THE CONTEXT AND THE CRIME
“Every crime has a context,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox in his opening statement in the federal trial of Paul Tanaka, the former second in command of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department who, for years was the man who many assumed would be the next sheriff.
Opening statements were Thursday. Then on Friday, the prosecution called its first witnesses—all but one of whom were on the stand to give the jury a picture of what prosecutor Fox had called “the context” of the crimes with which Mr. Tanaka has been charged. Witnesses pertaining to the actual alleged crimes—AKA what this trial is ultimately about—will take the stand next Tuesday.
(The court is dark on Mondays.)
On Friday, however, the prosecution’s witnesses each possessed one piece of the portrait the prosecution is endeavoring to paint for the jury, depicting a supervisor who favored a cowboy brand of law enforcement where toughness was allowed for— even required—and deputies were encouraged to step over the legal line, as needed. In this portrait, the defendant rigorously enforced his point of view by protecting rule-breaking deputies and supervisors loyal to him, from any and all consequences. Often this meant retaliating swiftly and ruthlessly against anyone who didn’t follow and support his point of view.
First up was former LASD lieutenant, Alfred Gonzalez, who had worked both in the department’s Internal Affairs bureau and, in the last few years before he retired in 2007, at Men’s Central Jail, primarily on the 3000 floor.
When on the stand, he described to the jury how he was initially assigned to the graveyard shift in MCJ when he began to notice a pattern of a high level use of force on the 3000 and 2000 floors. As he reviewed the force reports, he noticed a cookie-cutter sameness to a lot of the mandatory written reports that were generated after the force incidents, which struck him as suspicious.
THE 2000 AND 3000 BOYS
Gonzalez also described the actions of deputy clicks on those two floors, the members of which associated only with each other, and whose loyalty seemed to be to the cliques they called the 3000 Boys or the 2000 Boys, not to the department. And it was these clique members, Gonzalez told the jury, who were responsible for some of the worst instances of force, and also for some off duty incidents. “They were getting in bar fights,” Gonzales said on cross-examination. “It wasn’t just camaraderie. They wouldn’t associate with anyone else.”
(WLA’s report on Gonzalez’s testimony at the Jail Commission has additional details of the experiences he reported with problem deputies at MCJ and with Tanaka, much of which duplicated his testimony on Friday.)
Gonzalez related how he and other supervisors, including the then captain of MCJ, John Clark, were concerned about the aggressive attitudes of the cliques and the spiking force reports, and made some progress in mitigating force issues with greater supervision. But the progress was not nearly enough. So, Gonzalez explained, Clark decided to implement a rotation system that didn’t alter times of the deputies’ shifts, but instead regularly rotated the deputies to different locations in the jail, so that cliques couldn’t cluster together at work. (A similar rotation system had been successful in lowering force numbers under a previous MCJ captain, although Gonzalez didn’t bring this up.)
Yet before the new strategy could be launched, according to Gonzalez, Tanaka called a meeting of the MCJ administrators and canceled the rotation system in a state of fury, reportedly shouting that the captain and the supervisors were “dinosaurs” who needed to learn to “coddle” their young deputies.
“He said, ‘You will stay off these floors and let the deputies do what they have to do!’” Never mind, said Gonzalez, that “when the supervisors weren’t on the floors, force went up.”
Former MCJ captain John Clark was called to the stand next. Clark is a straight-backed, Basset-eyed man who spoke concisely and clearly. He explained why he felt the rotation system Gonzalez had described was important. He said he’d tried other methods to solve the problem, but they hadn’t gotten the desired results. So he’d gotten the rotation approved with his direct superiors and with employee relations. “Then I put out a memo to deputies,” telling them of the change, and encouraging them to discuss any concerns with him, he said.
Instead, he was “told that Mr. Tanaka did not approve of the plan,” said Clark. The supervisors’ meeting was called. After the meeting and the alleged shouting, Clark managed to meet privately with the then assistant sheriff, at which time Clark said he explained why the rotation would be useful in lowering force. “But he told me to make it go away before it ended up in the sheriff’s office.”
Clark understood the threat.
“I took that to mean I would be transferred,” he said. The rotation was trashed, as required. Almost immediately, Clark was transferred anyway.
THE REGULATORS AND CROSSING THE BLUE LINE
The next witnesse, Steve Roller, seemed to particularly capture the jurors’ attention.
