In the memo (which is reprinted after the jump in its entirety) Mr. Tanaka, who is the second in command to Sheriff Lee Baca, states that he is writing to clarify matters because he’s come to find out that deputies have misinterpreted the term. “Some would like to believe that the gray area is the area between right and wrong,” he writes, “that it characterizes certain police misconduct as acceptable, and that the end justifies the means.”
Mr. Tanaka wants, he says, to “ensure ensure that there is no misunderstanding — that when it comes to right or wrong, there is NO gray area.”
And so on.
He adds that he’s bringing up the matter now due to the fact that “…during the past couple of years, 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….”
HE SAID, THEY SAID.
Mr. Tanaka’s apparent shock at how the phrase has been perceived would appear to fly in the face of accounts by department personnel —present and former—who have reported having heard the undersheriff use the term with much less benign intent when on varied occasions he allegedly exhorted the troops to “work in the gray, work it hard”—and other words to that affect.
WitnessLA first broke the news about the undersheriff’s past work in the gray speeches in Part 3 of our Dangerous Jails series by Matt Fleischer.
Since the story appeared, a string of department sources have contacted us with similar accounts— all of whom saw the undersheriff’s words as having a more problematic meaning.
More recently, two of the LASD “witnesses” spoke about the issue in their testimony before the Jails Commission. In May, former Commander Robert Olmsted was asked if he’d heard the term, and, this month, Captain Pat Maxwell was asked a similar question. Both told of instances where the undersheriff has used the phrase in front of a group, and both indicated he did not use it in the high-minded manner with which he characterizes it now.
In addition to the two men’s testimony, the commissioners were also provided with a 2007 memo by a Captain Steven Roller, that documented a visit by then-Assistant Sheriff Tanaka to the department’s Century station in which he again seemed to exhort the troops to push the envelope of legality. According to Roller, Tanaka told an assembly of deputies and officers that they…
“….should function right on the edge of the line, in that deputies need to be very agressive in their approach to dealing with gang members”
Roller also wrote that Tanaka talked about his dislike of the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau and cautioned supervisors about disciplining their deputies. “He said he would be checking to see which supervisors were putting the most cases on deputies and he would put a case on them.”
Last week, the LA Times expressed concern in an editorial that the undersheriff “…allegedly encouraged supervisors to allow deputies to work ‘in the gray area.’”
DEPARTMENT MEMBERS REACT
After obtaining Mr. Tanaka’s memo on Tuesday afternoon, WitnessLA asked a bunch of department members —both retired and working—what they thought of the undersheriff’s letter. All had a similar reaction to what they uniformly regarded as revisionist history.
For instance, a former LASD unit commander with a background in both of the department’s self-investigative arms, Internal Affairs and ICIB, had this to say in an email:
Anyone who has been around law enforcement for more than a cup of coffee knows exactly what Tanaka was referring to when he went station by station [talking about] “the gray area.” This includes Tanaka attending a pre-warrant deployment meeting a couple of years ago
at the Roybal Federal Building** in Los Angeles. In the presence of about 100 FBI and other federal agents, an Assistant US Attorney and numerous local law enforcement officers, Tanaka was introduced by then Lieutenant James Thornton (now Captain of the Pico Rivera Station) to the large group of agents/officers who were ready to serve a series of warrants in the Hawaiian Gardens area regarding the murder investigation of a OSS Deputy a few weeks earlier. Tanaka stood before the group, which up to that point had several speakers and was being video taped. Tanaka reportedly ordered all video cameras and tape recorders to be shut off. After that occurred, to the complete shock of a majority of those present, spewed about “The gray area.” “Gray area” is a term well known within the law enforcement community and it is NOT representative of Tanaka’s letter.
Retired commander Robert Olmsted was equally dismayed by Tuesday’s memo:
Telling others to “work in the gray area” is to say it is OK to break the law because the ends justifies the means. “The gray area” says to bend the laws for the individual benefit at the expense of the Constitution. Now [Tanaka] is upset that deputies are committing crimes and getting fired? Shame on him because it was his statements to work in the gray which were interpreted to do whatever it takes to accomplish the task.
So, how does one explain the discrepancy? It would seem that either a wide variety of department veterans are grossly mistaken in their interpretation of a multiplicity of incidents—or the undersheriff is dissembling.
Commander Christy Guyovich, whom I spoke with near the end of this month’s commission hearing, was firm in her contention that it was the critics who were wrong, that the undersheriff was very clear about never breaking the law, and that those who said otherwise were deliberately misinterpreting him for their own personal agendas.
UPDATE: I just touched base with department spokesman Steve Whitmore about the memo, and he had this to say: “I think it’s a terrific memo because it removes any confusion. He steps to the front of the line and says ‘this is exactly what I believe. This is exactly what is right and what is wrong.’ It’s direct and to the point. There are no vagaries. There is no confusion. It is another indication of why he’s the undersheriff.”
On July 27, both the undersheriff and Sheriff Baca are scheduled to appear at a specially scheduled jails commission hearing, at which time Mr. Tanaka will presumably have the chance to answer that question for himself.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The color in question is variously spelled “gray” or “gray.” Both are perfectly correct. Mr. Tanaka used the British-leaning version “grey.” We use the Americanized version that corresponds with the AP Style book and Webster’s, as does the LA Times and most other American publications. However, in the undersheriff’s memo below, we have left his original spelling.
THE GREY AREA
By Paul Tanaka, Undersheriff
Since you began your career, you were told that, as a peace officer, you were going to possess broad discretionary authority; some, including me, have referred to it as the “grey area”. 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? Examples such as these are limitless and serve to underscore the wide-ranging discretionary powers of law enforcement – the powers you possess.
I’ve come to learn in recent months that the term “grey area” can be easily misinterpreted by those that choose to do so. Some would like to believe that the grey area is the area between right and wrong, that it characterizes certain police misconduct as acceptable, and that the end justifies the means.
I’m writing this message to ensure that there is no misunderstanding — that when it comes to right or wrong, there is NO grey area. 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. Being a peace officer necessitates that you maintain an unwavering sense of right and wrong. Cross this line and you violate our Department’s Core Values, dishonor the badge, let down your fellow deputies, bring shame to yourself and embarrass your family.
Some of you are probably wondering why I’ve chosen to address this issue. The reason is simple – during the past couple of years, we have seen deputies fired or prosecuted for operating in their own self-defined grey 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. Deputies have been fired and prosecuted for smuggling contraband into our jails to curry favor with inmates, associating with notorious criminals off-duty, lying on police reports, and committing perjury in court. I’m writing this because it disheartens me to see careers and family lives ruined, our Department’s reputation tarnished, and our badge dishonored.
You hired on because you wanted to serve the community in the most noble way. You chose to do so with a law enforcement agency that continually strives to be the best in the business. Do what’s right, do it well, and you stand to have a rewarding career in custody, the courts, patrol, investigations or any of the many ancillary assignments our Department has to offer.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is a proud agency, comprised of some of the finest men and women in law enforcement. The work you do, day in and day out, is commendable and appreciated. Let’s make sure we do it the right way, every day.
** CORRECTION: Originally our informant heard that the pre-warrant meeting was at the Roybal Federal building, but he subsequently learned it was at another location.