ANATOMY OF A JAILS COMMISSION MEETING – A SERIES IN THREE PARTS
PART 2 – THE LIEUTENANT
May 15, 2012,
Lieutenant Alfred Gonzales, a retired 35-year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, took a seat at the microphone reserved for guests in the main chamber of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration. Gonzales had agreed to give testimony before the Los Angeles County Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence but his grim expression suggested he still had mixed feelings about doing so.
Since early this year, the jail commission’s five teams of pro-bono investigators have been seeking out and interviewing a growing list of people with knowledge of the jails—retired and current sheriff’s department personnel, former inmates, jail chaplains, and others. The goal is to talk to at least 60 “witnesses.” Only a small percentage of that 60 plus would wind up in the chair that Gonzales now occupied.
At this May meeting only six of the seven commission members were present:. Four are former federal judges, Robert Bonner, Dickran Tevrizian, Carlos Moreno and Lourdes Baird, the only woman on the commission and the one elected by the rest to chair these meetings. Bonner is arguably the heaviest hitter of the judicial group in that he has also headed both the DEA and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection the during the period when it became the part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The two non-judges on the day’s panel were former First AME Church pastor, Reverend Cecil “Chip” Murray, who is the one looked to by the others for his roots in LA’s communities, and Alex Busansky, a former DOJ civil rights attorney who is now the current president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and the most directly familiar of the group with the issue of custody problems in general in that, among other relevant qualifications, he headed up the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons for the Vera Institute. The missing commissioner was Long Beach Chief of Police Jim McDonnell, once on the short list to be LAPD chief, thus the person knowledgeable about the law enforcement perspective. McDonnell evidently missed today’s hearing due to some irresolvable conflict or other.
Gonzales was the second of the day’s witnesses. The first round of testimony was provided by a retired sheriff’s department sergeant named Daniel Pollaro, who described men’s central jail as an increasingly out of control and violent place featuring deputy cliques whose members routinely ignored supervisors, and use of force numbers that were far higher they they should be. Yet the thing that seemed to especially get the attention of commission members was the revelation by Pollaro that Paul Tanaka—then the Assistant Sheriff in charge of custody, now the undersheriff—had reached down from his lofty executive perch to make a series of moves that, according to Pollaro, effectively smashed the chain-of-command at Men’s Central Jail and gutted the authority of its supervisors.
With Pollaro’s testimony in mind, the commissioners were intensely interested to hear what Gonzales, a former Men’s Central Jail supervisor, a rank above Pollaro, had to say about these matters.
Before Gonzales began his official testimony, he asked to first present a prewritten statement, which was clearly important to him. At a nod from the commission’s chief counsel, Richard Drooyan, he fished a folded sheer of paper out of his jacket pocket, and read the following, his voice roughened by emotion:
I come from a family with a long history of public service. My father was severely wounded in World War II and retired as a federal civil servant. I am one of eight family members, which includes my wife who is in the audience, who are current or retired law enforcement officers. Four of these members also served in the military, including 3 Vietnam veterans and one Iraqi war veteran. I am a Viet Nam Veteran of the united states Marine Corp. I have 35 years of public service, 26 years with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. I retired with the rank of Lt.
Although I am here voluntarily, …. I did not ask to participate in these proceedings. It pains me to be here. And my intent today is not to malign or bring discredit on the sheriff’s department. My goal is to bring transparency to what was occurring at Men’s Central Jail between 2003 and when I retired in 2007. In my opinion 90 to 95 percent of sheriffs deputies perform their duties in an honorable and professional manner.
That done, for the first few minutes of his testimony, Gonzales covered many of the same problems at Men’s Central Jail that Sergeant Pollaro had already described earlier [see Part 1]— the chronic, in-your-face tardiness by certain deputies, the dismissive attitude among many of those same deputies toward supervisors who attempted to rein in their behavior, and the relationship of these problematic actions to the deputy power cliques that had formed among those who worked on the 2000 and 3000 floors.
