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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

LA Sheriff's race: The many faces of Paul Tanaka

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There are two things voters need to know about Paul Tanaka.

First, he knows more about the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department than just about anyone. He joined the department in 1982 and climbed through the ranks to undersheriff — the second most powerful position in the sprawling agency that employs 18,000 people.

Second, he faces more criticism for the department’s problems than just about anyone. The chorus of critics is only growing as he competes with six other candidates for one of the most powerful law enforcement jobs in California.

Tanaka left the department last year. His relationship with then-Sheriff Lee Baca had soured, especially after they were both excoriated for their leadership — or lack thereof — by the blue ribbon Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

But as Tanaka seeks to replace the man who was responsible for his rise at the Sheriff''s Department, can he overcome the negative perceptions and convince voters that he should be the face of law enforcement for Los Angeles County?

RELATED: A look at the candidates for L.A. County Sheriff

Early on, Tanaka had little interest in being a cop. It’s hard to imagine now, but the buttoned-down Tanaka once wore a ponytail. “A lot of people had long hair back in the 1970s,” he explains.

He also adhered to the cultural rules in his strict Japanese-American household in Gardena, earning a black belt in Aikito and respecting his parent’s wishes.

“In an Asian family, you’re going to be a doctor or an attorney or a CPA,” says Tanaka, sporting a dark suit and tie on a recent afternoon at his campaign headquarters in Torrance.

He was an "A" student, studying accounting at Loyola Marymount University and holding down two jobs — one as a janitor, one making sports trophies — when his life changed. He spent a day on patrol with a sheriff’s deputy as part of a class and fell in love with policing.

It took years for Tanaka's father to fully accept his eldest son’s decision. The young man had to adjust too:"One of the more traumatizing things was I had to do was cut my hair.”

The heir apparent

Early in his career, Tanaka says he faced racial epithets in a mostly white department. He ignored most, chalking it up to ignorance. Over the years, the certified public accountant gained a reputation as detail-oriented — a commander who knew more about your job than you did.

Tanaka grew close to Baca, who eventually appointed him undersheriff.  Tanaka became the heir apparent. The jail violence scandal that surfaced three years ago changed all of that.

Did he know about deputy abuse of inmates when he ran the jails from 2005-07? Tanaka claimed ignorance to the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

“It was never brought to my attention,” he said in his testimony.

What about violent deputy cliques inside Men’s Central Jail?

“That was never, ever mentioned as a problem,” he said.

But the panel found “a persistent pattern of unreasonable force” against inmates and said Tanaka and Baca “enabled or failed to remediate overly aggressive deputy behavior.”

Since then, a federal grand jury has indicted 20 current or former deputies in an ongoing investigation of abuse and corruption. Tanaka, who has not been named in the indictments, stepped down last year.

Policing in 'the gray area'

The panel expressed concern about Tanaka’s use of the term “gray area.” That apparently means different things to different people. For retired Lt. Craig Ditsch, it meant proactive policing.

“We need more guys stopping suspicious vehicles and stopping suspicious suspects,” Ditsch says. He was one of about two dozen deputies who showed up at a recent sheriff’s debate, wearing pro-Tanaka t-shirts.

“I love the guy,” Ditsch says. “He’s a great leader – very supportive of deputies.”

Lt. Alex Villanueva disagrees. He says Tanaka's "gray area" talk suggested to underlings that they bend the law to catch criminals. “I think he has contempt for the body of law that governs what we do out in the field,” Villanueva says.

Tanaka denies the charge, and offers an explanation of the gray area. There’s the black line of the law and then there’s a white line, he says.

“The white line is the line you grew up with since the time you were five years old,” he says. “You know right from wrong.”

Asked to clarify, Tanaka says deputies should operate in a gray area between the black line of the law and the white line of their values.

If you think that’s confusing, you're not alone. Former federal judge Robert Bonner, who once ran the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and sat on the jail commission, says Tanaka’s approach creates confusion and leads to abuses. Bonner says he has other issues with the former undersheriff: he believes Tanaka discouraged supervisors from investigating allegations of misconduct and nixed a captain’s plan to break up deputy cliques.

“Overall, I would say Paul Tanaka was part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Bonner says.

Bonner favors electing an outsider to run the department, and has endorsed Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell.

Overcoming the negatives

Tanaka calls the panel’s report a “hit piece” against him. He blames Baca for the problems at the department, and promises more accountability if elected.

“Everybody knows me," Tanaka says. "If there is anyone who did not coddle deputies, it was me."

As part of a 1990s civil case, a federal judge described the Vikings — a clique of deputies at the Lynwood sheriff's station — as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang." Tanaka, who worked at the station in the '80s, admits to having a Vikings tattoo on an ankle.

Tanaka, who was not named in the lawsuit, scoffs at the judge's characterization, saying, “It was no big thing. [The viking] was a mascot."

Tanaka, 55, has lived in Gardena since he was in the second grade. For the past ten years, he has been the city's mayor. City Councilwoman Tasha Cerda credits Tanaka and his CPA training with lifting the city out of near bankruptcy.

But some people within the sheriff’s department have accused Tanaka of promoting people who donated to his political campaigns for mayor. One retired deputy told the jail violence panel you were said to be “in the car” with Tanaka if you donated.

Tanaka denies this. He attributes the accusations to people with grudges. He boldly predicts many will flee the department if he is elected.

“The day that I am elected, 50 percent or more of the command staff will probably turn in their retirement papers,” he says. “They don’t have the political strength and leadership to lead.”

Tanaka has hired a former political consultant to Arnold Schwarzenegger and raised more money than any other candidate — in part because he started earlier.

His candidacy has stirred excitement among Asian-American leaders.

“A lot of people are looking forward to seeing the very first Asian-American sheriff,” says Rosemead City Councilwoman Polly Low, who heads the Chinese American Elected Leaders Association.

What about concerns over Tanaka’s leadership at the sheriff’s department? Low calls them rumors. She says there’s always negative publicity during a campaign.

The other candidates include Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, current Assistant Sheriffs James Hellmold and Todd Rogers, former Commander Bob Olmsted, LAPD Sgt. Lou Vince, and former sheriff’s lieutenant Patrick Gomez.

The primary election is June 3rd.

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