Roller, now retired, told how he became the captain of the department’s Century Station in 2005. Century, which is located in Lynwood California, and also polices the unincorporated areas of Florence/Firestone, Walnut Park, Athens Park, Rosewood, and Willowbrook. In short, Century’s patrol area is considered to be high in crime and gang heavy.
Roller told the jury that when he took over as captain, Century was in a dismaying state when it came to use of force, and complaints of deputy wrongdoing. “They had the highest use of significant force in the department,” said Roller, and had “the top number of resident complaints.” And, said Roller, Century had “more officer-involved shootings than the entire rest of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department” combined.
Added to everything, there was a group of deputies, he said, who seemed to have assumed control of the station. This deputy clique controlled who got overtime, who was on what shift, and more. “They called themselves the Regulators,” said Roller.
He saw demonstrations of the clique’s influence in various ways. For instance, at a funeral for a deputy who had worked Century in the past, one of the prominent floral arrangements featured a number that turned out to be the dead man’s “Regulator number,” indicating the order in which he’d been chosen for and initiated into the group.
And there were other things, like reports that the Regulators were extorting money from probationary deputies for Regulators’ events and to make up lost wages for a member who was disciplined for misconduct.
Roller told the jury he called a meeting with six or seven of the Regulator leaders and laid down some boundaries. He also made changes in staffing positions, which put limits on the things that the Regulators could control.
It helped, he said. The problematic behavior of the group lessoned.
Then came the request from Paul Tanaka—then Assistant Sheriff—who said he wanted to come to an all station meeting. The meeting was scheduled for June 28, 2007 at 2 p.m..
Both sworn and unsworn staff were there, Roller told the jury. Tanaka didn’t show up until 2:30 p.m. so Roller spoke first. He noted that shootings were down, and so were complaints. He praised the deputies for their efforts.
Then Tanaka arrived and delivered a very different message, according to Roller. “He said that he hated internal affairs, and that it had no place in the department. “ Roller said that Tanaka told those assembled that he didn’t like captains who put cases on deputies and that if he thought a captain was putting too many IA cases on deputies, he would see to it that an IA case was put on that captain.
Then, according to Roller, Tanaka began talking about the “blue line.”
The “blue line,” explained Roller, has to do with ethical law enforcement conduct. It is the line that cannot be crossed, he said.
However, according to Roller, that day in 2007, Tanaka told deputies that in rough environments like Century, they had to work right on the line and “cross it at times,” and to “deal aggressively with gang members,” plus similar words to that effect.
Roller said he was “in shock.” Here the assistant sheriff of the department was undermining “everything I was trying to do.”
“I was trying to get them to toe the blue line, and he told them they had to be very aggressive and sometimes cross it…”
Roller said he told his chief about what had happened, and the chief asked him to put the experience into memo form.
At prosecutor Fox’s request, Roller read several paragraphs from the memo he wrote. (You can find the Roller memo here.)
“Three weeks after I wrote the memo, I was on vacation in Alaska when I received a phone call telling me I was being transferred effective immediately.”
Sheriff Baca was theoretically the person in charge of such transfers. But Roller said it was later made clear to him that it was in fact the assistant sheriff who had triggered his removal from Century.
On cross, attorney for the defense Steward, noted that Rollers descriptions of what Tanaka said were harsher in his testimony that in the memo, suggesting that Roller was maybe exaggerating now.
Roller replied without hesitation. “This memo was, quite honestly toned down from my recollection of the meeting because I didn’t know where the memo would go….”
The defense pointed specifically to the “blue line” section.
“He said sometimes deputies had to cross the line,” replied Roller.
But did Roller put that phrase in the memo?
“No,” said Roller, entirely unrattled. “But I said it to my chief.” Roller reiterated that he toned the verbiage memo down considerably “because I knew this document was going to go up the chain. But the exact comments were made to my chief” and to the chief’s superior, he said. What Tanaka said at that meeting, Roller told the jury, “contradicted everything I tried to do at Century.”
Later Roller said he was told by his aid that, some days after the memo was sent, Paul Tanaka and Lee Baca showed up at Century station and met with three leaders of the Regulators.
It was after the Tanaka/Baca visit that Roller got the transfer call. “Effective immediately,” he said again, explaining the unusual nature of that phrasing.
