A federal jury today convicted former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka of conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. Tanaka’s conviction and former Sheriff Lee Baca’s recent guilty plea are remarkable developments given the department’s long and troubled history of violence and impunity.
But the convictions are only a first step. The problems that have long plagued the jails are not isolated to one individual or an isolated incident of obstruction of justice. Indeed, the obstruction charges related to deliberate and concerted “efforts to quash a federal investigation into corruption and civil rights violations by sheriff’s deputies at two downtown jail complexes” – and these efforts exemplified the culture of lawlessness within the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department that went unchecked if not abetted by the top brass.
The ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) repeatedly tried, over many years, to alert the sheriff’s department and other public officials about the serious and chronic abuses taking place in the nation’s largest jail system, including patently insufficient internal investigations into allegations of deputy on inmate violence.
Consider, for example, that ACLU SoCal publicly documented myriad instances of physical abuse in three separate reports, after highlighting, in 2008, the unacceptably high level of physical abuse of inmates with mental illness by deputies:
- In May 2010, the ACLU published its “Annual Report on Conditions Inside Los Angeles County Jail,” detailing troubling complaints of allegations of physical abuse by deputies on inmates resulting in broken ribs, black eyes and severe head wounds.
- In September 2010, the ACLU published an “Interim Report on Conditions Inside Los Angeles County,” reporting continued use of excessive force and retaliation against inmates by deputies.
- And, in September 2011, the ACLU published a scathing report, entitled “Cruel and Unusual Punishment: How a Savage Gang of Deputies Control LA County Jails,” documenting dozens of beatings of inmates by sheriff’s deputies and exposing a culture of extreme violence in the jails.
Still, many elected officials chose to ignore the numerous reports of eyewitness accounts of deputy violence against inmates provided to them.
Baca was chief among them: he could have acknowledged the severity of the allegations and promised a thorough investigation; instead, he quickly dismissed the reports and denied any problem existed. He could do so because he felt untouchable. As he arrogantly told the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, when asked how he could be held accountable for the abuse that took place under his watch, “Don’t elect me.” He could lay down this gantlet, confidently, because he knew the track record of voters in electing incumbent sheriffs, so what he really meant was that he answered to no one.
This feeling of impunity no doubt trickled down from the top. How else can one explain Tanaka’s actions to thwart federal investigators looking into the complaints of abuse in Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) and other facilities? According to the indictment filed by the federal Department of Justice:
The scheme to thwart the federal investigation allegedly started when deputies in August 2011 recovered a mobile phone from an inmate in MCJ, linked the phone to the FBI and determined that the inmate was an informant for the FBI who was cooperating in a federal corruption civil rights investigation. The phone was given to the inmate by a corrupt deputy, who subsequently pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges.
Alarmed by the federal investigation, members of the conspiracy, guided by Tanaka and [Capt. William Thomas] Carey, took affirmative steps to hide the cooperator from the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, which was attempting to bring the inmate to testify before a federal grand jury in response to an order issued by a federal judge. The indictment alleges that as part of the conspiracy, the deputies altered records to make it appear that the cooperator had been released. They then re-booked the inmate under a different name, moved him to secure locations, prohibited FBI access to the informant and then told the cooperator that he had been abandoned by the FBI.
[Later,] Tanaka and Carey met to discuss having two sergeants approach the lead FBI case agent. Soon thereafter, the sergeants confronted the agent at her residence in an attempt to intimidate her. The sergeants threatened the agent with arrest and later reiterated this threat to her supervisor, stating that the agent’s arrest was imminent.
Think of all the time and energy spent to hide a rotten culture that so far, according to the Los Angeles Times, has yielded ten members of the department who have been convicted or pleaded guilty for their roles in the scheme to interfere with the federal inquiry and several others who have been convicted for abusing inmates.
So, today, must be viewed in context. Today is one more important step in the process of effecting much needed reform — a process that includes the resolution of the Rosas v. Baca lawsuit brought by the ACLU challenge the violence in the jails, implementation of the reforms proposed by the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, and completion of the many federal prosecutions that have resulted. Today’s conviction of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and the prior plea by former Sheriff Lee Baca are also important reminders that no one is above the law and those individuals entrusted to uphold the law must also obey it.
Hector Villagra is executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.