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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

LA Sheriff’s race: Bob Olmsted is the prodigal son who wants to return

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Whistleblowing cops usually end up as pariahs. Bob Olmsted is no different.

“I’ve got a problem with a guy who runs to the FBI,” says retired Sheriff’s Lieutenant Craig Ditsch. “We have some very good people who have been indicted.”

A federal grand jury has indicted 20 current or former sheriff’s officials on civil rights and corruption charges – in part because of Olmsted. Most of the charges relate to excessive use of force against jail inmates, or efforts to cover it up.

Now, Olmsted is using his whistleblower past to distinguish himself among the seven candidates hoping to succeed former Sheriff Lee Baca as head of one of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies.

Protecting the 'good guys'

Olmsted once oversaw Men’s Central Jail as a commander, and went to his superior seeking to remove a problem captain. When Olmsted didn’t get the help, he went higher.

“I told my chief, 'I’m going over your head,'” Olmsted recounts. He sounds like a worried parent when he describes the corrosive effect of bad deputies.

“Who is protecting these young guys, the good guys?” he asks. “Nobody.”

In 2011, when Baca and his former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka (now a candidate for sheriff), refused to help, according to Olmsted, he went to the FBI. Olmsted had just retired from the department.

Last summer, before Baca abruptly resigned and a slew of other candidates jumped into the race, Olmsted announced his run for sheriff. It was a bold move by a political novice against a powerful incumbent.

“It was my duty to run,” Olmsted says.

Mentoring 'like a dad'

While many current and former deputies loathe the idea of a whistleblower becoming sheriff, retired Commander Joaquin Herran is a proud supporter of Olmsted.

“He had the guts to go do the right thing for the right reason,” Herran says. “Other people did not.”

Olmsted, 62, is tall and lean. He sports a bushy gray mustache. He looks the part of a sheriff. He’s also a nice guy, says Lt. Alex Villanueva.

“He has a very easygoing style, very personable with all the troops,” says Villanueva, who once worked under Olmsted. “People weren’t afraid to speak with him.”

Olmsted says he’d be a hands-on sheriff, and teach the way he was taught at the department. Here’s how he puts it:

“Sometimes you need a strong mentor, a dad that’s going to mentor you.”

Star witness

Olmsted served in Vietnam and the Coast Guard Reserve, then joined the sheriff’s department in 1978, following in his father's footsteps.

“As a young man you’re always interested in the police cars and radio traffic,” Olmsted recalls. “But the other part is going camping and hunting with all his friends, and listening to the war stories and the camaraderie.”

Like most law enforcement officers, Olmsted never fired his weapon at a suspect. One of his favorite stories is from 30 years ago, when he wrote a burglary report as a young deputy. He wondered why cactus covered the front yard of a Latino family’s home in South L.A. The family explained they ate cactus.

“They said, 'Would you like to come back and have breakfast with us tomorrow?' I said, 'Absolutely.'” It’s an example, Olmsted says, of how he loves to learn.

Olmsted was a star witness at the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence in 2012. He described abuses in the jail, and an out-of-touch Baca whose subordinates would conspire to hide issues from him during staff meetings.

“They would have a pre-meeting before the sheriff got there,” he says. 

Miriam Krinsky, who was executive director of the commission, says she has “tremendous respect for Bob Olmsted.” She calls his testimony “invaluable” to the panel’s understanding of the department. The panel issued a scathing report blaming Baca and Tanaka for many of the problems.

But Krinsky, who has endorsed Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, doesn’t think Olmsted has the experience to be sheriff.

“It’s a lot different to lead an entire law enforcement department than it is to serve as a commander,” she says. Sheriff’s commanders sit below the undersheriff, assistant sheriffs, and about a dozen chiefs.

Lofty rhetoric

Olmsted argues he’s served in key assignments, including overseeing the department’s leadership academy. He says as sheriff he’d dump three or four current chiefs, take the politics out of the office by not endorsing other political candidates, and submit to more citizen’s oversight.

“I’m the only candidate with the internal insight and understanding of the sheriff’s department, but with an outsider's perspective,” he says.

On the campaign trail, he offers lofty rhetoric. He says he wants to “honor his father’s legacy and those who died wearing the badge” and restore the “nobility of policing.”

In addition to Tanaka and McDonnell, the other candidates include Assistant Sheriffs James Hellmold and Todd Rogers, former Sheriff's Lieutenant Patrick Gomez and LAPD Det. Lou Vince.

The primary election is June 3.

Seven of the candidates square off in a debate Thursday night. You can watch it live starting at 6:30 p.m.

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