Tanaka to Retire as Undersheriff

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Rafu Staff and Wire Reports

Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, the department’s second-in-command who came under fire by a commission investigating violence in county jails, announced his retirement Wednesday.

Sheriff Lee Baca named Paul Tanaka undersheriff in 2011.

Tanaka, who has been with the department since 1982, starting his career as a custody deputy before moving on to Carson Station and patrol, will retire effective Aug. 1.

According to the department, Tanaka is a certified public accountant who has managed the agency’s $2.5 billion budget for the past nine years as a chief, assistant sheriff, and undersheriff.

Tanaka was criticized last year in a report by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which was created to investigate allegations of abuse against inmates. The panel’s investigators found that Tanaka — as overseer of the jail system — not only failed to address concerns about violence against inmates by discouraging investigations into alleged deputy misconduct, but actually urged deputies to be aggressive against inmates.

The investigators also faulted Sheriff Lee Baca, saying he failed to discipline Tanaka or other top managers despite admitting errors in judgment.

Baca acknowledged that some deputies “have done some terrible things” in the jails, but he took issue with the panel’s characterizations of deputies running rampant in the jails.

Baca said he would hire a new assistant sheriff to oversee the jails, and Tanaka’s role in recent months has primarily been to oversee the agency’s budget.

In a statement announcing his retirement, the Sheriff’s Department said, “Mr. Tanaka developed a Department of Justice award-winning High-Impact Community-Based Policing Program that reduced crime by implementing public trust, problem-solving strategies. Also, he created and developed the Asian Crimes Task Force that apprehended criminals preying on the Asian community.

“Mr. Tanaka, moreover, directed the Gang Crimes Enforcement Program that significantly reduced gang murders. Mr. Tanaka received numerous commendations for his effort in reducing crime.”

In an editorial on Friday, The Los Angeles Times called Tanaka’s departure “welcome news” and said, “Few who have followed the upheaval in Sheriff Lee Baca’s department over the last couple of years can have forgotten Tanaka’s infamous statement to deputies encouraging them to work in the ‘gray area’ — language Tanaka insists was misinterpreted and not intended to imply that jailers should break the rules or use violence against inmates.

“Baca’s office said Wednesday that Tanaka’s exit was voluntary and unrelated to the criticism of his performance. Yet whether the undersheriff simply chose to retire after 30-plus years or was forced out makes no difference. What is important is that Baca, who doesn’t face re-election until next year, seizes the opportunity presented by Tanaka’s departure. Among other things, he should require a zero-tolerance policy toward deputies who make false statements or engage in excessive use of force, and create a separate career track for deputies who work in the jails.”

The Times also raised questions about Tanaka’s involvement in the shipment of bullet-proof vests from the Sheriff’s Department to the government of Cambodia through the City of Gardena in 2002, when he was a city councilman and the sheriff’s chief of administrative services. Tanaka insists that the matter has been investigated repeatedly and nothing improper was found.

The announcement of Tanaka’s retirement comes just one day after he won re-election to a third term as mayor of Gardena. Although he did not actively campaign, he easily beat Councilmember Rachel Johnson, 2,775 votes (58.6%) to 1,686 (35.6%). Councilmember Dan Medina, a write-in candidate, was a distant third with 272 (5.7%).

Johnson had said that the controversy surrounding Tanaka was a factor in her decision to run. “At first, I didn’t know the depth of his troubles,” she told The Daily Breeze in January. “I filed (election papers) because I wanted the conversation to be on the positive things that are going on in the City of Gardena. I didn’t want the focus of the campaign to be on his professional troubles.”

The Daily Breeze itself agreed with that assessment, stating in an editorial last month, “The residents of Gardena do not need a mayor who is mired in so much controversy.”

But Tanaka’s troubles did not deter voters from returning him to office.

“With no campaign, no dollars spent, it was 62 to 38 percent,” Tanaka told The Rafu Shimpo on Wednesday while votes were still being counted. “… There are people scratching their heads.”

He added, “People know I’ve been in Gardena for 48 years. For the last 14, the record speaks for itself. We’ve gone from $5 million in the red to $10 million (in the black), from high crime to low crime. You look at the community involvement, the relationships, the engagement between the police and an 80-percent minority community. It’s nothing short of textbook phenomenal.”

Regarding the allegations, Tanaka told The Daily Breeze, “They’ve never been able to find any evidence other than anecdotal (about inmate abuse). I don’t have a concern. They can investigate me forever about anything.”

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