Gripping testimony as inquiry into LA Sheriff's Department jail violence continues

Grant Slater/KPCC

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.

The Los Angeles Citizens Commission on Jail Violence got an inside perspective on the troubled downtown Men's Central Jail Monday during often gripping testimony from a former commander.

Retired Sheriff’s Cmdr. Robert Olmsted oversaw the lock-up for three years starting in 2006. He described sergeants transferred into the jail from street patrol who refused to do their job.

“They get pissed off, they get upset, ‘I’m better than that. My career is on hold,'" Olmsted said of the sergeants angry about the assignment. "They just lock themselves up in the office and don’t do anything.”

He said that often left deputies unsupervised, and some engaged in brutal behavior against inmates, especially in the jail’s 3000 block that houses the toughest prisoners.

The board of supervisors created the jail violence panel last fall after the FBI opened an investigation into deputy violence inside Los Angeles County lock-ups. That inquiry continues.

Long before that, Olmsted, as the jail commander, commissioned a report that found 42 deputies had 10 or more uses of force during a two-year period. Another report found that some deputies “dramatized” inmates’ behavior to justify the use of force against them, or intentionally failed to call for back up to “avoid supervisor intervention” in a beating.

Olmsted said that some supervisors — even when they arrived at incidents — failed to correct misconduct.
Two other retired sheriff’s officials, a sergeant and a lieutenant, echoed Olmsted in testimony. Each took pains to say they believed most ail deputies were good, but their descriptions of rogue and lazy colleagues were a rare instance of law enforcement officials criticizing members of their own department.

"What’s new for me is that more people from the Sheriff’s Department are coming forward,” said ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg. He said the testimony of the former sheriff’s officials is important because most inmates are afraid to talk openly about what happens to them. Many also often don't believe inmates' stories.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit claiming that a culture of deputy on inmate violence persists at Men’s Central Jail, which houses about 5,000 inmates. Eliasberg has said the lawsuit is needed to pressure the Sheriff Lee Baca to continue and expand reforms already under way. One concern is Baca's leadership team.

Former Federal Judge Dick Tevrizian said he's been hearing about those concerns.“Ya know I receive these anonymous communications and the term ‘Tanaka-sized’ comes up,” he said.

“Tanaka-sized” refers to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who essentially runs the day-to-day operations of the department. Olmsted said he hadn’t heard the term, but he said Tanaka controlled the department with an iron fist and promoted people based on loyalty, not merit.

“You’re 'in the car' — we call it 'in the car' — with Mr. Tanaka. You’re on his good side," Olmsted said. "Don’t piss him off because he’ll alienate you, and roll you up, and send you somewhere. Just ask John Clark.”

Olmsted said that when Capt. John Clark became outspoken about jail violence, Tanaka transferred him to a lesser position. Olmsted also accused the undersheriff of favoring people who contributed to his political campaigns for mayor of Gardena. Tanaka is serving his second term in that post.

Sheriff's Department Spokesman Steve Whitmore said Tanaka declined to comment. Whitmore called the allegations “pettiness.” He said Baca “controls this department.”

That runs counter to another description Olmsted offered about weekly top-level management meetings — meetings run by Tanaka.

“They have a pre-meeting before the sheriff gets there," Olmsted said. "They would go around the room [and say] ‘what’s going on in your division? Good, good, tell the sheriff that."

The former commander said people were encouraged to hide bad news from the sheriff. "Do not tell the sheriff this. Don’t say anything to the sheriff."

Baca and Tanaka are scheduled to testify before the jail violence commission in July. The panel is expected to issue its findings and recommendations for reform in September.

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