In November 2013, the Citizens Commission on violence in LA County said both Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka were responsible for a “failure of leadership” that led to abuses including violence by deputies in county jail.
Now, jury selection is scheduled to begin next Wednesday in the trial of Tanaka, who has been accused of obstructing a federal investigation into the violence at Men’s Central Jail.
The former Undersheriff talked with Warren Olney on Which Way, LA? at a time when he was running for sheriff against then-Sheriff Lee Baca, who ultimately stepped down.
Below is the transcript from Warren’s 2013 interview with Tanaka.
Warren Olney: You were harshly criticized in the citizens Commission report at least as harshly criticized as the sheriff himself. How do you plan to convince voters under those circumstances that you’re the man for the job?
Paul Tanaka: First of all, it’s very convenient and unfortunate that the sheriff has resorted to something he’s become very accustomed to and that is pointing fingers and absolving himself, or attempting to, of any blame. If you look at the organizational chart during the years that the Commission did the report on the jail study 2008, 2009, 2010; those are the years in question that the commission did the report on. If you look at the organizational chart you’ll see the jails, you’ll see the captain of that particular jail facility you’ll see three or four commanders in that chain of command on the organizational chart on record. You’ll see a division chief over custody, you’ll see an assistant sheriff’s, name you’ll see an undersheriff ‘s name and you will see the sheriff’s name. You will not see Paul Tanaka’s name anywhere in that chain of command, because during that particular period of time 2008, 2009, 2010, I was in charge of fighting crime at the 23 patrol stations and via detective division and homeland security. And so for him to point the finger at me is completely wrong. He knows that I was nowhere in that jail authority during that particular time period. And, well you know, it’s an election year, so I see understand what he’s doing.
WO: Whatever the Sheriff may say or think, Miriam Krinsky who is the executive director of the citizens commission says that you Undersheriff Tanaka interjected himself in jail issues even when the jails were not under his command and goes on to “We did see evidence that suggested that, at least in tone of what he said, the undersheriff did not create a spirit of compliance within the letter of the law.”
PT: Well, first of all I fundamentally disagree with the findings of that report. I made it clear during the Commission hearing and I’m making it clear right now. If you look at the people they spoke to all the people that they, quote, got their evidence from; those were folks who had an axe to grind. Never in my 33 years never, ever, ever was I used of misconduct or encouraging others or supporting others or condoning any type of deputy misconduct be it brutality in the jails or misbehavior. My track record shown that I’ve always been one to hold myself and others accountable and at that with that without Commission report it was even brought to the attention all of the people that brought forth these, quote, allegations, in my opinion these political attacks, there was never any opportunity to cross examine, like you would in court or present any evidence to the contrary. The commission was not interested in hearing that which is why then and to this day I fundamentally disagree with the findings of that commission.
WO: Well, you’re not on trial you’re running for Sheriff of Los Angeles County. Let me just read so our listeners will know, what they report it says. It says: “The troubling role of Undersheriff Tanaka cannot be ignored. Not only did he fail to identify and correct problems in the jails, he exacerbated them. The commission learned about his ill-advised statements and decisions from a wide array of witnesses and sources. Over the course of several years, the Undersheriff encouraged deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities and created an environment that discouraged accountability for misconduct.” It sounds like they talked to an awful lot of people.
PT: That is a well-written piece of fiction. First of all they did not talk to a lot of people. I can tell you the handful of people that talked to you and if you were to look at the individuals they talk to you they were individuals who were disgruntled and who were concerned that if I were running for office and if I were to become sheriff, they would have to be held accountable to levels that they were not accustomed to and not comfortable with.
WO: So you’re saying that the people who were witnesses and gave the testimony under oath to the commission were people who had it in for you and wanted to make sure you wouldn’t become sheriff?
PT: I’m saying that and I’m saying that they flat out lied to the commission.
WO: Can you be specific about who were the witnesses that told the lies?
PT: Well I’m not going to name their names, but some of the…
WO: They named you’re name.
PT: I understand. Well lets talk about some of the folks that were in their report I don’t know if they’re named, but there was a lieutenant , who claimed that I, a lieutenant and a sergeant who claimed that I coddled deputies. Nowhere during my 33 years especially from the rank of when I was a supervisor going back 25 years will you ever find anyone who’s ever worked for me that says I’ve coddled deputies. In fact, even the LA Times noted that I had a long history of being a strict no nonsense disciplinarian. Now I support deputies, I happen to think that men and women in law enforcement do a job most people on this earth can’t and wont do. And I support them in their efforts. But I have never tolerated misconduct or misbehavior on the part of law enforcement officers.
