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."
In an interview, Burns declined to say whether Olmsted complained about the way Cruz was running Men's Central Jail but said he and Olmsted spoke often.
"I have an open-door policy," Burns said. "We'd talk about things, and if there was an issue we'd deal with them and move on."
Burns added that jail managers below him were aware of the critical audits and implemented new deputy training.
Tanaka and Cavanaugh did not respond to requests for interviews. Cruz could not be reached for comment.
Olmsted said he twice approached Baca to discuss the problems at Men's Central Jail. The first time was at a department barbecue. Baca, he said, told him he would be in touch but never followed up.
Months later, Olmsted said, he spoke to the sheriff at a charity food giveaway. The event occurred soon after a group of Men's Central Jail deputies had been caught fighting each other at an off-duty, department holiday party. After the brawl, sheriff's officials said some of the deputies had formed a clique whose members flashed gang-like hand signs.
Olmsted said he told the sheriff he wanted to discuss how to improve supervision at the jail to prevent similar problems in the future. Baca, he said, agreed to talk but again never followed through.
He said he had watched Baca's command staff shield the sheriff from bad news in the past. During at least a dozen weekly executive meetings, Olmsted said he witnessed managers being warned by the undersheriff at the time not to tell Baca about specific department problems.
"If I had had the time to sit down and talk to him, I truly think he would have helped address the issues," Olmsted said.
Baca denied that the problems Olmsted identified were ignored, saying that Cruz was reassigned in December from captain of Men's Central Jail to Transit Services as a result of similar concerns.
Baca recalled telling Olmsted at the charity food giveaway that they would talk later and said he expected his commander to be the one to follow up.
"I said, 'Anytime you want to sit down and talk, let's talk.... We can do it now,' but we were busy packing the stuff," Baca said.
At the same time, Baca said Olmsted should have told his immediate supervisor, Burns, about his concerns first. Olmsted said he did just that.
"I just ran it up the chain of command," said Olmsted. "Let's fix the problems, but we can't ignore how we got there."