“Ninety to ninety-five percent of the deputies were outstanding,” Gonzales told the commissioners. “But there was that segment…”
Gonzales explained how he managed to wrestle the tardiness and insubordination problems mostly to the ground, but how there was a strong push back from those deputies affected. “I was holding their feet to the fire. I was holding them to the hours of their work. It wasn’t well received by a lot of personnel,” he said.
But while he was able to get a handle on much of the unruly deputy behavior, there were other issues that Gonzales found unsettling and more difficult to combat.
“ I noticed some eerie movement on the 2000 and 3000 floors specifically.” Gonzales said. “The deputies, once their shifts were over, would congregate on that floors until the entire shift was congregated at the entrance to that floor, and they would all march off the floor, and down the elevators, and then walk out together into the parking lot.” He paused. “But what was so weird about it is these groups wouldn’t comingle with other floors.”
Nor, he found, would they acknowledge the presence of a supervisor. “They would just stone-faced walk right by me.” Such actions weren’t hugely against the rules, exactly. It was more that they were yet another discomforting weirdity in a paramilitary organization where the loyalty to the department and to the law was supposed to be paramount—-not allegiance to one’s more-bad-ass-then-you-are deputy posse.
CLIQUES AND FORCE
Most to the point, as far as the commissioners were concerned, was Gonzales’ testimony about how he started to observe that the deputy clique behavior seemed to correlate with some alarming trends in the use of force at CJ.
“I began to notice patterns of force on [the 2000 and 3000] floors, and I began to identify who my heavy-handed deputies were” Gonzales said, adding that he instituted strategies to combat the problem right away. “To limit their exposure on those floors, when I assigned overtime, I’d assign them to another floor.” The idea wasn’t to rotate their assignments exactly, which wasn’t within a lieutenant’s power, but just to vary their extra assignments, so that the deputies who were amassing force reports on certain floors, would hopefully break out of their patterns.
The strategy was notably unsuccessful, mainly since the deputies flatly refused to cooperate. Gonzales said he would come in the next day after making such assignments, and find that men and women whom he’d assigned to, say, the 5th floor would be right back on their preferred floor, assignments be damned. “They’d browbeat the deputy who was working the assignment they wanted into letting them change.”
Gonzales met with his sergeants and made it clear that all this changing of overtime locations was a no-go. The high-handed self-assignments slowed down, he said. But the worrisome use-of-force patterns continued. For one thing, Gonzales noted that there was an unnatural similarity in the way that many of the force reports involving inmate injuries were written, as if everyone had cribbed from the same outline. As a consequence, what logically should have been very different force descriptions were written up in cookie-cutter fashion as having occurred in almost exactly the same way, which Gonzales knew to be impossible. “I thought, ‘Wow, this wasn’t right,’” he said.
What really concerned him, Gonzales said, was the rising number of inmate injuries, not just bruises, but real damage. “I saw a lot of broken limbs. A lot of suturing.”
What is more, Gonzales started getting disconcerting calls about off duty problems with the same groups of force-using deputies.
In response to some of the commissioners’ quizzical expressions, Gonzales explained that other local law enforcement agencies would usually give him a courtesy call when they picked up any of his deputies outside of work for crossing some legal line or other, a matter that he found was happening with increasing frequency. Worse, in Gonzales’ mind, was the fact that he began hearing that the misbehaving deputies were referring to themselves off duty, not as Los Angeles deputy sheriffs, but as “2000 floor deputies” or “3000 floor deputies.”
To illustrate the point, Gonzales told the commission about one deputy who was picked up in 2003 for a DUI in Covina, at which time Gonzales got the usual courtesy call. Gonzales learned that, after the deputy was pulled over, the traffic officer tried to get him to take a field sobriety test, but the deputy was belligerent.
“Do you know who you’re F-ing with?’” the deputy reportedly yelled to the traffic cop. “’You’re F-ing with a 3000 floor deputy!”
Covina wasn’t the only source of multiple courtesy phone calls; there was also Fullerton, where deputies reportedly often drank and caroused to the point that the cops got notified. One night the drunken behavior went further than usual and Gonzales got a call that four of his deputies had assaulted a man at a bar. According to the Fullerton PD officers, the four deputies chased a guy out of the watering hole, then knocked him to the ground, at which time, two of the deputies began beating the guy, while another two stood watch “to make sure that no one intervenes.”
