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?


On a weekday afternoon in the spring of 2005, LASD lieutenant Thomas Sirkel followed his golfing buddy, Commander Paul Yim, through the back door of the Commerce Casino, a poker palace that advertises itself as the largest cardroom in the world. The men made their way to one of the casino’s bars, cordoned off for privacy, where around 200 department members were chatting and drinking. At the room’s center Paul Tanaka held court, occasionally gesturing with his trademark Cuban cigar, the axis around whom everyone else revolved. Sirkel followed Yim in Tanaka’s direction and waited for the young officers fluttering around “Tall Paul,” as some called him behind his back, to disperse. Yim handed the man six personal checks, one from Sirkel.

The lieutenant had come to the party as an act of desperation. He had been a department member for more than 30 years and was overdue for a promotion to captain. Sirkel had a master’s degree, was a nationally recognized expert in special victims enforcement, received good scores on his civil service exams, and earned stellar performance evaluations. “But I kept getting passed over, and nobody could tell me why,” he told me.

Finally, during a weekend golf game, Yim explained what Sirkel was doing wrong. “He told me, ‘You have to kiss the ring.’ That’s what everybody called it,” Sirkel said. In other words, said Yim, Sirkel had to show Tanaka the proper respect and loyalty. At the moment, according to Yim, that meant donating to Tanaka’s newly launched political campaign to trade his city council seat for the office of mayor of Gardena. Ideally, Yim added, Sirkel would spend a night or two walking precincts to hand out campaign literature.

Sirkel was taken aback. “I knew he had a lot of influence with the sheriff, but I don’t live in Gardena, and Tanaka wasn’t my superior officer.”

Yim set him straight. “He’s the heir apparent,” he said. “That’s how it works.” He offered to bring Sirkel as his guest to the Commerce Casino, which would at least get the lieutenant an audience with the crown prince.

“You couldn’t just go,” Sirkel told me. “You had to be invited.” Even if one had an invitation, the price of admission was a check made out to the “Friends of Paul Tanaka.” “There was a whole fee structure. The rate was $250 for lieutenants, $500 for captains, $750 for commanders, $1,000 for chiefs.” Yim got extra credit for bringing people like Sirkel. Not that the donation was any kind of guarantee. It was simply a ticket to the party, literally and metaphorically. But Yim made it clear that if you were asked to participate and you declined, your career would likely suffer.

Scores of other LASD members, working and retired, have described similar experiences to me. “The requests would come in a bunch of different ways,” said a female officer. “You would be told that it would be good for your career to walk precincts for Paul. I never walked precincts, but I’ve been to three of his events and another fund-raiser he threw for [former city attorney] Carmen Trutanich. I gave money each time. There wasn’t a choice.”

“‘You have to kiss the ring.’ That’s what everybody called it,” Sirkel said. In other words, said Yim, Sirkel had to show Tanaka the proper respect and loyalty.

In one instance she gave $350, at the request of her boss. He in turn was required to collect checks from his underlings, she said, because he was prominently “in the car” with Tanaka. “In the car” was the term for those who operated in the slipstream of the undersheriff’s patronage. “If you were single, like I was at the time,” she explained, “you were told things like, ‘You don’t have any kids, so you can afford more.’ ”

The ring kissing worked in two ways, both directly and in tiers. “In other words,” she told me, “I wasn’t just writing a check to stay in Tanaka’s good graces, I was doing it to get along with my boss. It sounds crazy, but that’s how it worked. And if you said no, they’d tell you, ‘Then you have nothing coming.’ Those were the terms they’d always use—in the car and nothing coming.

One meant you were protected. The other meant you were screwed.

“I first saw the way it worked with Paul when two of us took him out to dinner one night to get to know him,” said a civilian employee. “He was a chief at the time. We were starting to eat, and he said, ‘How’s your new lieutenant working out?’ To make conversation we told him about some very small problem we had with the man. Right there in the restaurant Tanaka got out his cell phone and made a call. ‘I want that motherfucker out of there,’ he yelled to whoever was on the other end. He was like a kid who wanted to impress some girls. And this was based on one little comment that we made. The next day the guy was packed and gone from our building.” The women assumed the lieutenant was not fired but had been transferred to some less desirable department backwater. “But we never saw him again.”

Soon after, the captain of their division pulled the women aside. “He told us, ‘Please be careful what you say to Mr. Tanaka,’ ” she said. “That dinner scared us. After that, we saw that most everybody was scared of him. And this was before he was an assistant sheriff or an undersheriff. When he was promoted to those ranks, it got a lot worse. The sheriff was usually out at some luncheon or award dinner or some trip out of the country. So Tanaka was allowed to do anything he wanted.”

