Bob Olmsted 'going after the grass roots' in L.A. sheriff's race

Bob Olmsted 'going after the grass roots' in L.A. sheriff's race
L.A. County sheriff candidate Bob Olmsted talks with Dr. Lestean Johnson, president of the Compton Chamber of Commerce, before a candidate forum earlier this month. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

He has no high-profile endorsements. His last name is often misspelled.

And many voters have no idea he's the guy who spoke publicly of inmate abuse and ordered up audits of jail brutality nearly two years before former Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged there was an issue.

Bob Olmsted shrugs. "I'm going after the grass roots," he said at a diner near his home in Long Beach — a city he moved to last year so he could vie for the top position at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The 63-year-old has garnered support from Jewish and Egyptian groups, as well as a Greek Orthodox group, and made multiple appearances on Iranian and Armenian radio.


Olmsted points out that to be backed by a big name would mean he has started to play the politics game, something he said he has tried to avoid.

The son of a former sheriff's lieutenant, Olmsted put in three decades with the department. At the end of 2006 he became captain of Men's Central Jail, where, he said, he reduced incidents of force by 25% during his tenure. He later was promoted to commander and oversaw several lockups, including Men's Central Jail. He retired in November 2010.

Months later, he went to the FBI and Los Angeles Times with stories of brutality at the jail. He revealed that audits he ordered had found a pattern of aggressive behavior and inadequate supervision. A group of deputies used excessive force on inmates, he said, some to earn a place in deputy cliques.

At the time of Olmsted's disclosure, the jails were under public scrutiny and Baca blamed his aides for keeping him in the dark. But Olmsted said he had shared his concerns with supervisors including Baca. All of them, he said, brushed him off.

Baca's public response was direct. "He doesn't have to ask permission to solve the problem."

As a commander, Olmsted said, he didn't have the authority to remove the captain who was at the root of the problem and was told repeatedly that the jail culture could not be changed.

Olmsted said his priorities were suddenly rearranged by a phone call he received in July 2010. His wife was dying of colorectal cancer. The two were separated, but he took a leave from work and cared for her at his home. She died the following month. He retired soon after.

In 2012 an internal investigation was launched to determine whether Olmsted had in fact been prevented from reporting inmate abuse. He dismissed it as a witch hunt and said that nothing came of it.

When Olmsted announced his candidacy for sheriff last August, Baca had yet to resign and was considered a lock for reelection.

"People think the king's the king, he can't be toppled," Olmsted said. "I figured somebody's gotta give it a try."


Olmsted was raised in the South Bay and graduated from Torrance High School before joining the Army. He was stationed on the border of Laos in Thailand for nearly two years, an experience that would spark an interest in learning about other countries and cultures.

When he came back to the States, he got a job building and selling pool tables and bowling alley lanes. He entered the Sheriff's Department in 1978 and ran a module at Men's Central Jail.

He earned a degree in business management from Cal State Dominguez Hills and a master's in public administration. For 20 years he taught criminal justice at El Camino College.

Over the years he had a number of different beats, including narcotics, commercial crimes and the leadership unit. While on patrol he once helped deliver a baby, who now bears his name.

When installed as captain of Men's Central Jail, Olmsted said, he spent much of his time outside the office walking around the jail. He formed a committee for employees who wanted to offer input on operations.

"He's the people's sheriff," said Mike Pippin, a retired lieutenant who started his career with Olmsted and now acts as his campaign advisor.

"There's no political agenda for him. If he could fix every problem in the department in four years and help groom the next sheriff, he'd leave. He's not looking for a job or to be a career politician. [He is about] 100% pure betterment of the Sheriff's Department."

Olmsted said he wants to boost morale within the department and allow employees to have more control over promotions. But he's also made it known he intends to clean house if he gets the job. He blames the roots of the corruption on Baca and Paul Tanaka, the former undersheriff who was ultimately pressured to resign and is also running for sheriff.

"I won't endorse anybody when I'm sheriff," Olmsted said. "I want term limits. I'm not going to be traveling around the world like Baca did. That's unacceptable. Politics does come into play, but only from the standpoint of what's best for society, what's best for the citizens."

Olmsted's detractors have wondered aloud why a self-described whistle-blower had not done more while on duty. "You either ignored gang activity … or you were totally ineffective," Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold said at a March candidate debate.


Living alone, Olmsted rents out his Huntington Beach home to his son — a minor league pitcher — and daughter-in-law.

He enjoys working with his hands and refurbishing antiques. His latest find is a 1930s stage light that he hopes to repair and put in his living room.

Every Sunday he watches "60 Minutes" because "it makes you look at things differently."

When he can, Olmsted goes on jogs and devours nonfiction, specifically books about leadership and changing corporate culture. His favorite author is Malcolm Gladwell, who often writes about social science research.

Olmsted cited one of Gladwell's writings that compared doctors who were sued with those who weren't. Those who spent more time with patients were less likely to find themselves in court, he recalled.

"You know what he found the difference was? Fifteen minutes," Olmsted said. It's a lesson, he added, that cops should embrace. "If we spent 15 more minutes with every burglary or rape victim out there, our stock would go up."

Olmsted said he has distinguished himself from other candidates by encouraging criticism of the department.

"Every one of us is saying we're going to hold our people accountable," he said. "Public, you need to hold us accountable."