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 WitnessLA, 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.”
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.
“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, DANGEROUS JAILS, PART 3