Astonishingly, there were no criminal charges filed, although the four did get some days off work—ranging from 8 days off for two of the deputies, to 10 and 20 days for those who did the beating.
Two of the commissioners asked why no criminal charges were filed against the deputies involved in what sounded to those listening like a clear case of criminal assault that would land any ordinary citizen behind bars. Gonzales said that the victim “wasn’t….desirous,” of pressing charges. It was explanation that did not appear to satisfy the two commissioners at all, but they let it drop.
In still another incident in 2003, Gonzales told how he got a call when some of the 2000 and 3000 floor deputies were drunk and “causing havoc out in the City of Industry.”
“You know, this behavior is reminiscent of gang members,” Gonzales said he later told one of the drunk and disorderly deputies in an attempt to “counsel” him about his group’s troubling “clique mentality.”
“This is how gang members act!”
It was a remark that would come back to haunt him.
Nevertheless, Gonzales said he felt he was making headway in counteracting the clique behavior. Yet he admitted he was very relieved when, in 2006, CJ’s then commanding officer, Captain John Clark, decided to impose a job rotation strategy, a move that Gonzales had long favored as he believed it would help with the unhealthy deputy groups.
“I thought, ‘We’re finally going to do it,’” he told the commission, “’We’re going to break these floors up…. We’re not going to inconvenience these deputies. We were just going to give them different job assignments.”
But then, as Sergeant Pollaro had recounted earlier in the day, (and as WLA’s Matt Fleischer reported here), after Clark sent his memo announcing the rotation to all the deputies, the deputies complained to then Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, who called an unprecedented deputies only meeting. Gonzales said he learned about the meeting from his own deputy sources told him that the assistant sheriff had been in the jail and why.
“After that. I heard that the rotation had been squashed.”
The meeting that Tanaka called with CJ’s supervisors occurred a few days later. Gonzales’s description of the meeting held in the 2000 floor briefing room was similar to that of Sergeant Pollaro, albeit with more detail:
“Every sergeant, every lieutenant and our captain, Captain Clark” was in attendance, Gonzales said, adding that he’d never met the assistant sheriff before.
“There was a podium. Tanaka was behind the podium. There were rows of chairs. I was in the front row. Captain Clark was a few seats to my right.
“It was a one sided meeting. [Tanaka] spoke. Everyone else listened.” Glaring at those assembled, assistant sheriff announced, among other angry declarations, that he had hand picked three lieutenants to come into CJ, “because the supervision at Central was lacking.”
Mr. Tanaka is known for his towering, profanity-laced rages and, according to Gonzales, the assistant sheriff quckly wound himself up to the point that he was shouting at the limit of his voice.
“How dare a lieutenant on the Sheriff’s Department refer to deputy sheriffs as gang members. How dare you!” the assistant sheriff reportedly yelled to those assembled at one point. Gonzales understood right away that this particular part of the yelling probably referred to his spontaneous, one-time remark two years before to the 2000 floor deputy after the incident of outsized drunken carousing in the City of Industry.
“You guys are a bunch of dinosaurs! Your supervisorial skills are antiquated.” Gonzales said Tanaka continued to shout. Then the assistant sheriff made reference to the 2000 and 3000 floors, “and he said, ‘You supervisors will stay off those floors and let these deputies do what they’ve got to do!’”
Although the collective dressing down had everyone in the room in a state of startled thrall, Gonzales was the most taken aback at the hands off the subordinates part of the tirade.
“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
But the best was yet to come.
Gonzales said that Tanaka then arranged his arms in a cradling gesture and swung them to and fro in a rock-a-bye baby gesture. “This is the XYZ generation,” he reportedly said nodding toward his arms. Then pointing to the “baby,” in the center said, “This is the Y generation. You will coddle them!”
Finally, according to Gonzales, Tanaka turned to face him directly and began to shout. “’Yes, you lieutenant, you will coddle these men!”
Right then John Clark stood up, “and tried to intervene in my behalf,” said Gonzales. But Tanaka shouted him down too. “I don’t’ want to hear from you, Captain!” he thundered.
