Photo via Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
Paul Tanaka, the undersheriff of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), is the most powerful man in Los Angeles whom few people had ever heard of. Or at least he was until last Wednesday when he abruptly announced his retirement.
He said he wanted to spend more time with his family and hoped to play more golf. But it was not too long ago that Tanaka seemed poised to step into the shoes of LA’s popular elected sheriff, Lee Baca.
For years, Tanaka operated as a sort of shadow sheriff to Baca, who had ceded him an unusual amount of power in the country’s fourth largest local law enforcement agency.
And what power was not delegated to Mr. Tanaka, he found ways to acquire.
A two-year investigation by WitnessLA uncovered what sources described as system of secret patronage and favoritism inside the LASD, where coveted promotions were acquired less by merit, than through loyalty and favoritism. The system appeared to have been established for the sole reason of furthering Tanaka’s ultimate goal: to replace Baca as LA’s next sheriff.
Yet as Tanaka’s power base expanded, the department seemed to become increasingly enmeshed in scandal, including alarming reports of a culture of violence and abuse inside the LASD-run LA County jail system that had flourished under Tanaka’s watch, and a series of still-expanding FBI investigations, some of which allegedly feature the undersheriff as their focus.
The LASD is not the only law enforcement agency that has recently come under scrutiny for questionable practices, but the problems plaguing LA’s sprawling and complicated department are unusual in their depth and sheer variety.
And yet, while Tanaka’s goal of becoming LA County’s top cop appears to have been derailed, whether or not this is Tanaka’s last chapter in the world of Los Angeles power broking remains to be seen.
For WitnessLA’s coverage of the Tanaka resignation, and earlier stories on LASD’s troubles, please click HERE.
Celeste Fremon is founder and editor of WitnessLA.com. A former free-lance reporter for the LA Weekly, the LA Times Magazine, LA Magazine, and Salon, and the author of G-Dog & the Homeboys, Fremon is a 2012 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. Click HERE to hear to her discuss Tanaka’s resignation on the radio show, ‘Which Way, L.A.?’ She welcomes comments from readers.