WO: The commission says that you “berated supervisors who attempted to hold deputies accountable for their conduct.” Is that just simply untrue?
PT: That is untrue 100 percent.
WO: how come you haven’t I been more explicit about your disagreement with
The commission. How come you haven’t in fact named some of the people that you said lied under oath to this commission don’t you have to be more outgoing about this if you’re going to run for sheriff.
PT: Sir, I don’t I don’t believe I need to get into a name calling match with others. They know who they are, the Commission knows who they are. They are not credible individuals. I’ve worked over the course of 33 years in this business and 15 years here is a councilperson and mayor of the city of Gardena. You will not find anyone who is telling the truth that will say anything other than, my proven track record will show that my focus has always been on good government, fighting crime and fiscal responsibility. And that is the way I conducted myself for 33 years in that business.
WO: what about the Commission members themselves they are I don’t have a list of them in front of me but they include the former judges and others who have been involved with the system here for a long period of time. the justice system not just in the county but in the state. They are serious people I think you’d have to concede. Do you hold them accountable for putting out a report that you say is false?
PT: I happen to believe that each member of that panel is a highly regarded respected member of this community. And individually and on a personal level, they offered a lot to the citizens during their particular roles of service. However, I still fundamentally disagree with their findings . Blue Ribbon Commission notwithstanding, the findings were wrong.
WO: How could that happen given the nature of the Commission, why would people that you hold in such high regard allow a report to go out under their names that is as false as you contend it is?
PT: Sir, why would the federal government of the United States spy on friendly countries okay? There’s a lot of things that we question that we weren’t raised to believe. We were raised to believe that the Communists were the bad people, ok? And so I can’t explain why they did what they did. I can just tell you that those findings were closer to fiction than anything else.
WO: So if in fact you were elected sheriff what would you do?
PT: The first order of business. I would fix the house. The sheriff’s department right now is a house of cards. There are people at the highest levels that are all trying to get at each other and you should really do some research into this. They’re supporting their survival is what they’re supporting. There’s no one that’s working together for the common good and that is to provide public safety. The first order of business I would do, is I would put together a structure, a simple paramilitary quasi-military structure that shows the chain of command – who is accountable to whom and what your responsibilities are. Next I would bring up the hiring standards. The hiring standards have been so tinkered with in the last 15 years that it’s really hard to tell who’s eligible and who’s not for what should be a job that requires only those of the highest character and conduct to be in this business and finally the accountability system that I would put in place is one that would hold every single person in the organization accountable for doing a job that society expects to be at the very top in the way you conduct yourself. And that accountability system would include myself, you will find it in 33 years again in law enforcement 15 years and in city government service, Paul Tanaka has never pointed the finger at somebody else and said they are to blame. If I’ve done something I will accept responsibility and that’s the biggest change.
WO: You are undersheriff, you are the second highest person in that office after the sheriff himself. When you say that all these changes need to be made, aren’t you in some sense running against your own record?
PT: Sir, in this business, and I don’t know if you were in the military or if you were in law enforcement, but there’s a structure. I had four stars, the assistant sheriffs had three stars, the chiefs had two stars, etcetera. You can put all the stars in one bucket, but if the man with five stars says go right and we all say we should go left, his five stars equates to more than everybody else’s. One of the reasons why I had to leave is when you get to a point where you are philosophically on a completely different page than your boss and there are a lot of changes that need to be made and those are some of the ones I just described to you.
WO: You did, however, as I understand it, ascknowledgge to the commission that if you had diligent about monitoring excessive force when you were assistant sheriff for custody, the department might not be grappling with that issue right now, might not be under investigation by the federal government.
PT: If you look at the transcript there was one particular commissioner who asked me the same question multiple times do you accept responsibility, and it was like okay if I just say something of course. Anybody in retrospect , anybody who sits in that Monday morning chair as perfect eyesight, okay. Anybody can always say when something has going wrong , I could have done better. We all could say that. The fact of the matter is if you look at the years when I was the assistant sheriff – 05 and 06 – leading up to the first few months of 07, there was no problem with jail force. There was nothing that was reported and there was nothing that was reported on during those particular years in which I was in charge of the jails.