Roller then was made captain of ICIB, the criminal version of Internal Affairs.
THEY GRAY AREA AND THE WHISTLEBLOWER
Other witnesses provided additional pieces of “the context.”
LASD Commander Pat Maxwell told of Tanaka attending a staff meeting when Maxwell was the captain at Norwalk station, at which time the then assistant sheriff told deputies to “work the gray area,” which Maxwell said, according to his understanding meant, “to work outside policy or outside the law. “
After Maxwell, former Commander Bob Olmsted was another witness that the jury seemed to watch with rapt interest.
Olmsted told how he was asked to replace John Clark as captain at Men’s Central Jail, when the high number of force incidents and the actions of the two deputy cliques were still clearly a problem.
To get a better idea of what was going on, Olmsted said he began walking the floors of the jail regularly. “I’d walk up to the 3000 floor and be surrounded by 10 deputies who would say ‘What’re you doing on our floor?’”
At most “there should have been three deputies in the area,” he said. That meant “seven were not doing their jobs.”
Olmsted instituted a series of reforms, and was able, he said, to lower force by 30 percent, in the sixteen months he was captain of MCJ.
But in April 2008, he was promoted to commander of all three southern jails, and a hand-picked Tanaka guy named Dan Cruz took over as captain of Men’s Central.
And force spiked.
“Significant force was off the scale” under Cruz, Olmsted said.
Olmsted then told the jury that he asked an operations lieutenant to randomly pull and review 30 “force packages.” The subsequent report by Mark McCorkle, showed that 18 out of the 30 randomly pulled cases “were out of policy,” never mind that they had all been approved by supervisors. They were illegal.
Olmsted tried to work with Cruz on the problems, but Cruz ignored him. Olmsted requested another report investigating the force issue. The results were equally troubling.
Olmsted went to his chief with the problem. When that proved unsuccessful, he talked to the assistant sheriff in charge of custody who sent him to Paul Tanaka who was then also an assistant sheriff but, although he was not in the chain of command over custody, appeared to be calling the shots.
In his meeting with Tanaka, he explained the force was out of control, and brought his documents to illustrated the problem. Tanaka promised to investigate.
A week later there was a second meeting. Cruz was indeed the problem, Tanaka admitted. But, to Olmsted’s surprise, incredibly, rather than removing Dan Cruz, Tanaka explained he wanted to promote him, and wanted Olmsted to help get the problematic captain ready to be promoted, and protect him.
“I make all the decisions in on the department,” Olmsted said Tanaka confided later. “I make all the promotions in the department. And I’m going to be the sheriff for the next 15 years [after Baca], so I need my people around me.”
On cross, the defense brought out the fact that Olmsted eventually brought his concerns to Lee Baca three times, without success. Finally, Olmsted went to the FBI and eventually to the press.
“Why did you go to the FBI,” asked the defense. And the press?
“I felt it was the right thing to do.”
Well, had Olmsted ever sought monetary compensation for all this? What had he gotten out of it personally?
It was a weird question for the defense to ask and Olmsted’s gaze became steely.
Nothing, he said.
THE ACLU & SHOOTING THE MESSENGER
ACLU Legal director Peter Eliasberg was the last of the context witnesses, and the jury also seemed to listen carefully to his narrative of investigating abuse in the jails, and issuing regular reports, which the department repeatedly ignored.
They listened particularly intently when he told of the January 2011 incident when “one of my colleagues,” the ACLU’s Esther Lim, witnessed the brutal beating of an inmate by deputies. When Lim and the ACLU reported the incident to the department, they were largely rebuffed Eventually the ACLU issued a press release, hoping that “public pressure would help.”
In response, he said, sheriff’s officials “made public comments questioning” Lim’s “credibility. “
The last witness of the day was Robert Bayes, who was actually the first witness with information pertaining to the charges of obstruction.
(More on him later.)
One of the witnesses scheduled for testimony on Tuesday, is former LASD deputy Mickey Manzo, who was among the men tasked with organizing the surreptitious guarding of FBI informant Anthony Brown. Manzo is also one of the seven who have already been convicted of obstruction of justice, and whose cases are on appeal. He was reluctant to testify, so has been compelled to do so, and granted limited immunity.
And the beat goes on.