Last Friday, July 27, the Citizens Committee on Jail Violence heard public testimony from Sheriff Lee Baca and his Undersheriff, Paul Tanaka.
We will have more commentary on their appearances on Wednesday and again later in the week.
[And you can find the audio for Friday's hearing here and here.]
But first, it is helpful to have a broader context with which to view the testimony by Sheriff Baca and most particularly by Undersheriff Tanaka who, in the course of answering nearly four hours worth of questions by one of the commission’s counsels, accused four department captains, a lieutenant, a sergeant, a high profile retired commander and a crop of others not specifically named (but darkly alluded to), of either fabricating events, deliberately misrepresenting actions for their own agendas, or out-and-out lying.
So who is telling the truth?
With this question in mind, perhaps the very most instructive frame of reference with which to assess Friday’s events, is an account of the testimony of a previous witness, Retired Commander Robert Olmsted, who appeared before the commission in May, and who is the prime person whom Tanaka labeled a liar.
Be forewarned. This is a long narrative. And certainly, Olmsted’s testimony simply represents one man’s point of view. Yet it is a point of view that is unusually authoritative, clear and comprehensive, and it was corroborated by testimony from the four department witnesses who testified before and after him.
For those of you who are following the ongoing LASD drama—a drama where a so much at stake—I think you’ll find it absolutely essential reading.
Straight-backed and going gray with a closely clipped beard, Bob Olmstead has the mysterious quality that law enforcement types refer to as command presence.
He came to oversee Men’s Central Jail in December of 2006, some months after then-Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, the executive who oversaw the custody division from January 2005 to June 2007, reportedly became incensed at Captain John Clark, the man who was, at the time, overseeing the county’s largest and most troubled jail facility. It seems, Clark was not running CJ in the way that Mr. Tanaka wanted. Most specifically, in order to address escalating incidents of questionable force by deputies on inmates in the jail, Clark had elected to institute a job rotation plan for CJ personnel that had long been recommended by others who had studied the problem, but that Tanaka had decided he loathed. As a consequence, Tanaka rescinded Clark’s plan and then became intensely determined to get Clark out of CJ and out of the custody division altogether.
[WitnessLA has reported on the back story between Mr. Tanaka and Mr. Clark and some of his supervisors, here, here and here.]
Olmsted, whom he knew to be well-liked by Sheriff Baca, was the person whom Tanaka tapped to replace Clark.
Olmsted told the commission that when he got the call about replacing Clark, he had only spoken to Mr. Tanaka once before. He said that while he had zero interest in leaving his existing post, a prestigious job in commercial crimes investigations, when Tanaka asked him to make the move, he agreed to do it.
“I’m a team player,” Olmsted told the commission.
Tanaka did not tell Olmsted much about why he wanted Clark out so much. “He said there were morale issues, force issues,” Olmsted explained, “and there was an attempt to rotate all the deputies on the jail”—a strategy that Tanaka made clear to Olmsted that he despised.
Olmsted said that Tanaka reportedly said nothing specific about what he’d like a new captain to do differently, in terms of supervision or strategy, or even goals he wanted hit, he was emphatic about certain additional personnel changes he wanted. There were three sergeants and a lieutenant whom Tanaka wanted Olmsted to get rid of, for reasons that were never made clear. (Olmsted checked the four out, determined they were doing a fine job, and kept them on anyway.)
Most importantly, Tanaka said, he had a guy named Dan Cruz whom he told Olmsted was to be his operations lieutenant, making him the second in command at the jail.
“He wouldn’t have been my choice,” Olmsted said of Cruz. He would have chosen someone, he said, who was “more hands on, more personable, someone who could talk to the deputies and get ‘em motivated.” Still Olmsted agreed to take Cruz out of courtesy to the assistant sheriff, who made it plain he was keen on the transfer.
He would learn much later how drastically unsuited Cruz was for the job, and how his assignment to the jails had little to do with merit, and everything to do with his relationship to Mr. Tanaka.
THE CRUZ FACTOR
To understand this next section of the testimony having to do with Dan Cruz, it helps to know a little about Cruz’s past in the department, a past that Olmsted discovered only much later, as he explained to the commission.
“After I was retired,” Omsted told the commissioners, “I was getting phone calls right and left about stuff that was transpiring at the department.” One such contact, he said, was from a recently retired commander. [He] gave me a call and said, ‘I’m the one that mandated Dan Cruz be transferred from Lennox station.’ He and another lieutenant over there were deficient in the way they handled service comment report and force packages. They were eighteen months behind.”
