Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, second-in-command to Sheriff Lee Baca, has issued a memo responding to allegations that he condones the use of excessive force by sheriff’s deputies.
In a July 11 editorial headlined “Dysfunction at L.A.’s Jails,” The Los Angeles Times, citing testimony the previous week before a county commission investigating abuses in the county jails, said that Tanaka “allegedly encouraged supervisors to allow deputies to work ‘in the gray area,’ according to Capt. Patrick Maxwell. It’s not completely clear what that means, but it seems to suggest that they might be permitted to break the law or the rules while doing their jobs …
“We’d like to see some evidence that Tanaka and the supervisors are cracking down on those deputies who fail to play by the rules.”
In his July 17 department-wide memo, Tanaka wrote:
“Since you began your career, you were told that, as a peace officer, you were going to possess broad discretionary authority; some, including me,have referred to it as the ‘grey area.’
“You make a traffic stop because a driver was speeding – do you issue a citation or do you provide a verbal warning? You respond to a call of an intoxicated person – do you book him for being drunk in public, or do you take steps to ensure a responsible adult can take the individual safely home? Examples such as these are limitless and serve to underscore the wide-ranging discretionary powers of law enforcement – the powers you possess.
“I’ve come to learn in recent months that the term ‘grey area’ can be easily misinterpreted by those that choose to do so. 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.
“I’m writing this message to ensure that there is no misunderstanding — that when it comes to right or wrong, there is NO grey area.
“The discretionary authority given to us as law enforcement officers brings with it tremendous responsibility. It requires us to be knowledgeable of all applicable laws, rules, policies and protocols and to enforce them in a manner that is fair, impartial and compassionate.
“Being a peace officer necessitates that you maintain an unwavering sense of right and wrong. Cross this line and you violate our department’s core values, dishonor the badge, let down your fellow deputies, bring shame to yourself and embarrass your family.
“Some of you are probably wondering why I’ve chosen to address this issue. The reason is simple – during the past couple of years, we have seen deputies fired or prosecuted for operating in their own self-defined grey area, for believing it was OK to do so, for losing their way, for believing the end justified the means, and for compromising their responsibility to do what’s right. Deputies have been fired and prosecuted for smuggling contraband into our jails to curry favor with inmates, associating with notorious criminals off-duty, lying on police reports, and committing perjury in court.
“I’m writing this because it disheartens me to see careers and family lives ruined, our department’s reputation tarnished, and our badge dishonored.
“You hired on because you wanted to serve the community in the most noble way. You chose to do so with a law enforcement agency that continually strives to be the best in the business. Do what’s right, do it well, and you stand to have a rewarding career in custody, the courts, patrol, investigations or any of the many ancillary assignments our department has to offer.
“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is a proud agency, comprised of some of the finest men and women in law enforcement. The work you do, day in and day out, is commendable and appreciated. Let’s make sure we do it the right way, every day.”