The Downfall of Sheriff Baca

Lee Baca fancied himself a visionary. His number two, Paul Tanaka, considered himself a force to be reckoned with. Together they allowed one of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agencies to drift into a morass of scandal that compelled both to retire. How did things get so bad?


Leroy David Baca was born in East Los Angeles to an undocumented seamstress who as a baby was brought north by her parents from the state of Michoacán in Mexico. His father was, as Baca described him, a ladies’ man who wore beautiful suits. The couple divorced before Baca’s first birthday, leaving his mother to raise Baca and his older sister alone. The young mother coped until she had a third child with another man who failed to stick around. Fearing an emotional capsize, she decided to give one of her children to the county foster care system. She chose seven-year-old Lee.

Horrified, Baca’s paternal grandmother stepped in to rescue the boy.  She was a stoic woman with a kind but alcoholic husband. When she agreed to raise her grandson, she was already caring for a severely mentally disabled adult son, with whom Baca would share a bedroom for the next seven years. The long hours spent with his invalid uncle were formative for Baca. “It teaches you about the value of loving your own life,” he said to an audience of USC students in 2012, “because someone that should be able to love his own life was denied that opportunity. So that kind of became the cornerstone of how I manage things.”

At 14 Baca moved in with his father, who had remarried and was living in a one-bedroom apartment. His son was relegated to an area in a windowless cellar. At Benjamin Franklin High School in Highland Park, Baca got Cs and Ds, but he was popular enough to be elected senior class president. After school, he avoided going home by volunteering for every service club that would accept him. During an adolescence that was short on familial warmth, Baca dreamed of a life in law enforcement, which he thought a “powerful” profession. “I wanted to help people,” he said later when asked why the job attracted him. He applied for the LAPD’s cadet program after graduation but flunked the entrance exam. “I didn’t think you’d pass it anyway,” his father told him.

Baca has pointed to the moment as the lowest in his life. He realized he’d “better wake up,” he said. “When you start to lose the dream, you can get in real trouble fast, but I didn’t. Because I’m not disposed for self-destruction.” For the next five years Baca worked a variety of jobs as he trudged toward an associates degree at East Los Angeles College. In 1965, he tried again to become a cop, this time with the Los Angeles sheriff’s department. Though he barely passed the entrance exam, the LASD’s paramilitary structure seemed to give Baca the emotional ballast to begin to retool his psyche. “I was caught up in this thing of not having a good opinion of myself,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be viewed as a mediocre performer.”

The LASD encourages its deputies to seek higher education, so Baca went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1971 and a master’s in 1973. Two decades later he got a Ph.D. in public administration from USC. In his first round of graduate school, Baca gained the mental discipline he’d lacked. His discipline turned physical when he became a “fitness nut” at 36 and began his regimen of running 40 miles a week. Baca developed a mantralike credo to guide his actions: High standards, best effort, noble thoughts. “Noble thoughts keep you in check,” he said. “There is a purpose in your excellence. It’s not just to serve your needs. It’s to serve other people’s needs…. I serve people. That’s my mission. It’s to help people climb out from the things that are getting in the way of their goodness.”

In the 1970s, Baca was deeply influenced by social anthropologist Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death. Becker believed, as Baca put it, “that every human being has heroic instincts.” Armed with Becker’s ideas, Baca began to develop his own theories about law enforcement and leadership, which he tried out in small ways as a staff instructor at the Sheriff’s Academy. When in 1981 he was promoted to the rank of captain and assigned to run the department’s Norwalk station, Baca was able to put his theories into practice. “He had this idea of a new kind of deputy accountability,” said John Stites, a retired LASD sergeant and the former president of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association, one of the LASD’s two powerful labor unions. “He believed that when deputies got caught doing something wrong, rather than beat them to death with punishment, you should see this as an opportunity for education, and to promote leadership.”

Sherman Block was sheriff when Baca levitated through the ranks during the 1980s. Chicago born, with a pleasantly extravagant personality and a hair-trigger temper, Block didn’t altogether agree with his captain’s touchy-feely notions. He was, however, interested in Baca’s potential. “Block was old school,” Stites told me. “But he saw Baca as talented, as someone he could use.” In January 1992, Block elevated Baca to the rank of chief, assigning him to special projects, such as going to Sacramento to push for the passage of the latest public safety funding bill. By then a father of two nearing the end of his marriage (he would marry his present wife, Carol Chiang, in 1999), Baca was a natural lobbyist, enchanting lawmakers with his impassioned and un-cop-sounding progressive ideas about the future of law enforcement. The political relationships he was forming would soon prove useful.

