The conviction of former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka on Wednesday for corruption of justice is not only an important milestone in the process of reforming the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, but a significant step towards the reform of American policing in general.
While prosecutors are notoriously slow to bring charges against police officers—and juries are equally reluctant to convict those few officers who are charged with crimes—the case of the scandal-ridden L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) has already produced convictions or plea deals with 19 former department members—with one more jail brutality trial still to go.
Yet none of the LASD convictions are of more consequence than the verdict that a seven-woman, three-man jury handed down this week against Paul Tanaka.
Technically, Tanaka was the second in command at the LASD. But according to those who know the department best, Tanaka was, in many ways, the “shadow sheriff”— the real power behind the throne of the once wildly popular former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca.
Many believed he was in line to become the county’s next sheriff.
(Baca has himself pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to federal officials about his part in the actions that led to Tanaka’s conviction. He is scheduled to be sentenced in May.)
City and county officials say the conviction closed the door on a disturbing period of police wrongdoing in the county’s history.
“The era of corruption which characterized the upper management in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has ended with the conviction of former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka,” declared one police union official after the verdict.
But changing a toxic culture in a large organization of any kind does not happen quickly or easily. That is also true of police agencies. And the conditions that triggered the multi-year FBI investigation into LASD corruption and brutality, which ultimately led to so many convictions (including Tanaka’s conviction for trying to disrupt the feds’ probe) have not vanished overnight.
The decent cops in the LA sheriff’s department, who are assuredly in the majority, would be the first to agree that the battle is far from over. Change—whether it is personal or institutional—is generally four steps forward, three-and-half back.
Thus, in contemplating new and better directions for the LASD, and other U.S. police agencies, it might help to take a look at how and why the Tanaka trial’s jury members made their decision, and what their perceptions say about the future of American policing.
The LASD claims on its website that it is the “largest sheriff’s department in the world,” with over 18,000 employees. If one is simply counting sworn officers, it is the third largest law enforcement agency in the U.S., after New York and Chicago.
It is arguably the nation’s largest in geographical terms, with a coverage area of more than 4,000 square miles that includes 40 cities and 90 unincorporated communities. Adding to the complexity is its oversight of marinas, parks, government buildings, and both the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Metrolink and, most notoriously, the U.S.’s largest jail system.
(The city of Los Angeles is protected by the Los Angeles Police Department.)
In the years since WitnessLA first started reporting about Tanaka in September 2011, the troubles of the LASD have become an exemplar of the systemic problems of law enforcement in the U.S. That includes a lack of transparency and a conviction that officers’ actions—even if they go outside the letter of the law—are always justified in the name of public safety.
But the LASD’s problems ran deeper than just unnecessary use of force. In December 2011, WitnessLA broke the news that the largely unknown Mr. Tanaka wielded a startling amount of control in the LASD with what sources described as system of secret patronage and favoritism inside the department, where promotions and coveted assignments were acquired less by merit, than through a pay-to-play system of loyalty and favors given and received.
As I wrote here in March, 2013, “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.”
Instead, on June 20, 2016, United States District Judge Percy Anderson will sentence Paul Tanaka, who is 57, to federal prison. Tanaka faces a statutory maximum sentence of 15 years.
The Jury & The Verdict
The trial opened in the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on March 24. Around 9:20 a.m. on Wednesday, April 6, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson got a note from the jury.
By that time, the jurors had been deliberating for less than three hours; so when word came down about the note, most of the attorneys and trial- watchers figured the jury panel merely wanted some kind of clarification, or perhaps a read-back of testimony.
But the jurors needed no additional information. They had a verdict.
They found Paul Tanaka guilty on both counts of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice in connection with allegations that Tanaka directed and oversaw deliberate efforts to disrupt an FBI investigation into a culture of brutality and corruption inside the LA County jails.
The FBI probe began in 2010.
Specifically, the prosecution contended that, from mid-August 2011 through Sept. 26, 2011, Tanaka and department members under his direction devised a scheme to hide a jail inmate-turned-confidential-informant from his FBI handlers.
