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DANGEROUS JAILS, Part 2: Ignoring the Warnings – by Matt Fleischer

December 1st, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


EDITOR’S NOTE:
The article below is Part Two of WitnessLA’s three-part investigation into the culture of violence and abuse that, for years, has been reported to exist inside the Los Angeles County Jail system—and the dysfunction inside the sheriff’s department that has allowed the abuse to flourish.

This 8-month investigation was reported and written by Matt Fleischer and is the second investigative series to come out of the LA Justice Report, which was created through a partnership between WitnessLA and Spot.Us.

DANGEROUS JAILS, PART 2: IGNORING THE WARNINGS

A retired LASD Commander tells how Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka turned away from detailed warnings that something was terribly wrong in the County’s largest jail.

by Matthew Fleischer


It’s been more than three months since investigations into the violent treatment of inmates by sheriff’s deputies inside the LA County Jail system by the LA Justice Report, the ACLU, the LA Times, and other media outlets—and by the FBI—have drawn national scrutiny and calls for reform. Both the LA County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have initiated investigations into the jails abuse scandal. Yet, despite all the commotion, thus far the highest-ranking member of the department to be put on leave in relationship to the scandal was former Men’s Central Jail commanding officer, Captain Dan Cruz.

As we reported at the time he was put on leave, Cruz deserves a share of the blame for violence inside the jail. Sources told us Cruz was “too buddy-buddy” with the deputies under his command—which allowed an already problematic culture of gang-like deputy cliques to flourish inside the jail, with little or no accountability for abusive deputy actions.

In addition, Cruz was one of two captains present when the now infamous fight between deputies broke out during a Christmas Party at the Quiet Cannon banquet hall in Montebello that left two deputies severely beaten and led to the firing of 6 others. When the Montebello police got the call that there was a fight at the Quiet Cannon and went to investigate, it was Cruz who told the Montebello cops that it was a “Code 4,” no big deal, nothing to see here, and that the sheriffs would handle it.

But it was a big deal. The deputies who were beaten by their brethren returned two days later to press criminal charges.

“He’s a Sheriff’s Department captain,” Lt. Michael Bergman of the Montebello PD said of Cruz. “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.”

That kind of let-boys-be-boys refusal to correct out-of-control deputies is in keeping with what sources say was Cruz’s administrative style inside Men’s Central Jail.

But despite the undeniable problems inside Men’s Central Jail under Cruz’s watch, sources with intimate knowledge of the department’s inner workings, say blame for the violence in the jails lies much higher up the food chain than Dan Cruz.

One of those knowledgeable sources is retired LASD Commander Bob Olmsted, who was Cruz’s commanding officer inside CJ (as Men’s Central Jail is known). In a series of interviews with the LA Justice Report, Olmsted acknowledged that while Dan Cruz is culpable for the recent violence at CJ, “the real problem is how departmental leadership allowed this jail situation to occur.

“The problems inside the jail were ignored by the Sheriff’s command staff. I went to [Custody Chief Dennis] Burns, [Undersheriff Paul] Tanaka. And I went to Lee Baca. I told them I needed help trying to corral this situation and I was ignored.”

The story of how Dan Cruz came to run Men’s Central Jail is nearly as disquieting as the incidents of abuse that took place under his watch.


OLMSTED, THE REFORMER

In Fall of 2006, Olmsted inherited the difficult task of captainship of Men’s Central Jail. As we reported in September, the jail’s previous captain, John Clark, had been shipped out of CJ for attempting to contain the spread of street gang-like cliques of deputies inside the jail with names like the 3000 Boys. These groups allegedly shared matching tattoos, threw gang signs and were responsible for escalating levels of deputy on inmate violence. Clark proposed a corrective called “shift rotation,” which would have required deputies to be assigned to multiple sections of the jail—instead of simply staying put on the same floor–thus breaking up the cliques.

That effort at reform, however, was stopped by then-Assistant Sheriff, now Undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, who was already, according to sources, the most powerful figure in the department, aside from the Sheriff himself, and whose influence was felt on most of the LASD’s day-to-day operations. After fielding calls and emails from 2nd and 3rd floor deputies who didn’t want to be rotated away from their clique members, Tanaka overruled his captain’s reform attempts, and transferred Clark out of custody altogether.

