The encouraging message in the indictment Thursday of former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka on charges of obstructing an FBI investigation into the jails is that wrongdoers at the highest level of county government will be held accountable.
That’s important, because for months it appeared that top leaders of the Sheriff’s Department might escape consequences for any role they played in separating a jailed bank robber-turned FBI informant from his handlers in a 2011 federal probe into abuse of inmates by deputies. Seven deputies were convicted and sentenced last year in the scheme to conceal the informant while Tanaka, rumored to be the mastermind of the operation, campaigned to become the new sheriff. Jim McDonnell easily defeated him, but in the ensuing months there were only occasional hints that Tanaka ultimately might be held to answer for any misdeeds.
The indictments of Tanaka and former Capt. William “Tom” Carey, who oversaw the department’s internal criminal investigations, end the worry that federal prosecutors only went after the frontline deputies. So what about then-Sheriff Lee Baca? Did he direct Tanaka to frustrate the FBI probe? Or was he perhaps so detached and clueless that he could not see what Tanaka and other top department officials were doing under his nose?
It’s necessary to keep in mind that although Tanaka and Carey were indicted on suspicion of obstruction of justice, the underlying investigation targeted brutality in the jails; that investigation is ongoing. The structure, culture and oversight of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department all contributed to a pattern of abuse of inmates and substandard jail conditions, problems that were so severe that they overshadowed the coverups, aggressive deputy cliques, racially biased patrolling in the Antelope Valley and other intolerable practices.
Some of those problems appear to have been exacerbated upon Baca’s appointment of Tanaka as undersheriff, and it will be tempting to believe they began at that point and ended with Tanaka’s 2013 retirement, last year’s election, Thursday’s indictment or some future indictment or conviction.
But it’s not that simple. Sheriff’s Department arrogance and dysfunction date back decades, and the department is not merely in need of a thorough de-Tanakafication. Federal prosecutors must continue to do their work; but so must the new inspector general, the designers of an oversight commission, county supervisors, voters and those many honorable deputies who insist on constitutional policing.
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