The most visible of all the candidates running for the office of Los Angeles County Sheriff is, of course, the former undersheriff, Paul K. Tanaka. A 30 plus year veteran in the law enforcement community, his steady rise within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department culminated in his appointment as undersheriff, or second-in-command, to Sheriff Lee Baca in 2011. A certified public accountant, Tanaka’s connection with Baca was so close that he reportedly did his boss’ taxes for a number of years. During his two year stint as undersheriff, Tanaka endured a barrage of controversies stemming from abuse and corruption within the county jail system, and allegations that he solicited political contributions from employees within the Sheriff’s Department in association with his position as Mayor of Gardena, a post he has held since 2005.
Born and bred in Los Angeles County, he remembers no racially significant traumatic experiences from his childhood in the predominately Black and Japanese neighborhood of Gardena where he grew up. He is a Gardena High School graduate, where he participated in the tennis team; was a member of the “The Knights,” an academic service group, and was elected president of Gardena’s “The Key Club,” the largest high school service program operating under the umbrella of Kiwanis International. After being elected, Tanaka’s father told him his success would depend on his surrounding himself with good people, and he has followed that mantra for all of his professional life.
Earning an accounting degree at Loyola Marymount University, his early ambition of becoming a tax attorney was redirected during his junior year when he participated in a ‘ride-along’ with officers from the Firestone Sheriff’s Station, and fell in love with the law enforcement profession. Initially a member of the Lynwood Police Department circa 1980, two years later he secured a lateral transfer to the Sheriff’s Department, and steadily worked his way through the ranks over the next three decades.
Tanaka’s career advancement hit a snag behind his involvement in the shooting death of Korean American Hong Pyo Lee in 1988; the deceased man’s family was eventually awarded a $999,999 settlement. Tanaka explains this away by pointing out that Lee, who was found to have trace amounts of cocaine in his system, was a known drug dealer in the Koreatown area. He also says that Lee attempted to run Tanaka and his fellow deputies down, after an extended car chase in which Lee drove over sidewalks and the front lawns of homes in an effort to evade capture. Tanaka was the ranking officer on the scene at the time.
Tanaka has also been criticized over his membership in “The Vikings,” a fraternal group operating out of the Lynwood substation. According to a class action lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department, the group engaged in Neo-Nazi-like behavior, and targeted members of the largely Black and Latino minority community they patrolled. Tanaka has countered these allegation by claiming that The Vikings were primarily an inter-mural athletic team, formed to compete against other law enforcement groups in events such as the annual Baker to Vegas run. He also points out that one of the principle defendants in the class action lawsuit, Deputy Elizabeth “Beth” Smith, was a Black woman and a member of The Vikings.
Much of the past criticism directed at the Sheriff’s Department centers on Tanaka, fingering him as the de facto power (and consequently responsible for department malfeasance) behind his boss, the now retired Lee Baca. Tanaka insists that Baca became complacent, and began to enjoy the title of being Sheriff—but not the responsibility. He cites Baca’s high-profile celebrity status and his extensive travel itinerary, which had him logging thousands of miles around the globe and falling out of touch with the organization he had been elected to lead.
The head man’s extended periods away from the county, coupled with his deaf ear to the complaints of subordinates, were the precipitating factors behind the dysfunction in the jail system, and deputy misconduct out on the street, in Tanaka’s view.
Tanaka stresses his extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the department and its personnel which he believes gives him an insurmountable advantage over outsiders vying for the office of Sheriff. He says they would need years on the job to even begin to understand the idiosyncrasies of the organization, let alone try to effect change. He pledges to raise the requirements for incoming deputies to reduce the incidents of delinquency that have plagued the department in recent years.
Additionally he intends to implement educational and job training programs to turn the tide of recidivism once he has secured inmate and staff safety within the correctional system. Once elected, he promises to step down as Mayor of Gardena to prevent the possibility of conflict of interest.