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He'd been recruited by a family friend, Sherman Block's brother, Mel, and that association with the future sheriff helped propel him through the ranks. In the early 1980s, Baca was given command of the Norwalk station — which made him that city's police chief.
There, Baca tried some unusual methods. A group of families had lodged a series of complaints about abusive deputies. Baca befriended them and brought them into the station to hash out their grievances with the deputies themselves.
"It was a little strange for us," recalls Richard Castro, who was a sergeant at the time. "But it calmed a lot of people down."
He told the officers to get out of their patrol cars and walk around, Mike Mendez, a longtime Norwalk councilman, says. Baca was doing community policing before it had that name.
"People had the greatest respect for him in the community," says U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), then a Norwalk city councilwoman.
Baca had told subordinates he was going to become sheriff as early as the mid-'80s. To further that ambition, he sought a doctorate in public policy at USC.
His thesis, which is sitting in the stacks at Doheny Memorial Library, concerns father-daughter incest.
"It's a strange topic," acknowledges Catherine Burke, who sat on his dissertation committee. "He had seen some pretty tragic things. He wanted to learn more about it."
His conclusions were stranger than his subject. Baca was troubled that only 15 percent of fathers were convicted for their crimes. He also was concerned that prosecution would only add to their daughters' trauma.
So he proposed that incest should be "decriminalized."
For more on Lee Baca's thesis, see "Why Did Sheriff Lee Baca Want to Keep Fathers Who Molest Their Daughters Out of Jail?"
"The emphasis should be shifted from a criminal-punishment approach to one of treating sick fathers, treating severely damaged victim-daughters, and salvaging shattered families that have experienced incest," Baca wrote.
He envisioned "halfway houses" for the accused. "Non-penal father placement centers should be developed," he wrote.
As academic work, the dissertation is not much. His research had almost no bearing on his conclusions, and he did not consider the more obvious objections to his decriminalization plan (e.g., why treat molesting fathers any better than other molesters?).
"He's an outside-the-box thinker," Burke says. "These are probably the most hated people there are. He was trying to see if you could start working with people like that, that are utterly despised, could you save families?"
Baca declined to discuss his dissertation with the Weekly. He also declined requests for a sit-down interview for this story. (He did accept a challenge to a game of chess — he is a casual player — but later backed out without explanation.)
Through a spokesman, Baca said he believes the focus of this story should be the programs he has championed, not him. The spokesman also denied that there was any connection between the subject matter of Baca's thesis and his own troubled childhood.
If Baca tended to favor the softer side of policing, Paul Tanaka was aggressive from the start. Tim Mizuo's most vivid memory of him is from second grade, when they took swimming lessons together.
"He was mouthing off, and the instructor picked him up by the arms. He starts screaming, 'Hey, let me go!' " Mizuo says. "There was always a bit of spunk in him."
He also could be ruthless. Ernie Muraoka remembers running against him for president of Key Club at Gardena High. Muraoka had a part-time job at a market. Tanaka used it against him, telling classmates that Muraoka would not be able to give his full attention to the Key Club.
"It was, like, 'Jesus, man, give me a break,' " Muraoka says. "That's when I noticed his aggressiveness. He used everything to win."
As a young sergeant, Tanaka was one of five deputies who shot and killed a Korean immigrant after a chase. The case was notorious because a Long Beach police officer testified that the young man had been driving away and posed no threat when the deputies opened fire. The officer called it an "execution," and the county paid the victim's family $999,999 to settle the lawsuit.
Mizuo remembers seeing Tanaka at a reunion sometime later and giving him a hard time about the shooting. Tanaka blamed the controversy on "a liberal writer" at the L.A. Times.
Tanaka, who is Japanese-American, was a member of the Vikings, a group of Lynwood deputies accused of terrorizing Latino and black residents. In 1991, a federal judge called the group a "white supremacist gang." Some sheriff's officials have said the group was little more than a social club. But Baca himself denounced the group, and in recent years Tanaka has distanced himself from it.