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.
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 As a consequence, Tanaka rescinded Clark’s plan and then became intensely determined to get Clark out of CJ and out of the custody division altogether.
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.”
“He refused to cooperate. He refused to communicate,” Olmsted told the commission in response to Richard Drooyan’s questions. “I was getting phone calls from people working the jails, saying ‘you’ve got to look into this. You’ve got to look into that.” The alarmed phone calls were nearly always about problems with use of force, Olmsted said.
In one memorable incident Olmsted got a report that a paraplegic had his orbital broken by a deputy. “I mean this guy can’t even walk.” So, how did this happen? Olmsted wanted to know. “Dan Cruz told me everything was fine. That it was ‘good force.” I said, it didn’t sound to me like it was an appropriate use of force.”
But instead of investigating the incident, Olmsted said, “Dan was more interested in finding out who the leak was.” He wanted to know how Olmsted—his commanding officer—had found out about the incident.
When asked for other examples of force, Olmsted shook his head.
“There was a ton of force, off duty, on duty. I don’t know where to begin.”
Moreover, the spike in force incidents was primarily in the area of “significant force,” Olmsted explained— a broken bone or a head strike.
But the behavior didn’t stop with force. The TVs for inmate film screening that Olmsted had mandated be put up in the rec rooms because the policy seemed to improve morale, were taken down. “Dan said he didn’t want to do it.” Olmsted insisted, that Cruz comply, and got nothing but resistance.
Olmsted also began getting complaints from the clergy-–pastors and a lay Catholic sister who’d worked the jails for years. Now however, when they’d went into the cell blocks to visit inmates, deputies would not let them out again when they were read to leave, but instead left the pastors locked on a row for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, sometimes for as along as hour and a half, Olmsted told the commissioners. It didn’t matter that the guards who had the power to open the sally ports were often sitting in control booths a few feet away.
Olmsted said he had no doubt that the actions were punitive.
“See, the clergy is an absolute essential element within the custody facility,” he said. They help us; they help the inmates. It’s a win/win situation.”
Under Cruz, he said, “Suddenly [the clergy] were the enemy.”
The complaints from those working the jail kept coming. And the significant force reports continued to spike. And Captain Dan Cruz continued to be unresponsive to most of Olmsted’s requests, unless they were framed as direct order.
LET HIM FAIL
In the beginning, Olmsted said, he didn’t want to come down on Cruz too hard. But when all his normal supervisory tactics failed to have an effect, Olmsted reported the problem to his boss, Chief Dennis Burns, who basically waved Olmsted’s concerns away. “It’s Men’s Central Jail.” Burns said. “You can’t change the culture. Let [Dan Cruz] fail.”
Olmsted pushed Burns on the issue. The let-him-fail idea was untenable, he said. There were real world consequences here. Inmates were being seriously injured. This also meant that deputies were being allowed to act in such a way that could be ruinous to their careers, if they were caught.
“I looked at [Burns], and I said ‘You can’t let this captain fail, because if he fails, I fail. You fail. We can’t allow that! My edict from day one as a supervisor is that nobody on my watch gets killed, hurt, sued, or triggers an investigation against them. Because if any of those things occur, then I failed somehow in the process.”
In short, “To allow a captain to fail is absolutely, totally ludicrous!”
After several such go-rounds with Burns failed to resolve the matter, Olmsted reluctantly agreed to back off for a few months in the hope that Cruz would get his feet under him and right himself.
Cruz remained intransigent.
Olmsted returned to Burns. “I said, ‘Boss this isn’t right.’” Olmsted then respectfully told Chief Burns that he was going over his head to the new Assistant Sheriff in charge of custody, Marvin Cavanaugh.
THE SHADOW DECIDER
Olmsted came prepared for his meeting with Cavanaugh. “I brought a stack of documentation, three or four inches high.”
For nearly two hours he laid out the situation. “I told Mr. Cavanaugh, ‘We’ve got morale issues, we’ve got force issues, I’ve got non-compliance with the captain who won’t respond [to orders]….I told him about the beatings that were occurring, the high spike of broken bones that were occurring.”
Olmsted told he had done everything that was in his power, but he was not being supported by his own direct superior, Chief Burns. “Then I told him that I thought the reason [for the lack of support] is that Dan Cruz is protected by Paul Tanaka.”
