Baca, Tanaka sharply criticized in final sheriff watchdog’s report

Retired Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, with wife Valerie Tanaka, speaks to reporters while awaiting results of the California primary race for Los Angeles County sheriff.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For the Times)

In a stinging final rebuke, the longtime civilian watchdog for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department accused top leaders of letting their worst employees run rampant, causing a series of scandals that tarnished the agency.

Merrick Bobb has been the Board of Supervisors’ special counsel reviewing the department for 22 years, and has written reports on how the agency is run.

But this last report before Bobb steps aside was particularly cutting, placing much of the blame for a jail abuse scandal — in which criminal charges have been filed against 20 sheriff’s officials since December — at the feet of former Sheriff Lee Baca and his chief assistant, Paul Tanaka.

In the 62-page report released Thursday, Bobb described Tanaka, who is running for sheriff, as the leader of “an anti-reform counter movement” who encouraged deputies to “work in the gray zone” while Baca and the Board of Supervisors paid little attention.


Tanaka, the report said, has changed little since he was a member of a tattooed deputy clique in Lynwood that reportedly rewarded its members for using excessive force against suspects.

Tanaka is one of the sheriff’s officials still under federal investigation. Six deputies were convicted of obstructing the FBI, and others have been charged with brutalizing inmates and jail visitors. Tanaka is now in a runoff election against Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, but his bid is considered a long shot because he received only 15% of the primary vote.

Tanaka’s attorney, Ronald Nessim, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Baca, who unexpectedly resigned in January, was portrayed in the report as a weak and distant leader who gave Tanaka too much power.

“To say that Sheriff Baca over-delegated to Paul Tanaka understates the matter,” the report said. “Paul Tanaka managed to repay Baca’s loyalty, quick promotions, and sustained mentoring by undercutting the Department’s moral authority and mocking the values that Lee Baca so often professed to be central to his vision.”

Tanaka, a 31-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department, was forced into retirement by Baca in 2013 because of the jail issues and other management missteps.

Baca, who was traveling Thursday, sent a statement through his former spokesman, Steve Whitmore.

“I have appreciated everything Merrick Bobb has done,” Baca said. “In his reports, he has made strong contributions to the Sheriff’s Department in the areas of custody, patrol and civil liability. I want to thank him for his 22 years of service.”

Bobb is departing because of a change in the way the Board of Supervisors oversees the Sheriff’s Department. Following the jail scandal, the board decided to eliminate Bobb’s office as well as a second civilian oversight team in favor of having an inspector general. Earlier this week, the board decided to hold off on a citizens oversight commission that would have supplemented the new inspector general.

Some department critics have questioned how such serious problems could have festered under the watch of the two civilian monitors.

Miriam Krinsky, who led a blue-ribbon panel that looked into the jail abuse allegations, said Bobb had a small staff and was authorized primarily to issue semi-annual reports.

“He made the same recommendations, expressed the same kind of concerns, and years later, in a Groundhog Day-type fashion, he returned to the problem, often with little progress being made,” Krinsky said. “It wasn’t realistic to say that Merrick Bobb alone could implement change.”

The sheriff is an elected official who does not answer to the Board of Supervisors, even though the Sheriff’s Department is a county agency. In his final report, Bobb called this “the nub of the problem.”

Had supervisors kept tabs on problem deputies and disciplined them appropriately, as his earlier reports recommended, the jail scandal could have been averted, Bobb said.

The report said that Baca “preferred carrots to sticks,” and turned weekly data analysis meetings from “a powerful tool for accountability to a love fest.”

A reluctance on the part of management to probe misconduct “meant that the LASD in the Baca-Tanaka years chose not to find out what was going on in front of their eyes,” the report said.

“I would say in general, they need to pay more attention to accountability up the chain of command and concentrate on how best to train supervisors to identify and deal with officers who may be or may become problematic,” Bobb said in an interview.

The rest of Bobb’s final report focused on four areas — gang enforcement, litigation costs, police dog bites and employee discipline.

Anti-gang units in the county’s most dangerous neighborhoods engage in overly aggressive policing instead of working with community members to find solutions to the gang problem, the report said.

Local residents told the report’s authors that while deputies no longer engage in criminal behavior, such as planting evidence and lying, they still stop and frisk people for no apparent reason, sometimes brandishing guns and rummaging through cars.

In fiscal year 2012-2013, the Sheriff’s Department spent $43 million on litigation costs, including attorneys fees, the report said. Over 46% of those costs related to cases involving excessive force. “$43 million is a big hit to the County’s budget, and could be better spent on law enforcement personnel, equipment, and training,” the report said.

Payouts from lawsuits in 2013 totaled about $12 million, the report said, down from the previous year. The report said the decrease was somewhat surprising, considering the negative publicity surrounding the Sheriff’s Department.

Dogs in the Sheriff’s Department’s canine units are not biting suspects as frequently as before, which is a move in the right direction, the report said. It added that further study is needed to determine why most bite victims are black or Latino.

The report said the Sheriff’s Department is making progress in assigning employees who have committed minor infractions to classroom training, while those guilty of more serious offenses such as unreasonable force or false statements are generally placed on unpaid suspension.

In a prepared statement Thursday, interim Sheriff John Scott said, “There were some good points made in this recent report that we will be looking into.... We also appreciate all of the positive comments mentioned in the report about the numerous steps the Department has made at reform.”