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Opinion

Opinion: The downfall of Paul Tanaka and the collapse of the blue wall of silence

Paul Tanaka

Former Los Angeles County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka at the Los Angeles Times on April 25, 2013.

(Los Angeles Times)

When the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department scandal emerged more than six years ago, the idea that former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, and his old boss, Sheriff Lee Baca, would one day be wearing prison blues was all but unthinkable. In 2011, the ACLU released a blockbuster report on inmate abuse at the county jail. It included the testimony of a small army of civilian eyewitnesses who backed up inmate allegations. And yet Baca was so assured of his position that he called the ACLU’s National Prison Project director Margaret Winter, she said, and told her, “I will never, ever resign. I intend to be sheriff as long as I live.”

And who could argue with him? With Tanaka, then a public unknown, running the department from the shadows through fear and intimidation, the Sheriff’s Department was a tight ship. Deputies were still openly abusing jail inmates, and sometimes each other, with little apparent fear of repercussion. Faced with law enforcement’s “blue wall of silence,” all the ACLU’s evidence — the truth — wasn’t enough.

So what changed? How is it that Tanaka is now staring down 15 years in prison for obstructing and conspiring to obstruct an FBI investigation into abuse in the county jails, while Baca faces six months of his own for lying to federal investigators? What put the former heads of the largest, most powerful sheriff’s department in the world on trial?

The answer is one man — Bob Olmsted — and his story is crucial to the larger debate about how to achieve real accountability in law enforcement departments throughout the country.

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A former Men’s Central Jail captain and Sheriff’s Department commander, Olmsted is one of the most important whistle-blowers in the history of Los Angeles. He was a secret source for a series of articles I wrote for the investigative website Witness LA, detailing corruption and abuse in the Sheriff’s Department. He later went public. His testimony became the backbone of the L.A. County Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence report. And, for years, he fed crucial information to federal investigators about abuses in the jails and corruption in the Sheriff’s Department.

It was Olmsted who shattered the blue wall to take on Baca and Tanaka. He not only told his story, but he also produced documents, memos and secondary sources showing that both men played roles in allowing abuse at the jails.

Of course, Baca and Tanaka aren’t facing time for allowing the systematic abuse of inmates under their watch. They’re in trouble for their roles in a department scheme — called Operation Pandora’s Box — to hide an FBI informant operating secretly in the jails.

The full details of Operation Pandora’s Box, however, probably would never have come out if Olmsted hadn’t stepped forward. He gave other deputies, both active and retired, the courage to speak out; several of them testified alongside Olmsted in Tanaka’s trial.

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Federal investigators put together a remarkable case against Paul Tanaka. They deserve the gratitude of L.A. County residents. But the full truth of a department in moral shambles came to light because of Olmsted’s bravery.

Trumpeting Olmsted’s courage, however, isn’t just about giving credit where credit is due. As everyone knows, the Sheriff’s Department isn’t the only troubled law enforcement agency in the U.S. Over the past several years, police shootings of unarmed men in all corners of the country have become a national outrage — sparking protests in the streets and cries for reform that have largely gone unanswered.

In Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore and dozens of other cities large and small, establishing trust between law enforcement and the public seems as elusive now as it did when the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., plunged the country into upheaval.

Legal monitors can keep tabs on departmental wrongdoing. Social movements like Black Lives Matter can keep the public eye on police abuse. But restoring the public’s trust in law enforcement demands real accountability when things go wrong. For that to happen we need more men and women of conscience in law enforcement, like Olmsted, to stand up and speak out against the excesses of their departments.

If it happened in Los Angeles, it can happen anywhere.

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