When Olmsted finished, Cavanaugh cut quickly to the chase.
“He said, ‘I can’t help you,’” Olmsted told the commission. “I looked at him. ‘Why not? This is your side of the shop.’
It was then that Olmsted had an epiphany about why none of his own bosses would back his play, which Cavanaugh confirmed a few moments later:
“Every time I have a disagreement with Mr. Tanaka,” Cavanaugh told Olmsted, “Mr. Tanaka goes to Mr. Waldie. (Larry Waldie was, at that time, the undersheriff.). And Mr. Waldie sides with Mr. Tanaka. Now it’s two against one,” said the assistant sheriff. “I never get anything that I want accomplished unless it’s in agreement with Mr. Tanaka.”
“I was dumbfounded,” said Olmsted. “To me that’s the antithesis of what leadership is about.”
Olmsted understood that he was on his own. His two immediate superiors were intimidated by Mr. Tanaka, so declined to support him. And Dan Cruz, didn’t believe he had to take orders from him, because of Mr. Tanaka’s protection.
Under normal circumstances, with a recalcitrant subordinate, Olmsted would have nicely but firmly laid down the law. But because of the Tanaka factor, normal circumstances didn’t apply.
So, as significant force continued to rise, Olmsted began to take matters into his own hands.
In November of ’09, Olmsted asked one of his lieutenants, a man named Steven Smith, to do a couple of reports, copies of which were distributed to the commissioners.
For the first report, Olmsted asked Lt. Smith to find the highest users of force in Men’s Central Jail. Smith came back with a list of five or six people who used force an astonishing number of times, seemingly without any consequence.
Out of that list, he asked Smith to then find all the deputies who had used force more than 10 times in 2 years. Smith came back with the names of 42 deputies, many with 18 and 19 force incidents.
“The intent was,” he told the commission, “to identify who the heavy users [of force] are, and train them differently. “
In looking at the numbers, Olmsted felt it would be helpful to rotate the high force-using deputies to other posts in. But job rotation was, of course, out of the question, because of Tanaka’s dictate.
In an effort to deconstruct the force problems further, Olmsted called the operations lieutenant at CJ, and asked him to pull 30 force reports purely at random, and then to start looking for some commonality. “Let’s see what we can do to nip this in the bud,” he said he told the lieutenant.
“He called me back a week and a half later and he said, ‘Boss, you ain’t going to believe this. Eighteen of these reports are out of policy.’ “
Olmsted couldn’t believe it. That meant that two-thirds of these randomly yanked force reports had something wrong with them. Although it was hardly a scientific sampling, it strongly suggested that some staggering number of all the force reports—as many as 2/3 of the total— could be out of policy.
But it was worse than that, Olmsted explained to the commission. Every one of the 18 had been approved as being just fine by a sergeant operating under Cruz. “A certain number were approved by a sergeant and a lieutenant,” he said. “And four of these 18,” he said, “were approved by a sergeant, a lieutenant and a captain, as being appropriate!”
The captain would have been Cruz, of course.
To make sure he wasn’t missing something that would explain what appeared to be a widespread pattern of deliberately looking the other way in the face of problematic uses of force, Olmsted took the reports to several colleagues, who agreed that, yes, these 18 were definitely out of policy. Olmsted then went to Chief Burns and told him about what he’d found. “I took [the reports} to anybody who’d look at them,” he said.
Finally, after much pestering, Assistant Sheriff Cavanaugh managed to get Olmsted a hearing with Tanaka---who should not have been calling the shots for custody at all, but clearly he was.
After Olmsted presented his stack of documentation to Tanaka, the undersheriff reportedly blew up. “I’m going to find out if you’re the problem or if Dan Cruz is the problem,” he roared to Olmsted. To this end, Tanaka sent his close aide Lt. Duane Harris, to investigate. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this!” Tanaka reportedly thundered. “I’m going to send my lieutenant over there to see what’s going on.”
According to Olmsted, Harris interviewed about 30 people of various ranks in the jail. Ten days later came back with some definitive conclusions. “He said 100 percent of the problem was Dan Cruz’s failure to get a handle on the problems at Men’s Central Jail.”
Olmsted said that Tanaka, to his credit, apologized for shouting at him previously and for publicly calling the commander out for failures that belonged only to Tanaka’s own over-protected captain.