In response to quizzical looks from the commissioner members, Olmsted explained. “Service comment reports are citizen complaints,” he said. “And ‘use of force packages’ are generated when force is used on individual, a suspect or otherwise. The sergeant looks at the package first. Then the operations lieutenant or station captain “makes the final adjudication.”
This last action is what Cruz neglected inexcusably.
Olmsted went on to explain how the consequence of Cruz holding on to these “packages” of paperwork for 18 months. “You only have one year to look into [a charge of excessive force or a citizen complaint],” said Olmsted. So when Cruz let the complaints and the force reports languish for a year and a half, this meant he effectively rendered each one worthless. This meant if real wrongdoing had occurred on the part of a deputy, or if force was found to be out of policy, “there was nothing you can do.”
“All this made everything make sense after the fact about the problems I had as a commander at Men’s Central Jail,” Olmsted said, of his belated revelations about his new operations lieutenant.
But, back in 2006, Olmsted knew none of Cruz’s history of ignoring complaints. He only knew, he said, that Cruz seemed overly concerned by being one-of-the guys the deputies. “Dan’s the kind of guy who wants to be liked. He’ll do everything he can to try make the deputies happy. I have no problem with that. But sometimes discipline needs to come into play. “
Since part of his job as a supervisor, Olmsted told the commission, was to groom those officers directly under him, he wasn’t bothered by Cruz’s lack of supervisory skills, as he saw the younger man as someone he could mentor.
USE OF FORCE & DEPUTY CLIQUES
Olmsted is a very thorough man by nature. Thus in order have the best possible grasp of what he was walking into at Men’s Central Jail, before he began at his new post, he made a point of setting up a meeting with Clark, the captain whom he was replacing.
“We talked for hours about what was going on,” Olmsted told the commissioners. “He said there were force issues, deputy clicks”—like the now infamous 2000 Boys and 3000 Boys. Clark talked about his (now much written about) attempt to institute the assignment rotation to deal with the cliques.
He also warned Olmsted that three of the lieutenants who would be working under him would be reporting—not to him, but directly to the Assistant Sheriff. “I was told that Wes Sutton, Chris Nee, and Kevin Ebert all reported surreptitiously [to the assistant sheriff] after work, and had monthly meetings with Mr. Tanaka.”
It was, to say the least, a highly unorthodox breech of command structure.
But the undersheriff was becoming known for such breeches.
WORK THE GRAY
In answer to a question from the Commission’s legal counsel, Richard Drooyan, Olmsted said he had no knowledge of the content of those off-the-reservation meetings with Assistant Sheriff Tanaka.
But when Drooyan followed up and asked the commander if he ever heard Mr. Tanaka “…using a term called working in the gray?” Olmsted said he had indeed. He’d not heard it first hand, he said, but he’d definitely heard about it from a variety of close colleagues who had been present when Paul Tanaka gave one of his Work the Gray speeches.
“A very good friend of mine said that when he was in sergeant super school, he said Mr. Tanaka came in and said, ‘You guys need to work the gray area. Work it hard!’”
Drooyan interrupted. “What do you consider ‘working the gray area’ meant?’
Olmsted: “Anything in the gray areas in considered outside policy, as far as I’m concerned. The ‘gray area’ can be interpreted any personal way you want. But it can very easily be construed to be illegal by nature.”
When Olmsted took over CJ, he felt that the work the gray ethic was on display in many areas of the jail’s daily operations. Olmsted then listed for the commission some of the issues at the jail that caused him the most immediate concern.
DON’T FEED THE ANIMALS
In his first week as captain, he said he made a point of walking the floors so he could become acquainted with the deputies and make his presence known. In one of these first walks, he said, he had an “amazing experience. It began, he said, when he walked into the 2000 floor control booth, and saw a deputy with a broken right hand. “What happened to you?” asked Olmsted. “I hit a inmate in the head.” Olmsted said that the deputy replied.
Olmsted was taken aback. “’Really?!” he testified he said to the deputy. “You know, that’s not good for your career.” He chatted with the man, and suggested “there were other ways to subdue an inmate.”