Not everyone thought this arrangement problematic. “A lot of deputies loved Tanaka because they saw him as a supervisor who had their backs, who would get down with them at the drinking level, who acted like he was one of them,” said retired commander Herran. They felt Baca was off in moonbeam land. As a consequence of the sheriff’s increased inattention, many of the important positions in the department reportedly began to represent not Baca’s selections but those of Tanaka.

In time there came to be an actual club for insiders, the membership of which was composed of around 100 of those most firmly in the car with Tanaka. Like third graders with a hidden treehouse, members of the club (designated as the e-mail group “Exec Staff Mtg”) were gifted by Tanaka with specially designed, sequentially numbered metal coins. Called “challenge coins,” they would grant their bearer entry into get-togethers held at a barbecue patio inside department headquarters that, built at a cost to the taxpayers of $22,726.31 in building materials alone, was used almost solely as Tanaka’s private club, where the anointed would drink Jack Daniel’s and Johnnie Walker Black and puff on cigars.

When I asked about the club, Tanaka replied that the patio was open to “all civilian and sworn employees” and that the coins were “nothing more than a souvenir item anyone in the department could obtain.” As for rumors of pay-to-play, he said that the LASD promotion process was “uncompromising and strictly defined” and that promotions to ranks of lieutenant and above were “appointed solely by the sheriff.”

If there is a starting point for the department’s public downfall, it could likely be dated to December 10, 2010. A group of Men’s Central Jail deputies and their supervisors attended a Christmas party at a Montebello banquet hall called Quiet Cannon. A great deal of alcohol was consumed. A few minutes before midnight an argument broke out between two deputies who worked in the jail’s reception area and a second group of deputies working on the 3000 floor of the facility. The reception area deputies said that the 3000-floor group had been slower than usual in sending inmates to the visitors’ area, requiring family members or friends to wait unnecessarily to see their loved one, in some cases as long as four hours. That made things hard, said the reception deputies, when the visitors were elderly or mothers with small children.

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility downtown, one of nine jails overseen by the Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s Department.

Like the Lynwood Vikings before them, the 3000-floor deputies had fashioned themselves into a clique. For the past four years the 3000 Boys, as they called themselves, had been a problem for jail supervisors, who found the members difficult to control. Termed “affinity groups” by sociologists, such cliques have frequently been a feature of law enforcement and the military. They range from relatively harmless social groups to rogue factions that cross into criminality. With its ominous tattoos and penchant for disregarding laws, the LAPD’s Rampart Division gang enforcement unit of the 1990s brought the department multimillions in lawsuits and a 12-year federal consent decree. Whereas the LAPD stamped out its cop clique problem a dozen years ago, the LASD allowed its cliques to proliferate. After the Vikings mostly disbanded, there were the Regulators, the Jump Out Boys, and the Grim Reapers, among others, along with their jailhouse counterparts, the 3000 Boys and the 2000 Boys.

At Quiet Cannon some of the 3000 Boys took offense at the criticism from their colleagues. Voices were raised. Suddenly, between 7 and 12 of the 3000 Boys were punching and kicking the pair from inmate reception. A third deputy, a woman, tried to intervene but was punched in the face. When Montebello police arrived at the scene, they were told by Captain Dan Cruz, then the commanding officer at Men’s Central Jail, that the incident was a “Code 4”—no big deal—and that the sheriff’s department would handle the matter in-house. “He was a sheriff’s department captain,” Lieutenant Michael Bergman of the Montebello Police Department said to me. “So when the supervising officer said, ‘We’ve got a handle on this,’ we took his word for it.”

An in-the-car favorite of Tanaka’s, Cruz had a pattern of shelving accusations of deputy brutality, both on patrol and in the jails. Cruz appeared poised to try to do the same with the Quiet Cannon incident. In this case, however, those on the receiving end of the punches and kicks were not so easily silenced. A day or two after the brawl, two LASD deputies arrived at the Montebello station. “They told us, ‘We were the victims. We want to file a crime report,’ ” said Bergman.

Word of the brawl and the jailhouse cliques soon leaked to the press. The specter of tattooed deputy gang members running the jails and issuing group thumpings to anyone who crossed them stimulated a week or two of colorful news stories. As spring moved to summer, more department scandals surfaced. In February 2011, the ACLU—which had provided court-ordered monitors for the jails since 1985—reported that one of its observers witnessed deputies delivering a beating to an unresisting inmate. In April, Bernice Abram, an LASD station captain and a friend of Tanaka’s, was caught on a wiretapped phone call allegedly warning a reported drug dealer about an impending interagency raid. And there was news of an ever-widening FBI investigation.