To replace Clark, Tanaka brought in Olmsted.. Sheriff Baca has said recently that Olmsted was brought in to oversee the renovation of the jail’s aging interior, which had been criticized by the ACLU and others as being “Dickensian” and dangerous.

Sources also say they think Tanaka thought that Olmsted—who had just spent several years running Lee Baca’s pet project the Deputy Leadership Institute, a training seminar for deputies looking to advance in the ranks—would do a solid job without resorting to more drastic reforms that would upset the deputies under Tanaka’s umbrella. As it happens, Tanaka got not only a good leader but also something of a change agent.

Colleagues both inside and outside the department describe Olmsted as a straight-shooter and a reformer.

“He’s impeccable,” says retired LASD Chief Ronnie Williams, a 34-year vet of the department, who once personally tried to land Olmsted as a captain in his own division. “Bobby has consistently gone into places that have had low morale and personnel problems and turned things around.”

Another LASD supervisor who completed Olmsted’s training course and worked with him in the jails agrees. “If you could pick a model for how you’d expect a captain to run his jail, that would be Olmsted,” he says. “Everything he does is by the book.”

The ACLU too respected Olmsted’s efforts to clean up the jails.

“Bob Olmsted was responsive to a number of our concerns and issues inside the jail in a way that other captains we have worked with were not, including the treatment of inmates,” says the ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg. Although he cautioned that deputy on inmate violence was still a major concern during Olmsted’s tenure.

Although the problems plaguing Men’s Central Jail—including deputy on inmate violence—did not magically vanish overnight under the new captain, Olmsted’s efforts did begin to pay measurable dividends. In both 2007 and 2008, force numbers dropped inside CJ—especially on the troublesome second and third floors. Between 2006 and 2007, force incidents dropped from 144 to 90 on the second floor alone. They dropped further to 72 in 2008. Overall, force incidents dropped from 440 to 273 inside CJ between 2006 and 2008.

Olmsted also expected the officers under him to follow department rules. In 2007, Olmsted was able to get rid of a problem deputy who was reputed to be a 3000 Boy ringleader. While on a disciplinary leave, the 3000 Boy was involved in a domestic dispute with his girlfriend. That wasn’t enough to warrant dismissal from the force. But in the police report for the incident the deputy’s girlfriend claimed he was a steroid abuser. Olmsted had the deputy tested for steroids—and his positive test forced the department’s hand in removing him from duty.

Still Tanaka was pleased enough with Olmsted that, in April of 2008, Olmsted was promoted to custody commander with oversight over CJ, Twin Towers and Century Regional Detention Facility. To replace, Olmsted, Paul Tanaka then promoted and installed CJ operations lieutenant Daniel Cruz as the next captain of Men’s Central Jail.


THE FALL AND RISE AND FALL OF DAN CRUZ

Cruz arrived at the job with a decidedly spotted record. Earlier, when he was a lieutenant at Lennox Station in Inglewood, Cruz’s boss, Commander Ralph Martin and his boss, LASD Division 2 Chief Ronnie Williams, pushed hard to get Cruz transferred out of their area because of his failure to investigate citizen complaints (called “watch commander service comment reports” or SCR’s) against the station. Cruz was as much as 18 months behind in responding to what sources describe as “at least three massive boxes of complaints” cluttering his desk.

“Complaints and force packages have a year time clock on them,” explained a former LASD higher up, who was one of those who verified that Cruz let the paperwork languish. “So if you sit on force packages, and the year runs out, we can’t do anything about investigating those complaints even if we want to.” In other words, while Cruz was at Lennox, if deputies misbehaved, chances were good they would not be sanctioned.

Cruz eventually was transferred to the Facility Services Bureau, an unglamorous posting that, coming from a high profile station like Lennox, is universally acknowledged as a “dead end” job inside the department. In other words, it was a punishment. And yet, less than a year later, in fall of 2006, he was inexplicably pulled from obscurity by Paul Tanaka and installed as operations lieutenant of Men’s Central Jail—second in charge under Olmsted.

