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Crime & Justice

Los Angeles County Citizens Commission's on Jail Violence hears testimony from current sheriff's employees

Friday's meeting of the Los Angeles Citizens Commission on Jail Violence featured testimony from several current members of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

Previous witnesses testifying before the commission have painted a picture of the Men’s Central Jail as a place where deputies frequently used force against inmates with virtual impunity. Captain Mike Bornman, Friday's first witness, worked at the jail in 2009 and 2010. Bornman said he found piles of complaints against deputies stuck in drawers that had never been investigated or entered into the tracking system.

The system was chronically overburdened with not enough staff, Bornman said, and "there appeared to be a lack of desire to hold people accountable."

Bornman testified that the jail supervisor at the time, Captain Daniel Cruz, repeatedly told him not to concern himself with making sure complaints were investigated. Bornman said that when he suggested they discuss the situationwith Cruz’s boss, Commander Bob Olmstead, Cruz balked. Commissioners asked Bornman what Cruz said, exactly. 

"Do you want me to swear in public?" he asked. Cruz, Bornman said, said "'[Expletive] Bob Olmstead, I don't work for him. Lee Baca is my sheriff, but I work for Paul Tanaka."

At the time, Tanaka was working patrol, and had no authority over the jails. Now he’s the undersheriff, the number two man in the department. Captain Bornman recalled another time when he was investigating a brawl involving off-duty sheriff’s deputies at a bar in Covina. He said that Cruz told him not to look too hard into the matter.

"He sat back in his chair, and he asked me, 'what are you going to tell Paul Tanaka when he asks you why you’re disciplining deputies?'" Bornman said.

Cruz was relieved of duty last fall. The commissioners are focusing increasingly on Tanaka; before Bornman’s testimony, they openly discussed whether or not to recommend that he effectively be cut out of the chain of command. One commissioner even asked Bornman if he thought Tanaka should be fired, before other commissioners pointed out that Bornman shouldn't have to answer such a question about his current superior.

Some high-ranking members of the sheriff's department in the audience, who did not want to speak on the record, suggested that Tanaka should not be held solely responsible for the problems at the jail. Meanwhile, Bornman said testifying was tough.

"I hope you know this is the toughest thing I've ever had to do," Bornman said. "I'm here because the sheriff asked me to be here."

The commission also reported that use of force in the jails has dropped dramatically so far this year, attributing the fall to a number of things, including Sheriff Baca's moves to more effectively track and investigate jail violence, the placement of new supervisors in some jail areas, and in general, command staff intervening when they notice upticks. 

Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka are both scheduled to testify before the commission later this month.