But then the Assistant Sheriff did something that seemed to negate everything that had come before.
“He said, ‘I’m going to send Harris down there. He’s going to be the new operations lieutenant with Dan Cruz. What’s going to happen, is you’re going to sandwich Dan Cruz between the two of you. Duane [Harris} is going to run the place. And you’re going to oversee everything….with Dan Cruz in the middle.’”
And the reason for this sandwich strategy?
“The two of you are going to make him a viable candidate for commander.”
“I was a bit startled,” Olmsted told the commissioners with supreme understatement.
“[Tanaka] stared at me and said, ‘We’re going to promote Cruz to commander and you’re doing to do whatever you can to get him promoted.”
As it happened, fate intervened and the promotion never occurred.
“LIFE’S TOO SHORT”
For the next two or three months, Olmsted said, he and Harris followed Tanaka’s directive and did what they could to make Cruz appear to be a success. The strategy was simple: when Olmsted wanted something accomplished, he simply bypassed Cruz and went to Harris, as if the operations lieutenant were the real head of Men’s Central Jail.
“He was a very reasoned, very hands-on supervisor and indentified the things that needed to be done. We worked well together.”
But then, after three months of making progress in cleaning up the mess that was CJ, in July of 2010, Olmsted’s home life went into crisis, and he put in for an emergency leave from the department.
“I had a very personal issue that occurred,” he explained to the commissioners.
What Olmsted did not explain to the commission is that the “personal issue” was the terrible fact that his wife was dying of cancer. He went on leave to be with her.
When Olmsted’s wife died in August, the commander found that something fundamental had shifted inside him, and to the surprise of his colleagues, Commander Robert Olmsted announced that he was going to retire from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that he had always loved.
“I had 33 years. It was enough. Life’s too short. I couldn’t go back.”
Even as he coped with heartbreak at home, Olmsted worried about all that remained broken and undone at CJ. He thought maybe he should give the matter one last try. Olmsted told the commission that when he happened to run into Sheriff Baca at an LASD event in which they both participated, he drew the sheriff aside and said he needed to talk to him about the jails, that there were serious problems that no one was addressing, but that could be fixed if someone would pay attention, that all he needed was a little of the sheriff’s time. Baca was occupied in the moment, but assured Olmsted he would make sure to set up a meeting.
Baca did not follow through and Olmsted officially retired from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department at the end of November 2010.
“I left the department feeling that I’d done everything I could,” Olmsted told the commission. “I went to my boss, my boss’s boss. I want to Mr. Tanaka. I went to the sheriff. Nobody wanted to listen. I realized I was butting my head up against the wall. So, I thought, I’m tired. There were too many deaths. I’m done. I’m getting old, I’d had enough. ”
And then the incident at the Quiet Cannon occurred.
THE CHRISTMAS PARTY
It happened late on the night of December 9, less than two weeks after Olmsted’s official exit from the department. A group of Men’s Central Jail deputies and supervisors attended a Christmas party at a Montebello banquet hall called the Quiet Cannon. Dan Cruz was one of two senior supervisors present at the party and due to his position at CJ, the one who was in charge.
Around midnight, an argument broke out between two groups of deputies that, when it spilled into the restaurant parking lot, turned into an ugly brawl in which six 3000 floor deputies assaulted two deputies who worked elsewhere in the jail, the six punching and kicking the outnumbered two. When a third deputy, a woman, tried to intervene, she was punched in the face for her trouble.
After the fight got out of hand, someone called the Montebello police and officers showed up to investigate. It was Cruz who reportedly headed off the Montebello cops, telling them that it was a “Code 4,” no big deal, nothing to see here. The sheriffs would handle it, he said.
[WitnessLA reported on the incident here.]
“He’s a Sheriff’s Department Captain,” Lt. Michael Bergman of the Montebello PD told WLA. “So when our sergeant saw no obvious victims, and the supervising officer says, ‘We’ve got a handle on this,’ we took his word for it.”
But a few days later, the two LASD deputies who’d been beat up, contacted the Montebello PD, said Bergman. “They said, ‘We were at the party, we were the victims, we want to file a crime report, and we want to fully cooperate.’”
