Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail – Sheriff Baca was warned about jail deputies’ conduct, retiree says

Los Angeles County jailsOn the 3000 floor, shown here, of Los
Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, a former official said he observed deputy
misbehavior almost immediately after being named jails captain. (Jay L.
Clendenin, Los Angeles Times / November 3, 2011)

 

By Robert
Faturechi and Jack Leonard, Los Angeles TimesNovember 30, 2011, 6:28 p.m.

A top commander in Los Angeles County’s jail system said
he warned Sheriff Lee Baca and other senior
officials last year about deputies using excessive force against inmates but was
ignored until the problems grew into a public scandal.

In an interview with The Times, Robert Olmsted said he tried to raise red flags about shoddy
investigations that allowed deputies to escape scrutiny for using force. He also
voiced concern about deputies forming aggressive cliques.

He alleged that two top officials rebuffed him, telling him it was impossible to change the
deputy culture in the downtown L.A. lockup, an antiquated facility that houses
some of the county’s most dangerous inmates.

Olmsted, a 32-year department veteran who retired late last year, had commissioned several
confidential audits and internal memos that found serious problems with
excessive force and inadequate supervision in the jail. He said top sheriff’s
officials seemed not to take his concerns seriously. The jails are now the
subject of an FBI probe into
allegations of deputy brutality and other misconduct.

“It’s frustrating knowing that this never, ever needed to have occurred,” Olmsted said. “There was
a systematic failure of leadership.”

In an interview Wednesday, Baca described Olmsted as a “very strong and competent commander.” He acknowledged
that Olmsted approached him twice last year about the jails. But the sheriff
faulted Olmsted for not following up and for not fixing the jail issues
himself.

“He doesn’t have to ask permission to solve the problem,” Baca
said.

Baca, however, publicly chided his top executives recently for shielding him from problems inside the jails.

As scrutiny of his lockups intensified in recent weeks, Baca sought Olmsted’s advice for fixing the
problems and asked him to temporarily work on the department’s reform efforts.
Olmsted, 60, declined.

In an interview at his home late Tuesday, Olmsted
said he encountered misbehavior among Men’s Central Jail deputies almost
immediately after being named the lockup’s captain in 2006. Days after his
arrival, he accompanied a judge on a tour of the jail’s 3000 floor. He said he
was shocked to see offensive graffiti scrawled all over the ceiling, walls and
computer equipment inside a deputy control booth. One bumper sticker on display
read “Don’t feed the animals.”

He said he quickly set out to improve
conditions in the jail for deputies and inmates. The vast majority of employees,
he said, were hardworking and treated inmates with respect.

After his
promotion to commander, Olmsted concluded that deputy force was a growing
problem at Men’s Central Jail. A small portion of deputies, he found, were using
excessive force because of poor training and inexperience. A smaller group,
Olmsted said, were using malicious force on inmates to earn acceptance to deputy
cliques.

He accused the head of the jail, Capt. Daniel Cruz, of ignoring
his orders and of failing to discipline problem employees.

“Some of these supervisors think they’re untouchable,” he said.

Olmsted said his concerns prompted him to ask other managers to review force reports from the
jail. Those managers detailed their findings in internal memos that raised
similar concerns. One concluded deputies were crafting narratives “dramatized to
justify” force and delaying using weapons such as pepper spray that could end
fights “to dispense appropriate jailhouse ‘justice.'”

Olmsted said he provided the memos to his immediate supervisor, Chief Dennis Burns, and
criticized Cruz’s job performance. Burns, he said, told him the jail’s culture
could not be changed. Frustrated, Olmsted said he took his concerns in the
summer of 2010 to Asst. Sheriff Marvin O. Cavanaugh, who was sympathetic but
told him the same thing. He also spoke to then-Asst. Sheriff Paul Tanaka, who as
undersheriff now runs the day-to-day
operations of the department.

Burns, who oversees the department’s custody operations,
denied that Olmsted gave him the memos and told The Times on Wednesday that he
first saw the documents recently, saying he was “a little surprised and somewhat
disappointed” by their findings.

At the time, he said, “no one above the rank of commander saw those memos.”

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