On September 28, 2011, the ACLU released its annual report detailing incidents of violence in the jails, which typically would generate a day’s worth of media coverage before vanishing. But this time legal director Peter Eliasberg and his team chose a different tack: In addition to the dozens of accounts by former inmates, they provided declarations that described harrowing incidents of abuse witnessed by civilians, among them two jail chaplains and Scott Budnick. The Hollywood producer responsible for the Hangover franchise had for years taught writing classes in the jails and in L.A. County’s various juvenile lockups.

“…I then saw the White deputy grab the inmate’s head and smash his head into the wall, hard,” wrote Budnick of one of the five incidents he said he witnessed. “It was so hard that I could hear an audible crack when the deputy slammed his head against the wall. At no point did I see the inmate do anything to any of the other prisoners or the deputy; in fact, the inmate was very respectful to the deputy….”

Some of the accounts were released in video form. In one, Tom Parker, the former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s L.A. field office, talked about “horrendous beatings administered to inmates by deputies, many of them for no discernible reason at all.” The ACLU’s strategy worked. The news went national with stories appearing in such outlets as The New York Times and on Rachel Maddow’s show.

Baca reacted with bluster, claiming that the allegations were exaggerated, that he had everything under control. When, by the second week of October, the bad press didn’t abate, the sheriff agreed to sit for an interview with the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Looking confused, he maintained that he was in the dark about the things that journalists and the ACLU said were occurring in his department. “I wasn’t ignoring the jails. I just didn’t know,” Baca told the board. “People can say, ‘What the hell kind of leader is that?’ The truth is, I should’ve known. So now I do know.” The sheriff blamed his underlings and the ACLU for failing to inform him properly.

Baca’s remarks unnerved many who knew him. “When you’re in the room with Lee alone, and he talks about policy issues that matter to him, you fall in love with him,” a nondepartment professional who has worked with Baca for years told me. “He’s so present—he cares so much about breaking down cultural barriers, and is progressive in ways that few law enforcement figures can equal. And so you make excuses for the rest. But there’s no getting around the fact that, by his active neglect, he left people in charge who allowed a malignant culture to flourish in the sheriff’s department.”

On October 18, two days after an account of Baca’s interview ran in the Los Angeles Times, the members of the board of supervisors passed a motion appointing a seven-member blue-ribbon Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. The commission was to conduct an investigation and recommend corrective action, with the goal of restoring “public confidence in the constitutional operation of our jails.”

The jail commission (called the CCJV, for short) consisted of four former federal judges, a former federal prosecutor turned criminal justice advocate, a prominent church pastor, and the Long Beach chief of police. Over the course of seven months, the CCJV reviewed more than 35,000 pages of documentary evidence and interviewed in excess of 150 witnesses. Former inmates recounted being beaten, experts opined on the running of jails and prisons, and department members described an out-of-control system in which supervisors were often marginalized and certain groups of deputies used violence with impunity but were rarely held to account.

The witness who appeared to have the most impact on the commissioners was retired custody commander Bob Olmsted. Straight backed, raw boned, with a broom of a gray mustache, Olmsted told story after story of attempts at reform thwarted by those in the department’s executive offices, namely, Paul Tanaka. He described reviewing reports of obvious brutality that were approved as “appropriate” uses of force by Tanaka loyalists like Men’s Central Jail captain Dan Cruz.“There was one particular report that stood out in my mind,” Olmsted testified. “The inmate made a statement that said something to the effect of ‘I was up against the wall. I had my hands behind my back.’ I then heard one deputy say to the other deputy, ‘Are you ready to earn your ink?’ And then boom…all of a sudden they busted his orbital. And I’m thinking…‘What [does] “earn your ink” mean?’…. ‘Oh, you don’t know? The 2,000 Boys have a…2 on the back…. That’s how you earn your ink, by busting somebody’s head.’ ”

At this last, commission member Reverend Cecil Murray, the celebrated former pastor of South L.A.’s First AME Church, shook his head slightly and murmured mournfully to himself, “Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmmm.

Baca and Tanaka testified on Friday, July 27, 2012. The undersheriff sat in the witness chair first, insisting that the people who said unflattering things about him to the commission were either out-and-out lying or deliberately misinterpreting his words for their own agendas. Otherwise, Tanaka claimed failure of memory. Baca’s answers didn’t provide the commission any more traction than those of his undersheriff, but he suffused them with a veneer of humility. When the questions grew more aggressive, he played his hole card. “I’m a steward of the public,’’ Baca said. “I trust the voters of Los Angeles County, and the voters of Los Angeles County trust me.”

“How do we hold you accountable?” the commission’s legal director, Richard Drooyan, asked the sheriff in a moment of frustration. Baca paused for a purposeful beat, then smiled. “Don’t elect me.”

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