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L.A. County sheriff's official clarifies 'gray area' comments

Paul Tanaka, who allegedly encouraged deputies to be aggressive, says in a memo that his earlier statement was meant to urge deputies to use discretion when enforcing the law.

July 18, 2012|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Current and retired sheriff’s officials have blamed Undersheriff Paul Tanaka for some of the department’s woes, saying he openly fostered a climate in which deputies engaged in aggressive policing that violated the law and department policies.
Current and retired sheriff’s officials have blamed Undersheriff… (Los Angeles County Sheriff's…)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's top assistant, who has been accused of encouraging deputies to be aggressive and work in the "gray area" of policing, sent a department-wide email Tuesday explaining that he was not condoning misconduct.

"I'm writing this message to ensure that there is no misunderstanding — that when it comes to right or wrong, there is NO gray area," Undersheriff Paul Tanaka wrote. "We have seen deputies fired or prosecuted for operating in their own self-defined gray area, for believing it was ok to do so, for losing their way, for believing the end justified the means, and for compromising their responsibility to do what's right."

When he's used the term "gray area" in the past, Tanaka said he was simply referring to deputies using their discretion when enforcing the law.

"You make a traffic stop because a driver was speeding — do you issue a citation or do you provide a verbal warning? You respond to a call of an intoxicated person — do you book him for being drunk in public, or do you take steps to ensure a responsible adult can take the individual safely home?" Tanaka wrote. "The discretionary authority given to us as law enforcement officers brings with it tremendous responsibility. It requires us to be knowledgeable of all applicable laws, rules, policies and protocols and to enforce them in a manner that is fair, impartial and compassionate."

In recent months, Tanaka said, he's discovered that "the term 'gray area' can be easily misinterpreted by those that choose to do so." He referred to incidents in which deputies have been accused of smuggling contraband into the jails, lying on police reports and associating with "notorious criminals off-duty."

"It disheartens me to see careers and family lives ruined, our Department's reputation tarnished, and our badge dishonored," he said.

Tanaka's own reputation came under attack during recent testimony before a county commission created to investigate allegations of jail abuse. Current and retired sheriff's officials have blamed Tanaka for some of the department's woes, saying he openly fostered a climate in which deputies engaged in aggressive policing that violated the law and department policies.

Their testimony seems to contradict Tanaka's characterization of his past statements. Norwalk Capt. Patrick Maxwell, for example, said he witnessed Tanaka showing disdain for internal affairs investigators, who are responsible for probing possible misconduct. According to Maxwell, Tanaka said at a meeting: "Do you believe LAPD? They have 200 and some [internal affairs] investigators and we have 45. In my opinion, that's 44 too many."

Tanaka declined to elaborate on his email with The Times, according to a department spokesman.

"Everything he's commenting on is in this memo," spokesman Steve Whitmore said. "He lays out exactly what he means and believes and knows to be right."

Baca and Tanaka are expected to address the criticisms of their management styles at the next jail commission meeting, scheduled for later this month.

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