Baca had intended to run for sheriff only after his boss announced his retirement—which, Block told him, would be at the end of his fourth term in 1998. The longtime sheriff was 74 years old, with daunting health issues: He had survived two bouts of cancer, was suffering from kidney failure, sometimes fainted in meetings, and experienced occasional episodes of confusion. “Block was losing it,” Stites told me. “His time was finished. Lee saw it. We all saw it.”

Nevertheless, the aging warhorse went back on his promise and ran again. As a powerful member of L.A.’s political old guard, Block had an unwavering hold on Westside and Valley voters as well as organized labor. Dismissing his physical frailties as irrelevant, Block assumed he was guaranteed the election.

Baca ran anyway, fashioning a dark horse candidacy from a patchwork coalition of Latinos, blacks, Asians, Armenians, and other constituencies that had felt locked out of the political center. In the June primary the tactic got Baca into a runoff with the sheriff. His surprising success against his mentor so undid Baca that for 48 hours he considered quitting the race, until his campaign staff talked him out of it. Then, on October 24, 1998, Block collapsed in his bathroom. The next day a plum-size blood clot was removed from between the two hemispheres of his brain, but a bleed persisted. Block died five days before the election.

Baca begins a 15-year run in 1998 (above). His opponent, Sheriff Sherman Block, had died before the election.

His supporters were furious at Baca, whom they saw as a disloyal lightweight. They continued to campaign, hoping their dead sheriff would still beat the live challenger and force the selection into the hands of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, who would likely choose someone more to their liking. The scheme failed. Baca won by 61.3 percent to Block’s 38.7.

The new sheriff had ambitious plans. “He wanted to really reinvent the department. Everything was fair game,” said Joaquin Herran, a retired commander who was the leader of one of Baca’s five transition teams. “In general, cops don’t like change,” he said. “But in the first year or two after he was elected, his ideas rejuvenated a lot of people. We felt like we were going to bring law enforcement into the next century.

“Block was respected but caught in the past,” Stites told me, “whereas Baca had these ideas about the future. In the beginning he went around to every station and talked to people about his vision. It got people excited.” In 2001, Baca introduced what he hoped would be a blueprint to remake policing. He called it LASD2. Among the ideas the initiative contained were proposals to improve law enforcement’s interaction with battered women, to establish a system of deputy performance evaluations that rewarded officers for community outreach—not merely arrests—and to develop a step-by-step framework for shaking loose federal funding for the LASD’s new endeavors.

I talked to Baca frequently in the course of my reporting early in his first term. I liked him and would come to know him well enough to witness the quirks of his personality. I’d watch him speak with unfeignable kindness to former gang members trying to make good and tell a room full of experts that “we can’t arrest our way out of” this or that social problem routinely handed to police. A month later I would observe him delivering the keynote at some banquet or other, drifting so loopily far afield in his speech that audience members feared he was having a breakdown. Then there were his jails. The firsthand accounts I’d heard were horrific, and like others, I had trouble squaring the disconnect.

Over time, when Baca’s ideas didn’t always translate into accomplishment (such as his proposed $9 million open-air homeless shelter), people in law enforcement began to express frustration to me. It was a theme that would continue. “Even in those early years he’d talk in 40,000-foot concepts,” said a high-ranking LAPD officer, now retired, who often worked with the LASD on joint projects. Baca was seen as a big-picture man and a dreamer; more conservative members of the rank and file secretly called him “Sheriff Moonbeam.” “[Baca had] interesting concepts in theory,” the retired LAPD executive told me, “but his staff would go crazy because his ideas would cost too much, or they’d conflict with existing programs, or would violate some kind of protocol.”

That Baca was rarely a hands-on manager further hampered his goals. “He delegates, and he delegates broadly,” Merrick Bobb, the special counsel to the supervisors, told me months before Baca’s resignation. “I think he’s had real difficulty finding people whose abilities are consistent with his vision.” As a consequence, when a high-level decision had to be made for a joint agency operation, those involved stopped asking Baca to sign off. “People would go to whoever happened to be the undersheriff at the time,” said the LAPD executive. “Eventually they would go only to Paul Tanaka.”

In certain ways Tanaka, who is 55, provided the perfect counterpoint to Baca’s guru persona. For instance, Tanaka thrived on confrontation. Raised in Gardena, where he still lives with his wife and two children, he was elected Key Club president in high school after running an aggressively critical campaign against his opponent. Baca, on the other hand, avoided conflict. “He didn’t want to criticize Block during the 1998 campaign,” said political consultant Skelton. If Baca was the empathy-driven futurist, the philosopher king, Tanaka was a detail guy who could drive a project from start to finish, micromanaging obsessively when he thought a matter important. “The sheriff was more of a broad thinker,” Tanaka told me. “My approach has always been to get the job done.”