A department higher-up who has had several of Tanaka’s promotions forced on him, says that the Undersheriff makes a habit of rescuing deputies who are then beholden to him. “That way when they screw up, they go running to him—and he gets stays in the loop on every level of the department.”

In any case, less than two years later Dan Cruz was running Men’s Central Jail--a facility that, though improved, what was still the most troubled jail in the department, and arguably in the nation.

Olmsted was not happy about Cruz’s appointment to head CJ. But Cruz had Tanaka’s backing, which made all the difference. Although by 2008, Tanaka was no longer the assistant sheriff in charge of the department’s custody facilities. (That was now Assistant Sheriff Marvin Cavanaugh’s job.) But even as Tanaka was overseeing another part of the department, he still called the shots in terms of placements and promotions inside the jail. If he wanted Cruz to manage CJ, there was no discussion.

Problems sprang up almost immediately under Cruz’s watch. Just like at Lennox, force packages and complaints began to pile up. In 2009, after two years of steady decline, deputy on inmate forces incidents jumped from 273 to 330.

With force numbers spiking, Olmsted decided to do some serious digging into Cruz’s efforts in the jail. He found that, not only were many force packages not being investigated, the ones that were cleared were often given only cursory examination. Olmsted had one of his lieutenants pull 30 force reports at random that were in various stages of oversight. A second lietenant, , Mark McCorkle, analyzed them. All were either signed off on, or were on the verge of being cleared. Yet of that group of 30, 18 uses of force were questionable in nature and conceivably fell outside of department policy.

For example, in one such incident from 2009, an inmate was passing an officer on the fifth floor and sucked his teeth as he went by. “Sucking teeth”—a gesture involving loudly cleaning one’s upper front teeth with a sucking motion of the tongue–is considered disrespectful inside the jail walls. The officer in question took the inmate aside, put him on the wall and told him he was being disrespectful. When the inmate argued, the deputy took him to the ground and beat him “badly.”

Olmsted says he took McCorkle’s finding up the chain of command to Custody Chief Dennis Burns, Assistant Sheriff in charge of custody Marvin Cavanaugh, and to Paul Tanaka. No action was taken. (Neither Burns, Cavanaugh nor Tanaka were available for comment for this story, but Burns was interviewed by the LA Times and denied seeing the McCorkle report.)

“Dan is a nice guy,” says one LASD higher up who considers Cruz a friend. “But there’s no way he’s fit for administrative duties. Paperwork is not his thing. He’s far too buddy-buddy with the deputies.”


NO ACCOUNTABILITY

Cruz’s oversight of CJ was lax and incompetent enough that Olmsted planned on giving him a failing performance review—which is almost unheard of for a supervisor ranked as high as captain in the department.

Higher ups inside the Sheriff’s Department, however, refused to let that review go through. Custody Chief Dennis Burns insisted Olmsted retract his failing review and give Cruz a passing mark. Olmsted reluctantly agreed, but insisted on putting the caveat “needs improvement” on the review.

A short while later, an irritated Burns told Olmsted he wanted to transfer him to command the North County custody facilities—a sanction known as “freeway therapy” in the department.

“You get a lot of time to think about what you might have done wrong when you’re driving up to those facilities,” explained one LASD insider.

Olmsted refused and Burns didn’t push the issue. Sources close to the jail situation say Burns simply wanted the heat on Cruz to go away—because Cruz was closely connected to Paul Tanaka. To mess with one of Tanaka’s “boys” was to invite reprisal, regardless of intentions. Burns needed only to look to John Clark. So instead of transferring Olmsted, sources say, Burns simply sat on Olmsted’s “improvement needed” performance review of Cruz for months.

But Olmsted’s repeated cries for reform eventually reached the point where Tanaka was forced to intervene. Tanaka sent in a close ally in the department, then-Lieutenant Duane Harris, to figure out what was actually happening in the jails. Up until that point, despite conversations with Olmsted, the critical McCorkle report, numerous high-ticket lawsuits against the department by inmates, and other serious warning signs, Tanaka had reportedly almost exclusively been relying on Cruz’s word that everything was fine. After extensive interviews with jail personnel, Harris came back 10 days later with a brand new report that traced the blame back to Cruz.