Olmsted then walked up to the floor above, the 3000 floor, and again strolled into the control both. “Same thing. There was a deputy with a broken right hand. I said, ‘What happened to you?’” He too said he’d hit an inmate in the head. Olmsted stayed to talk to the second deputy about all the reasons that head slugging was not the way to go.
Since at this point, Olmsted’s account was starting to sound like a standup comedy routine, one of the commissioners blurted, “Are you serious?”
“Serious as a heart attack,” said Olmsted.
Then he went up to the 4000 floor. Another deputy, another broken hand.
“Don’t tell me,” said Olmsted. “You hit a deputy in the head.”
“No I missed and hit the wall.”
Olmsted related the events with a storyteller’s touch, but he appeared dead serous about the disturbing implication: on floor after floor, certain deputies were using intense physical violence as their default strategy to control inmate behavior.
It was a matter, Olmsted said, he began taking aggressive steps to stop.
Yet, even before Olmsted encountered the string of broken-handed deputies, he saw other signs of the kind of attitude toward inmates that could easily presage violence:
During his first week on duty, Olmsted told the commissioners, a federal judge called to enquire regarding a rumor he’d heard about problematic graffiti scrawled by deputies inside one of the 3000 floor control booths, specifically the booth on the 3100 block.
“He gave me a call around noon one day. I remember it distinctly because you don’t have a judge call you up often.” The judge met Olmsted at the jail and together the two men went to inspect the control booth in question. When they arrived inside the booth, Olmsted was aghast.
“I found an atrocious sight!” he told the commissioners. Only sworn personnel operate such control booths, he explained, so there could be no blaming of anyone else for the hostile and juvenile vandalism but deputies and their supervisors.
“You have to get two keys to get into it. Inside the second area that you have to go through two locked doors to get access. “ Once past those sets of locked doors, “there was malicious scribbling all over the walls,” he said. “Around the computer keyboard, on the monitor, on the fire hose, which was on strung out on the floor. Olmsted said that the judge was particular concerned with a bumper sticker that was on the control key box. “Please don’t feed the animals.”
Given the high use-of-force statistics in CJ, neither Olmsted nor the judge were inclined to dismiss the scrawled messages as a boys-will-be-boys prank.
“It was ugly. It was just plain ugly,” Olmsted told the commission.
Olmsted said he asked for an immediate “roll-out” from the Internal Affairs Bureau. But after a day or two of taking photographs and analyzing the situation, the two-person IAB team returned to the jail and told Olmsted not to pursue the matter. Their reasoning, he said, was that they had determined that the graffiti had been present for at least six months.
“Now, because this is a violation of policy,” said Olmsted, “everyone who’d walked into 3100—every deputy, every sergeant and every lieutenant who’d walked and out of the control booth and not reported it—would have to be investigated.”
The IAB officers recommend that Olmsted have the room cleaned up, put everyone on notice, but “write this one off” and start over.
Olmsted wasn’t pleased, but after running the decision by his superior officer, he did as was suggested, and let the matter go.
Olmsted also told how constructive interactions with inmates got subverted. When he complimented one deputy for showing a room full of inmates a movie on DVD, which had a measurable calming effect on the men, the very next day the TV connecting cord for the DVD player had been cut—clearly by other deputies—thus effectively ending the movie viewing.
But when Olmsted put his foot down and rectified the situation, deputy who had been showing the films approached him, his expression uncomfortable.
“Please don’t come talk to me any more,” Olmsted said the man told him. “I want to make this stuff work, but I’m getting pressure from my peers. They don’t like the fact that I’m talking to you because they think I’m snitching.
Nevertheless, Olmsted told the commissioners, he continued to set down firm rules regarding force and its use, put confident sergeants into key places, and flooded problem areas of the jail with supervisors. At the same time found out what tools the deputies lacked to do their jobs well, and made sure they were actively supplied.
And after a while, the force numbers in CJ started to go down.
THE CAPTAIN BECOMES A COMMANDER
In April 2008, after he had been captain of CJ for about 15 months, Olmsted was promoted to Commander of all the Southern jails. Dan Cruz was tapped by Mr. Tanaka to move into Olmsted’s place as head of Men’s Central Jail—nevermind that Tanaka was no longer the Assistant Sheriff in charge of custody, but had now moved over to supervising patrol.
When he became a commander, Olmsted was still Cruz’s direct superior. However, once Cruz was in charge of CJ, Olmsted said, his relationship with the man changed “significantly.”
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