(Ironically, the report that deputies had been beating on other sheriff’s department deputies in a public place seemed to accomplish what assaults on inmates by CJ deputies did not: in late March 2011, Michael Gennaco of the Office of Independent Review told the NY Times that the department planned a regular rotation of duty assignments at the jail to help prevent such deputy [cliques] from forming in the future—a nearly identical strategy to that of John Clark’s that had so enraged Paul Tanaka.)
Olmsted, heard about the debacle from his next door neighbor.
“My neighbor came over and said, ‘Hey, I hear your deputies are getting in fights.’”
“Yeah, yeah, they’re always getting in fights,” he said he replied.
“No,” said the neighbor, “they got into fights with each other”
Olmsted made a few calls and learned the rest of the details. The fight was over a policy. One group was trying to get the inmates to have more visits from family and friends. The other group, the 3000 boys, Olmsted said, “didn’t want to do things the right way.”
THE COMMANDER TALKS TO THE SHERIFF
Olmsted had been trying to settle into retirement, but he said he lost sleep over the incident. “Literally, three, four days of sleep.”
At around day five, Olmsted ran into Sheriff Baca at a holiday party. “Every year I do a Christmas event with the sheriff,” he told the commission. “It’s always the last Sunday before Christmas. And, I thought, ‘Well, I need to try to talk to him one more time.’”
Olmsted collared Baca. “I said, ‘Sheriff, I need to talk to you about what’s going on [at CJ]. I can tell you how the fight occurred, why it occurred and how to make sure it never happens again. Men’s Central Jail is going south. You need to work with me on this.’ I said, ‘Give me some time after this event and we can talk about his.’”
The sheriff again promised he would sit down with Olmsted right after the event was finished. But again he either dodged or simply forgot.
However, when the news of the Christmas incident began hitting the papers, producing a flurry of unpleasant press, an aide from Baca’s office called Olmsted and asked if the commander had any thoughts on the Quiet Cannon matter. Olmsted said, yes, he did, but to lay out what he suggested, he would need at a minimum an hour “of the sheriff’s valuable time.”
No problem, the aide assured him and a date was set for the 60-minute meeting. But, when the appointed day arrived, Baca was running late and the hour turned into ten minutes. Olmsted told the commission he made the best of his time. “I gave my thoughts to the sheriff about what was going on with Mr. Tanaka and how to fix Men’s Central Jail.
One of the things Olmsted said he told the sheriff is how his assistant sheriff, soon to be the undersheriff, was unofficially holding the reins of the sheriff’s department, and that it was part of the problem at CJ.
“I said, ‘Hey, boss, do an informal survey in the department. Have your aides ask around and find out how you get promoted in the department, informally. Not the formal civil service process.’ But how do you get promoted informally, how does it work? Here’s what they’re going to tell you,’ Olmsted said. “’They’re going to say that you have to give a campaign contributions to Mr. Tanaka. You’ve got to smoke cigars with Mr. Tanaka. You’ve got to go to the City View Restaurant with Mr. Tanaka. You’ve got to belong to the cigar club with Mr. Tanaka…. “
Olmsted said he also told the sheriff about “all the inappropriate cronyism, as I call it, all because of allegiance to Tanaka.”
“I said, ‘Boss, it’s all Tanaka. It ain’t Baca. It’s Tanaka! Your name is nowhere on any of this.’
Olmsted described how the sheriff then turned to him. “He said, ‘You’re right. Sometimes I need to hip check him every once in a while.’”
Olmsted was dismayed. “ I thought to myself, ‘Forget hip checking! You need to put this guy in the penalty box.”
The commissioners seemed captivated by the story, which was a far different level of information than they’d heard from a department source before, particularly a commander of Olmsted’s obvious standing who appeared to have no discernable ax to grind.
After the 10 minutes were up, Olmsted said Baca asked him to walk with him over to the jail, during which time was able to squeeze in a bit more discussion about the problems at CJ and what to do about them. At the end of their time together, Baca asked Olmsted if he was willing to come back to work for the department. “Sure, I’ll come back,” Olmsted told the commissioners he said originally.
But then he slept on the decision and decided that, while tempted, he was going to turn the offer down. “As much as I was flattered, and I’d like to do it, I realized same barriers were in place that created the problem, and I was not going to put myself back into that environment.”