Evidence at the trial showed that a complicated strategy of multiple name changes made the federal informant, Anthony Brown, appear to vanish from the LA County jail system.
The government also alleged that department members under Tanaka’s command attempted to intimidate potential witnesses who had information about deputy wrongdoing, into refusing to cooperate with the FBI. Then the same group falsely threatened an FBI agent with arrest, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to force her to give them information about the ongoing federal investigation.
“He was running the show,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox said of Tanaka. “We knew that from the beginning.”
The defense told a very different story. Tanaka’s lawyers drew a portrait of a brilliant and demanding—but scrupulously ethical—lawman, who did what his boss, the sheriff, lawfully ordered him to do.
They maintained he was responsible for none of the actions described by the government—and their primary evidence for this counter-narrative was the testimony of Tanaka himself.
The jury didn’t buy the message or the messenger, whom they found “devious.” In interviews with the press following the verdict, jurors said they became convinced early on that Tanaka was the man in charge.
“The defense kept saying that Tanaka was a proactive leader,” said Corrine Zemliak, the jury forewoman, “and so he acted like a proactive leader.”
Jurors said this idea was strengthened by several of the prosecution’s witnesses who said that, years earlier, when Tanaka was assistant sheriff in charge of patrol, “he still was involved on the custody side,” telling people what to do, said Zemliak.
And the lieutenants involved in moving Anthony Brown kept calling Tanaka, rather than “going through the normal chain of command,” she said. “Why would the lieutenants call the undersheriff if he wasn’t involved?”
There were several pieces of evidence that helped tip the balance, said juror Theresa Cisneros.
One of the strongest, she said, was an audio recording involving former LASD sergeants, Maricela Long and Scott Craig, the two department members who cornered FBI special agent Leah Marx outside her apartment.
The recording, made by Long and Craig, provided a record of the phone call they received from Marx’s boss at the FBI after the agent reported her encounter with the two sergeants who told her that a warrant was being sworn out for her arrest—even though the arrest threat was purely a ruse.
But the FBI took the threat seriously. So Marx’s supervisor telephoned to ask Long and Craig if there really was a warrant and, if so, when it would be sworn out.
“It could be tomorrow, sir,” Long replied. “You’re going to have to talk to the undersheriff.”
Long repeated the instruction to call the undersheriff, meaning Tanaka; then, after ringing off, she clearly did not realize that she was still recording, so chuckled and said, “They’rescared! They’re like, do you know when– is the warrant….”
“You’re still rolling,” Craig warned her, and the recording ended.
The jurors said they were similarly disturbed by the department’s covertly recorded video of Marx being accosted by Long and Craig.
“It was bullying,” said Cisneros and juror Belinda Becerra of the two sergeants’ encounter with Marx. “They are the law and they thought they could act above the law.”
The jurors also said they came to recognize the significance of the trial over the nearly three weeks of testimony.
“We understood a lot was at stake,” a juror said, “and we really wanted to do our civic duty. “
“We knew it was not just about Los Angeles,” added another juror.
Is The Chapter Closed?
Jim McDonnell, who defeated Mr. Tanaka in the 2014 political race to succeed Lee Baca as sheriff of the scandal scarred department, was conciliatory in his post- verdict message.
“We look forward to closing this particularly troubling chapter in the Sheriff’s Department’s otherwise long history of providing essential public services in a professional and caring manner.”
But is that chapter really about to close?
When I asked members of the jury what, if anything, they learned from their trial experience regarding the allegations of corruption and brutality that the FBI had been investigating (which Tanaka and those under his direction seemed intent on sweeping out of sight), their response was not upbeat.
“It was very concerning,” said forewoman Corrine Zemliak as several of her fellow jurors murmured agreement.
“We have a lot of work to do. A lot of work.”
In an era when police—and policing culture—has been the focus of angry scrutiny in communities from Chicago to New Orleans, the jurors’ blunt verdict in the Tanaka trial is the latest indication that the public is now a critical player in driving real change.
Celeste Fremon is the founder and editor of WitnessLA.com, which began investigating corruption at the LASD as early as 2011. She is presently working on Downfall, a book about scandal and corruption inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. She welcomes comments from readers.