After backing Cruz unflaggingly for years, Tanaka was finally forced to admit that Olmsted had been right. Two months later, Cruz was transferred out of custody work, and Harris took over as captain of CJ. Olmsted retired soon after, fed up with departmental politics that stymied meaningful reform in the jails.

Shortly after his retirement, however, Olmsted said he happened to run into Lee Baca at a charity food drive. It was late December of 2010, and the Quiet Cannon fight was all over the news—a stain on the reputation of the department. Olmsted approached Baca to talk about the fight.

“I told him ‘this incident didn’t need to happen. None of the incidents in the jail needed to happen. There is a serious cultural problem in the department and it’s not being addressed.’”

Baca nodded his head and thanked Olmsted, promising to chat about the jail situation later. Olmsted didn’t hear from Baca again for nearly a year. It wasn’t until last month—dogged with high profile calls for his resignation from the ACLU and LA Times columnist Steve Lopez–that Lee Baca asked Olmsted to return to the department for six months to help lead an investigation into the failures in the jail system.

Olmsted declined.

“I applaud Sheriff Baca and the department for trying to right the ship,” says Olmsted. “But there are still too many barriers in place for me to feel confident that I could have an impact on the situation. All of the stakeholders need to be addressed. That means the needs of the public, the inmates, the ACLU—not just the needs of the department. Right now that isn’t happening.”

NEXT WEEK, DANGEROUS JAILS, PART 3

Posted in LA County Jail, Sheriff Lee Baca, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT | 18 Comments »

18 Responses

  1. LA Justice Report Launches Second Part of Its Investigation into LA County’s Jails - FishbowlLA Says:

    [...] between Witness LA and Spot.us, of which yours truly is the lead reporter, has published the second part in a series of articles investigating the troubled state of LA County’s jail system. In our [...]

  2. Dr. Robert E Lee LASD Ret Says:

    Cmdr Olmsted should be heralded as a true “law enforcement professional” He exemplifies the LASD tradition and deserves kudos from those of us who have gone on and from those who have paid the supreme sacrifice defending the citizens of Los Angeles County.

  3. RJI Says:

    I am a former LASD Deputy. I’ve seen a lot of hatchet jobs. This ain’t one of them. I believe every word. This is terrific journalism. I’ve seen a few of these Custody Deps, and a number of CDC Officers as well. They are a scary bunch of guys. The problem is that these guys are stuck in Custody assignments for so long that they adopt the same characteristics as the prisoners they guard.
    The “tats” hand signs, and jargon mirrors the bad guys. I’d like to know how other counties keep this from happening.

  4. Tyrone Smith Says:

    God Bless Olmsted. He is telling the straight truth. Tanaka is the epicenter of all evil. I hope the Feds do their job.

  5. Answering The Question Says:

    After backing Cruz unflaggingly for years, Tanaka was finally forced to admit that Olmsted had been right.

    Interpretation:
    Tanaka: “He’s my buddy and he’s the Captain because I say he’s the Captain. If any of you don’t like it I’ll use my position of power to ruin your career. Now stfu. I’m the Undersheriff and I run this department”.

    Baca: “I’m not responsible. I didn’t know. I expected Tanaka to run things smoothly while I was busy politicking and fundraising. Sure Olmstead told me about Cruz, but I forgot. I can’t be expected to stay cognizant of little things like what’s happening at my jail. I’m so busy hobnobbing with celebrities and campaign donors I can’t be expected to know what’s going on. Even if I’m told”.

  6. The Ghost of Sherman Block Says:

    Sorry I wouldn’t hand the reins of power over to somebody else before I died in office, allowing this incompetent buffoon to become Sheriff”.

  7. Links 12/2/11 « naked capitalism Says:

    [...] DANGEROUS JAILS, Part 2: Ignoring the Warnings WitnessLA. This is the jail where eXiled writer Yasha Levine is being held. [...]

  8. Black Smith Says:

    It boggles my mind that the same state that nurtured the eye-opening work of professor Philip Zimbardo in the “Stanford prison experiment” would fail so miserably at learning from it.