“I thought, we’ve lost it,” Gonzales said. “We’ve lost it. The chain of command was totally broken.”
TO CODDLE OR NOT TO CODDLE
Despite being singled out at the meeting, Gonzales insisted to the commissioners that he did not change his tactics in response to Tanaka’s hands off directive. “I mean, my god, these were adult men and women! I didn’t coddle them. I was going to do my job!”
Not “coddling,” however, had consequences. A few weeks later, Gonzales was called to meet with his direct superior, Commander Dennis Conte, who told him that his superior, the Chief of Custody, Sammy Jones, wanted to meet with Gonzales, because he was getting a lot of pressure from Tanaka to get Gonzales out of the jail system altogether, to “roll him up,” as it is known in LASD vernacular.
Gonzales said that Conte—who was a veteran of more than 40 years in law enforcement, including a couple of decades at the LAPD—was dismayed by the way things were playing out.
“Y’know,” Conte reportedly said, “in all my years in law enforcement, I’ve never seen an executive supervise from the bottom up. Executives supervise from the top down.” The bottom up executive he was talking about was, of course, Tanaka.
Ultimately Jones and Conte went to bat for Gonzales, justifying their actions by explaining to the assistant sheriff the impracticality of transferring the lieutenant out since, frankly, few supervisors wanted to work custody, so replacing him would be difficult. Tanaka, while not pleased, backed off, at least for the moment.
And so, despite the fact that the guy at the top wanted to ax him, Gonzales said he kept on walking the 2000, 3000 and 4000 floors that the assistant sheriff had specifically told the supervisors to stay away from.
And he continued to grapple with worryingly high uses of force used by certain deputies on those floors. Gonzales told how one of his problem deputies was also a deputy who had concerned Sergeant Pollaro. “I began to question how much force he used,” Gonzales said, “because the injuries were rather serious. I’m talking broken jaws.”
After one of the broken jaw incidents, Gonzales said he interviewed the injured inmate, whose jaw was badly fractured and tremendously swollen—“just huge”—and learned that the man, a gangster in a high control unit, had been handcuffed at the time that the injury took place. “I didn’t deserve this,” the inmate reportedly told the lieutenant.
Gonzales was hardly naive to the fact that inmates frequently insist that they did nothing to warrant this or that kind of treatment. But he was troubled by the man’s unusual level of distress. “This was a hard core…gangbanger,” he told the commission members, meaning the type for whom stoicism in the face of injury is viewed as both a virtue and a necessity. “And you don’t see too many guys like that break down.”
Gonzales questioned the deputy about the injuries he inflicted, but the deputy claimed that in all instances, the violence was necessary. In the case of the handcuffed gangster, he contended that the man had charged him with the intention of head butting and that he struck the inmate out of concern for his personal safety.
Gonzales didn’t buy it. For one thing, such a handcuffed charge would have been willfully self-destructive. Moreover, the deputy was a big guy with lots of martial arts experience. Gonzales told a friend of the deputy’s that he should tell his buddy to dial it back for the good of his career. “I can’t prove it, but I know he’s using unreasonable force.” In other words, he was assaulting inmates.
In another instance, Gonzales walked up to the 4000 floor, where some of his frequent-use-of-force deputies worked, and he encountered one of his sergeants wielding a video camera, a look of discomfort on his face.
“I just caught deputy so-and-so beating an inmate,” Gonzales said the sergeant told him, explaining that he had come upon a group of deputies clustered around an elderly black inmate who was on the floor with his hands over his face, according to the sergeant, trying to protect his head, crying “What’d I do? What’d I do?” as one of the problem deputies slugged him repeatedly.
To stop the beating, the sergeant said he’d had to yank the deputy off the curled-up man. Then he told everyone to stay put while he went to get the camera with the intent of interviewing both deputies and inmate, but when he returned, the deputies had all conveniently vanished. By the time Gonzales pursued the matter, the deputies all told one uniform story about it being the inmate’s fault. Yet in this case, it wasn’t the usual inmate-versus-the-deputies situation. The sergeant’s account completely supported that of the beaten inmate, who pleaded that he’d done nothing to elicit the beating. Gonzales believed the sergeant and filed a report to that effect, and the deputy was eventually fired.