The talent Baca would come to value most was Tanaka’s gift for numbers. He graduated with an accounting degree from Loyola Marymount University, joining the El Segundo Police Department in 1980. His interest in law enforcement was triggered by a police ride-along he took during his junior year as part of a class requirement. “That experience changed the course of my career,” he said. Tanaka switched to the LASD in 1982, earned his CPA’s license, and in his off-hours began a two-decade stint working for an accounting firm. Tanaka added a third focus to his professional life in 1999 by winning a seat on the Gardena City Council, when the city was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. He is credited with reversing the town’s economic fortunes.

In the world of law enforcement, the CPA presented himself as a badass. He embraced the hard-charging young deputies he saw as “real cops,” urging them to do whatever it took to put the lawbreakers away. If they got in trouble with superiors, he said, they could come to him for help. “Work the gray and work it hard,” he would say when speaking to deputies at some of L.A. County’s most troubled stations. “Working the gray” was Tanaka’s term for pushing the limits of legality. He said that “deputies and officers should function right on the edge of the line,” wrote Captain Stephen Roller in a 2007 memo to his commander about his concerns after watching Tanaka address the troops at Century station.

Baca was seen as a big-picture man and a dreamer; more conservative members of the rank and file secretly called him “Sheriff Moonbeam.”

Tanaka was promoted to sergeant in 1987 and transferred to Lynwood station, an especially crime-ridden outpost that tended to attract the department’s cowboys. At Lynwood, Tanaka, a Japanese American, became one of the few nonwhites to join a deputy clique called the Vikings. Members of the group sported sequentially numbered Viking warrior tattoos on their ankles and flashed gang-like signs—L for Lynwood. If sergeants or lieutenants tried to rein them in, Vikings were known to slash tires, pour transmission fluid on cars to wreck the finish, and worse, until their targets requested a transfer.

Already a supervisor when he joined, Tanaka became the Vikings’ protector and champion, believing them to be the type of deputies who could lower crime stats. Many of those same Vikings were named as defendants in a class action suit against the department that in 1996 resulted in a $9 million settlement. U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter wrote in his 1991 ruling that the Lynwood Vikings were a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” of deputies whose supervisors “tacitly authorize deputies’ unconstitutional behavior.”

Tanaka wasn’t named in that lawsuit. However, a year after he received his Viking tattoo, he and four Lynwood deputies fired 15 shots, killing an unarmed Korean man named Hong Pyo Lee, who fled police in his car after running a stop sign. In a sworn deposition a Long Beach police officer who witnessed the shooting said he had “observed the sheriffs execute somebody.” The shooting was found to be “lawful,” but Lee’s family sued Los Angeles County and settled for $999,999. The incident did not prevent Tanaka from being promoted to lieutenant in 1991, but it was commonly believed to be among the factors that caused his career to stall for the next seven years under Block. “He cost the county nearly a million bucks,” a department contemporary of Tanaka’s told me. “Block hated that.”

Things changed after Baca was elected. The new sheriff had come to rely on a cluster of acolytes, Tanaka most of all. “There were people in the sheriff’s inner circle who held higher ranks,” an LASD executive said to me the day Baca announced his retirement, “but from the time he was elected, Baca always saw Paul as the heart—and, really, the brains—of that group.” In 2001, Baca’s regard for his most trusted subordinate began to morph into dependence. That was the year when the sheriff, often a profligate spender, overran his budget by $25 million, infuriating the board of supervisors. Panicked, the sheriff turned to Tanaka, who had served as an important moneyman in Baca’s 2002 race, for help. Tanaka rejiggered figures and priorities and balanced the budget, at least in the short term. In addition, he would map out a strategy making it possible for the LASD to pay back the $25 million it owed the county.

The fiscal savior quickly rose from the rank of captain to commander, then to the position of chief of the LASD’s administrative services division. The latter job put Tanaka officially in charge of the department’s $2.4 billion budget as well as giving him the ability to influence promotions and transfers. As he was swiftly upgraded again to assistant sheriff and then to undersheriff, he retained control of the department’s finances. Tanaka did not merely wrangle the budget, he took care to magically find dollars for the sheriff’s favorite progressive priorities, like his leadership training classes and, later, his inmate education programs. By 2006, Tanaka was functioning as a shadow sheriff, the man who called the shots in the department day to day as Baca acted as the LASD’s public face at meetings and other occasions around L.A. County, in Washington, D.C., and, increasingly, around the world. Baca liked the arrangement and either failed to notice or simply disregarded the fact that his loyal subordinate had very specific priorities of his own.

“Paul controlled all access to the sheriff inside the department,” a longtime civilian associate told me. “Which in many cases meant Lee only saw what Paul wanted him to see.”

A union board member put it another way: “For years Tanaka has been playing a long game. I don’t think that Baca ever understood the depth and breadth of it.”

This feature originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.