    Something tells me Olmsted could recite the conclusions of that study, chapter and verse.

  9. Tyrone Smith Says:

    By the way Matt, great report. But I’m sure you know, you are just at the tip of the iceberg. Keep digging, there is a cesspool at the top of LASD. It is about time someone exposed it for what it is. And man, is it ugly.

  10. LA Sheriff’s Department Union Tries Out Some Media Criticism - FishbowlLA Says:

    [...] Department newsletter–reacting to the Times‘ and your humble Fishie’s recent stories about inmate abuse and supervisory incompetence inside the Sheriff’s [...]

  11. FPK Training Officer Says:

    Well Done Bob! You’ve made me proud!

  12. Tyrone Smith Says:

    Where is the LASD newsletter you spoke about, can it be posted on this link?

  13. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Tyrone, you can access archived editions of the union newsletter right here:

    http://www.alads.org/version2_0/dispatcher.aspx

    The stuff Matt was talking about is in the November issue on page 6.

  14. Retired Commander Says:

    In the early 1980’s, the ACLU successfully sued L. A. CO. Jail system. The case was heard finally in the U. S. Supreme Court. A significant precedent was established by that law suit and has never been fully addressed at all levels of government. The definition of “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” was deemed to include overcrowded conditions. Overcrowding was defined as when there was a need to have inmates sleep on the floor.
    The Supreme Court also gave the Sheriff the power to release any inmate in order to avoid overcrowding. The power thus vested provided a complete contradiction to the “balance of power” concept of the Constitutional establishment of three separate branches of government, each with specific powers and each with the ability to provide a check on the other. Instead, the most powerful entity as it relates to incarceration is the Sheriff. They, by this decision, could undermine what a legislature and judiciary had established with any single incarcerated individual. This is the first fact to be considered when analyzing the causes of the current situation in L. A. County Jail system.
    The second is the fact that due to overcrowding and the power given to the Sheriff the legislature has reduced the monies provided for constructing adequate jails while concurrently adding sentence enhancements to certain penalties. The result is that Country jails which used to house about 50% unsentenced and 50% sentenced inmates is now overwhelmingly populated by the most violent unsentenced inmates. Inmates who are sentenced to county jail sentences simply don’t spend any time in jail. Ergo the County jail system has become more difficult to manage when one considers that the facilities were constructed in part to house non-violent as well as a limited number of violent inmates. The legislature no longer is motivated or compelled to build more jails as long as their constituents believe that the sentence enhancements indicate a strong law and order attitude. It has been left to the Sheriff to simply release more and more inmates. Even the latest move on the part of the legislature to return a number of inmates to Counties is motivated by the fact that the Sheriff can then decide to release them thus removing the legislative branch of any responsibility.
    Further complicating the housing of inmates is the fact that there are a critically inadequate number of mental institution facilities resulting in the jails being the largest mental institutions in the state.
    Traditionally, the jails have been staffed with young, relatively new deputies. At this stage of their careers, the men and women feel a tremendous need to prove their “mettle” not to their supervisors but to their peers. Every single deputy works at being considered “good backup”. It is also where newly promoted supervisors are sent. The newest of supervisor having recently been at the lower rank relates more to the lower rank than to the new one. They are generally eager to prove their skill/ability/courage to their subordinates. Frequently they do so by being “one of the boys”. Usually the tendency subsides and maturity is achieved over time. There is a need for the wisest and sagest of supervisors (Sgt. and Lt.) to be assigned at the jail. The current situation seems to completely intimidate the greenest of supervisors
    In the Part I article, the whistle blower gave examples of where management decisions were not supported at the highest level (Undersheriff). When that happens even one time, any attempt to control and manage personnel is lost. Complicating the circumstance in L. A. County jail is the perception (or the reality) that the Undersheriff has made it a practice to identify his “boys” in many parts of the department including internal affairs. Once the Undersheriff undercut an MCJ Captain, all semblance of control was lost. The deputies had a direct and more effective line of communication with the U/S than with the managers. His trust was perceived as greater with the line level than with management. Ironic because the managers were frequently those he appointed. U/S Tanaka has a reputation for forming alliances with individuals and “taking care of” those with whom those alliances exists. A common term among the rank and file in describing Sheriff employees is, “Oh he/she is one of Tanaka’s boys.”