THE JUMP OUT BOYS
At this point, Olmsted’s initial testimony was pretty much finished, but the commissioners had questions
Commissioner Alex Busansky wanted to know about the reports of deputy gangs outside the jails, like the Jump Out Boys, whose existence had been recently reported by the LA Times. Did Olmsted know of instances where problematic behavior was bleeding from the jails into patrol? Busansky asked. “Do you see any evidence of that kind of taking pride in the use of force?”
It didn’t surprise him, Olmsted said. “Let me preface this by saying that 95 percent of the men and women on the sheriff’s department are outstanding, ethical, hardworking, really great people who just want to do their jobs. They go into the academy and they raise their right hand and swear to uphold the Constitution.
“Then we assign them to the jail where, if they get to the wrong T.O. [training officer], and get sucked up into the negative environment. Or they get into the 3000 boys or the 2000 boys. Now we have inculcated them into this negative culture that everyone on the department from the Chief [of custody] to the Assistant Sheriff”—meaning Cavanaugh—-“told me personally we can’t change.
Olmsted’s voice rose in intensity. “Yes, we can change the culture. We have to change the culture.” A pause. “But to answer the question, if deputies are indoctrinated in this negative jail setting early on, it does not surprise me if it spills over into patrol.”
In fact he was hearing ongoing stories about incidents, he said. “I have people calling me from different stations who say… there are issues going on.
“But they’re afraid to come out and say things about it. “
EARN YOUR INK
Following up on Busansky’s line of questioning, the Commission’s executive director, Miriam Krinsky, asked if Olmsted had ever heard the term, “earn your ink.”
Olmsted nodded, yes, he had.
“I was a commander at the time. When significant force was going up, I told Captain Cruz that I wanted to see every report where significant force occurred in Men’s Central Jail.
“There was one particular report that stood out in my mind. The inmate was interviewed, and he said, ‘I was up against the wall. I had my hands behind my back. Then one deputy said to the other deputy, “Are you ready to earn your ink?” And then, boom! All of a sudden they busted his orbital. “ (The orbital being the eye socket.)
“And I’m thinking, what the hell does ‘earn your ink” mean? Then I started asking a around. People said, ‘Oh, you don’t know? The 2000 Boys have a Roman Numeral II tattooed on the back of their calf. And that’s how you earn your ink, by busting somebody’s head.’”
At this last, the commission members, who had listened to all of Olmsted’s testimony with unusual intensity, lapsed into a thoughtful silence—except for Reverend Murray, who shook his head slightly.
“Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmmm.” Murray, murmured sadly, his expression of dismay not meant for the microphone, which picked it up anyway.
CRONYISM AND PAY TO PLAY
After Busansky’s questions, Judge Robert Bonner asked a string of his own. Among other things, he wanted to know about the informal system of promotions that Olmsted had mentioned.
“You have suggested that there may be a degree of cronyism that comes into play in terms of how people are promoted within the LA Sheriff’s Department,” Bonner began cautiously. “I don’t want to mischaracterize your testimony, so disabuse me if I got this wrong. But certainly your description of Mr. Cruz suggests that he might have been somebody who was going to be promoted not necessarily on merit, but because of he was in good favor with now Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Am I mischaracterizing your testimony? Is that what you’re saying?
Olmsted didn’t hesitate.
“No. You hit the nail on the head.” Olmsted said, then related to Bonner a story that Captain Mike Bornman would confirm a month later when he testified before the commission in early July.. It concerned Dan Cruz telling a mutual friend that, “I don’t work for f-ing Olmsted, and I don’t work for [Chief ] Burns. I work directly for Paul Tanaka! Screw them!”
“I heard this was said [by Cruz] several times in several arenas, to several different people, but this time it meant me personally,” said Olmsted to Bonner.
Bonner continued to push. “Within the sheriff’s department, how far does this…cronyism…..how far down does it go?” he asked. What’s your sense of that?”
Olmsted nodded, indicating that he had understood. “It goes all the way down to the rank of deputy,” said Olmsted “Because we’re not just talking about promotion, we’re talking about coveted assignments, as well. If you donate to his [Tanaka’s] campaign for mayor or city council and solicit monies, that to me is inappropriate. If you belong to a cigar club with a numbered, serialized cigar coin that’s given to you as one of the boys, that’s inappropriate. It bodes of Tammany Hall in the old days with Boss Tweed. Civil Service is there for a reason and needs to be abided by.
Bonner did not let the matter drop.
