one of them. He is the L.A. County Board of Supervisors Special Counsel on the jails.

“I think there is a question whether Baca has wisely surrounded himself with people who are capable of running the department consistent with his values,” Bobb said.

It's worth noting Baca has created a jail violence task force that reports directly to him, not Tanaka.

Tanaka has been with the Sheriff’s Department for three decades. He is its first Japanese-American commander. Tanaka is a savvy political player — and not just because he’s risen to undersheriff. Twice he’s been elected mayor of Gardena, where he grew up and currently holds office.

It’s unusual for cops to publicly criticize colleagues, especially supervisors. That’s what Tanaka is facing.

Take sheriff's Capt. Pat Maxwell: He said the undersheriff has mocked the LAPD’s efforts to eradicate brutality and repeatedly encouraged deputies to work in the “gray area” of policing. Maxwell said that meant not just aggressive tactics, but working “outside of policy and the law.”

But earlier this month, Tanaka sought to clarify his comments by issuing a memo that said: “When it comes to right and wrong, there is no gray area.”

Criticism of Tanaka prompted jail violence commission member Alexander Busansky to ask a sheriff’s captain an unexpected question.

“Do you believe that Paul Tanaka should remain as undersheriff? That he’s able to carry out his job?” he asked. “Will the systems will hold him accountable?”

Other panel members said it was an unfair question of a subordinate of Tanaka’s.

Busansky will be able to confront Tanaka himself with that question when the undersheriff appears before the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence. Baca is also scheduled to speak.