    The Sheriff is not as diabolical as Tanaka but equally at fault. The Sheriff suffers from a “Gandhi Complex”. He seems to believe that he has the last and final insight to the nature of man. He further conducts business in a manner that suggests he believes that no matter the flaw in the individual he can fix it. He has been warned by many over the years about the antics of U/S Tanaka. But whether Sheriff Baca is beholden to Tanaka because Tanaka is his accountant or he just does not see Tanaka the way most others on the department see him is unknown. Tanaka has influenced promotions, budget, assignments, discipline and many other aspects of the department to the degree that many of the good and solid employees are just counting the days until they can retire. It is also acknowledged somewhat universally that U/S Tanaka is bright and ambitious. Since it is believed that he is the Heir apparent to the position of Sheriff, it seems useless to try and influence change. Many who would otherwise be better leaders have taken the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude.

    Part I of the article basically calls attention to the immaturity at the deputy level and could also be equated with lowering standards for hiring. The issue of maturity is also related to the promotion of U/S Tanaka. His rise from Sgt. To U/S is unprecedented and without a doubt occurred so fast that he has never had time to mature into the jobs the he has held. He is still relating at the deputy level and exercising power that he is far too immature to hold. U/A Tanaka was at one time involved in a deputy gang, Vikings, at Lynwood station. He has not apparently risen from that level of maturity even though he holds the second highest office in the Department.

  15. EO Says:

    Now that’s the Bob I know, well done. I too hope this investigation goes further and the Dept we were proud to serve gets turned around in the right direction and those that got it to this point are moved aside.

  16. sam dangeol Says:

    And that’s not all when it comes to CDC Officers. Did you know that most of California’s Parole Board is made up of cdc officers who turn to the Parole Dept.to hire them. Well Believe or don’t. My Parole release was at the thirteen month review, not even reviewed. And I still have not even heard from my PO in almost 2 months over the one year time since I was released. And its to the point where I can not even DISAGREE or QUESTION their practices or wrong doings or U will end up with a violation. While in LACJ I spoke with several state prisoners who were violated for the dumbest reasons and THEE, THY and THOU, Parole Board Judges just go right along with this insane practice. Well I guess protecting your job demands rigorous violations of other fellow Americans freedom. After all–Isn’t that what it’s all about in a dog eat dog world that isn’t getting better though-out mankind’s History but actually preparing the future American to put up with worse treatments by authorities. Because we US citizens allow these rash laws into reality/existence it is Tine Now to stop and think together as a whole united country and give the Power back to the individual.Ya know! The country will never be divisible if we adhere to the Laws written to protect the single solitary Us citizen.That’s what REVOLUTION here and most everywhere is all about.That’s why these constitutional Laws were made to begin with.Common sense should tell us like Thomas Paine’s did.WAKE UP. before the future of the most important we value and what it takes to fun a FREE society is forever lost! SELF EVIDENCE! Ask your SELF? Protect and Serve on an individual level Speak out. Unite uptight against illegal {unconstitutional}Laws.STOP THE WARS NOW! Fight the buying of Legislative votes that corrupt this great country.

  17. sam dangeol Says:

    Well if being tortured both psychologically and physically is something you believe you can not stop, my guess is you will do nothing. Just keep going back to work you good Deputies and put the zipper on it! I had more faith in you to protect me while I was in your custody than to see it destroyed by turning your heads.

  18. Dwayne Says:

    I worked th county jail system for twenty-three years and Most of that time was spent on the “max” tiers as a training deputy. I have ealso been assigned to run several acadamies. Therefore I have alot of experience training deputies.i can tell you that most of the problems have to do with the change that Officers/Deputy go through as their careers progress. However,if stron leaders and good enforced policies are in place most of the problems can be delt with.

    As far as what RJI says, you don’t have to change with the environment. If the staff is constantly reminded of this and relize that we go home to the real world when the shift is over; they won’t be a victim of of thier surroundings.

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