“It’s a pretty serious allegation,” he said. “So I want to make sure I understand if you’re making it or not. Because I’m going to ask you what evidence you have to support it.
“It seems to me you’re suggesting that people within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department who help raise money for Mr. Tanaka’s political situation—-I say that because I understand he might be mayor of Gardena, and I assume that’s an elected position—You seem to be suggesting, that there are sheriff;s deputies who have gotten promotions because they have curried favor with Mr. Tanaka and the political aspects of his career that have nothing to do, per se, with the sheriff’s department. Are you making that assertion here?
Olmsted: “Yes I am.”
Bonner: What evidence could you point us to that would back that up?
Olmsted: “If you take a look at the campaign contributions through The Public Records Act and see the people who donate, how they donate, where it goes, and then take a look at those who get promoted, you’ll see there’s a promotional process that’s done informally where they get rewarded for participating in that aspect. The cigar club is established on our computer system as an “executive staff group.’ Well, “executive” in our department is captain and above. But if you take a look at the people in this “executive staff grouping” it’s deputies, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and commanders, and Mr. Tanaka. All these are the individuals who have blind loyalty to Mr. Tanaka and who carry around the secret coin. I’ve got those documents.”
He mentioned a few other examples, like statistical analysis that one department member has done about of the increased likelihood of getting promoted if one has given to Tanaka’s political campaign. “All this may not be considered conclusive,” Olmsted told Bonner. “But why even open that door and allow it?”
WHO SHOULD STAY AND WHO SHOULD GO?
As the commissioners wound down their questions, Alex Busansky asked one last zinger. Before springing his potentially news-making question on Olmsted, Busansky wound up carefully for the throw:
“One of the themes you’ve talked about is the importance of leadership,” Busansky began, “the importance of supervision. And I know that in a press a number of months ago, Sheriff Baca was asked about you, and he commended you and your service, but he also said, ‘I’m not needed to make a change. Mr. Olmsted could have done it himself.’
“So when you look at the current leadership in the sheriff’s department, Mr. Tanaka’s still there, and some of the others who you’ve mentioned in your testimony here today are still there. Is change possible while those individuals remain in their positions?”
The chamber went dead silent, but Olmsted did not pause for even a beat.
“Absolutely not, “he said.
There it was.
“And let me tell you,” the commander continued, “the sheriff is absolutely right. ‘Olmsted’ could have done it. And you know something? I’m doing it. If he’s not going to take it on, and Tanaka is not going to take it on, and the other top four are not going to take it on, then I’ll take it on and I’ll go outside the department to do it.” Which is what he has done, of course, by talking to us and to the LA Times. “I’m being second guessed for it, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Olmsted took a breath. “Leadership stops at the top. The Sheriff needs to take this one. There was an outstanding editorial in the LA Times, saying if this happened on Bratton’s watch, he would have lopped off heads.
[Actually it was a WitnessLA commentary, not the LA Times, but no matter.]
“Well, I challenged the sheriff with all the embarrassing stuff that’s going on in the department that we all love, Why should we have the 3000 Boys, and the 2000 Boys, and the Jump Off Boys, Why do we need a sergeant pointing a gun to another sergeant? This is embarrassing to the sheriff’s department. I could go on and on. It’s got to come from the top, and if it’s not going to change, then in my opinion—-I love the sheriff dearly—but the top four need to go. “
When the commander hasd finally finished speaking, a couple of commissioners actually applauded him spontaneously before they got a more dignified grip on themselves, and one of the group said under his breath, “Bravo!”
I spoke to Olmsted not too long after his testimony, and he told me there was one thing he forgot to say to the commission. It had to do with something that Tanaka told him at the meeting when the under had announced he intended to make Dan Cruz a commander.
Olmsted said that Tanaka told him that the reason he needed to ensure that the “right” people were in supervisory positions, was so that they were in place when he, Tanaka, became sheriff. “He said Waldie (who was then the undersheriff) Cavanaugh and the Sheriff are all old, and that they would be retiring very soon, and he expected to hold the position after Sheriff Baca, “for the next fifteen years.”
Everything we have heard suggests that, even after all that has happened, the undersheriff still believes he is the Fortunate Son who will succeed Baca.
POST SCRIPT: As long as this is narrative is, there is still much left out. So for the podcast go here.
Photo by WitnessLA