Yet, according to Gonzales’s testimony, it appeared that most of the questionable force cases went undisciplined, since few deputy witnesses broke ranks with their inmate-slugging colleagues.
An exception to this rule was a story Gonzales told regarding the jaw-breaking deputy he’d mentioned earlier. This time the beating incident resulted in a fractured cheekbone, and an injured ear and ribs.
Again, all the deputies involved told an indentical story of how the inmate’s injuries were either caused by other inmates or had been self-inflicted. The truth of the matter came out only when a deputy witness later applied for a job with another police agency (Gonzales said it was Riverside PD). As part of his job interview, he was given a polygraph test and asked if he’d ever lied on a police report. The deputy, whose name was Ryan Lopez, admitted that he had, in fact, once lied on a report. The lie occurred after he witnessed the cheekbone-fracturing assault on the inmate by three other deputies, and he had supported their version that no deputies were responsible. Lee Simoes, the jaw-breaker, plus Humberto Magallanes and Kenny Ramirez were subsequently fired. And, although criminal charges were filed, all three were given probation.
When Gonzales finished his testimony, Judge Baird asked who had questions. A couple of the commissioners wanted to know more about the power cliques and about the issue of Tanaka and the chain of command, which appeared to disturb both Judge Bonner and Judge Tevrizian in particular.
Bonner asked whether or not the power of the deputy cliques had diminished in Men’s Central Jail by the time Gonzales retired in 2007.
Gonzales said that it had helped when some of the “stronger personalities in those cliques eventually went to patrol in 2004, 2005.” However he had heard, he said, that several of the deputies had gotten themselves in trouble in their patrol assignments as well.
In general, he said, he felt “we had somewhat diminished the clique behavior. I was constantly on those floors, and my sergeants were on those floors. So, I think we had minimized it a bit…. But then Mr. Tanaka came in.”
At the Tanaka reference, Bonner brought up those two unusual meetings with the deputies and the supervisors.
”At least on its face,” the judge said, “it seems like a pretty extraordinary breech of the chain of command. I just wanted to ask you, Lt. Gonzales, in your 26 years with the Sheriff’s department, have you ever seen such a clear cut breech of the chain of command that would be in any way comparable to that situation that you described in February 2006?”
“No, sir, I never haven’t. Never.”
When it was Tevrizian’s turn, he asked Gonzales the same question that he had posed to Sergeant Pollaro: “From 2003 to 2007 how many times would you saw Sheriff Baca at the jail, when you were there?”
“Me personally? I never saw him.”
POST SCRIPT: THE INMATES AND THE COMMANDER
After Gonzales got up to leave, the commissioners broke for lunch. When they returned, they heard testimony from two men who had spent time in Men’s Central Jail, both of them working men who were sentenced to jail for under a year. (One was in for driving on a suspended license. The other did jail time for a misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon charge.) Both spoke articulately of being on the receiving end of deputy assaults and threats of additional violence by deputies should the men report the assaults. One told of having his $500 dental retainer destroyed by a deputy who allegedly tossed it on the floor and stomped it on an occasion when he didn’t feel the man had moved fast enough in some demanded action or other.
Their reports were highly specific and harrowing. When one of the witnesses, David Eiler, did file a complaint, despite admonitions not to, he said he was harassed verbally and physically by deputies, including being subjected to a very long, very public strip search while other deputies looked on and made cat calls. When he still did not withdraw the complaint, he told the commissioners he was transferred unaccountably to a high control unit, despite his low control inmate status. There he was approached by several gangster inmates who said they had been instructed by a custody assistant to “F-me up.” The inmates, with whom he said he’d previously gotten along, said they were not going to administer the beating then but made it clear that it was a one-time pass. “They told me, ‘You know what? Not everybody leaves county jail alive.’”
After the inmates finished their testimony, the commissioners took one more break, and then reconvened around 2 pm for testimony from the day’s final witness, retired Commander Robert Olmsted.
This last session would last nearly two-hours and would produce the most startling moments of the testimony to date.
PART III —The Commander— coming soon.