- Reporters Desk
Candidate for LA County Sheriff Bob Olmstead Speaks on Changing the Department From Within and Without
By Terelle Jerricks , Managing Editor
Candidate for Los Angeles County Sheriff, Bob Olmsted, was a frustrated man in the winter of 2010 and 2011.
He retired from his command at Men’s Central Jail when he learned his wife was terminally ill. In his two years in that command, he made tremendous strides in curbing jail violence. After he left, he heard reports of his work at the jail coming undone and heard whispers of deputies who thought they were above the law.
Olmsted’s mood only soured further when he tried to take his concerns up the chain of command with documents in hand.
Finally, Olmsted tried to speak with Sheriff Lee Baca. They never spoke. Olmsted was faced with a choice: Say nothing and collect his pension or blow the whistle to any who would listen. The first choice wouldn’t allow Olmsted to peacefully rest. The County Commission on Jail Violence documents the results of Olmsted’s second choice.
The jail violence commission identified two important events as catalysts in the dramatic drops in use of force incidents between 2009 and 2011, after a rapid increase in force incidents from 2008 to 2009. The report said:
First, there was a dramatic increase in Significant Force incidents from 2008 to 2009, 611 incidents in 2008 to 761 incidents in 2009, the majority of which occurred at MCJ (171 to 258) and the Twin Towers facility (150 to 208). In 2008 and 2009, there were 13 force incidents in MCJ involving inmate fractures, which was more than the combined number of fractures from August 2002 through the end of 2007. Tellingly, after Commander Robert Olmsted directed Lieutenant Mark McCorkle to conduct an analysis of over 150 “force events” at MCJ and directed Lieutenant Steve Smith to identify deputies with high use of force in late 2009, Significant Force was reduced (to 494 in the next year), with most of the decrease in MCJ (258 to 116) and Twin Towers (208 to 149).
Second, the most dramatic reductions in force have occurred since the formation of the Commander Management Task Force by the Sheriff and the appointment of this Commission by the Board of Supervisors last fall. Around that same time, the ACLU of Southern California released a report on jail violence in LASD facilities and the Los Angeles Times published a series of articles bringing allegations of abuse to light. The public scrutiny and the Commander Management Task Force’s actions created an environment in which the Department began to make changes to reduce its use of force, with an emphasis on reducing Significant Force.
The panel commission didn’t realize it then, but Cmdr. Olmsted was also the Los Angeles Times anonymous source in their investigative series on sheriffs deputy abuses. The whistleblower turned Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate, Bob Olmsted, wasn’t just a canary in the mineshaft, he was an active change agent in the department.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this organization is absolutely corrupt,” Olmsted said to Random Lengths back in March. “I didn’t realize that until I started moving up into the ranks and started seeing what was going on and seeing who was leading the organization and the fact that they closed their eyes to all the stuff that was going on. To me, that was unacceptable.”
Olmsted grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Torrance High School. After high school, he joined the army and served in the Vietnam War. When he returned, following a stint working at a friend’s manufacturing company making materials for bowling alleys and billiard halls, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the sheriff’s department.
His father retired as a lieutenant in the department but also taught classes at West Los Angeles Community College. Olmsted recalled the satisfaction his father got from this life of service and wanted the same for himself. So he got a Cal State Dominguez bachelors degree in business management and a masters degree in Public Administration. He later taught law enforcement classes at El Camino College for 20 years.
Olmsted said he found the day to day of being a cop to be fun. The part of being of service to his community is where he got his high. If not for his father’s counsel, he probably would have stayed on patrol, never rising up in the ranks when opportunities availed themselves.
“Being a cop is fun, especially if you love doing public service work,” Olmsted said. “I was a deputy for 10 years. My dad, who was [still] in the department at the time said, ‘Son, you’re going to hit a crossroad at some time or another in your life and you’re going to have to anticipate what you want to do later on in your career. You can stay and do all of the good police work you want, which will be a lot of fun, or you can enter the administration side and make a decision on if you can change the department.
Olmsted took his father’s words to heart and began rising through the ranks. First he was promoted to Sergeant, then to Lieutenant.
“The good thing is in the department, every two years or so you have an opportunity to change what you want to do and go in different directions,” said Olmsted.
That meant he worked a variety of details in various sheriffs stations throughout his career, including narcotics detail.
The result of that flexibility in Olmsted’s career path is a very diverse law enforcement background from working patrols in the Firestone area, to being a training officer for working detectives. He went to the academy and taught there.
Olmsted was promoted out of Firestone and was sent to the Lomita station. This was a bonus for him considering that he lived in the city at the time, but he was also disturbed by the differences he saw.
“I was able to see a different style of policing. Same organization separated by 20 miles and two different styles of policing, Olmsted said. “ I found that bothersome, but I understood. Eventually we need to meld this into one style protocol. It can be done, you just have to work at it.”
Olmsted eventually served as a legislative aide to former Sheriff Sherman Block.
“I would fly out to Sacramento almost daily to argue specific bills and interests the department might have that was best for the organization,” he recalled.
Following that stint, Olmsted went back to working narcotics and leading a couple of narcotics teams. He said he was energized getting back into police work again and after being administration for so long.
Another turning point for Olmsted was when Baca challenged him to run the department’s leadership institute and take it to a new level.
“We took this institute nationwide,” he said. “This is where I got the feel and need to understand leadership.”
The experience left him a fanatic for leadership books. Olmsted developed the habit casually dropping the names of leadership book authors in regular conversation.
“All the books I read now are strictly on leadership aspect,” he said. “There’s always a story to be told in there.”
In fact, his passion for testing out principles of leadership in a real contexts is why he enjoyed being in the Men’s Central Jail command.
“All this that you teach, that you learn from an academic standpoint and to be able to apply it… and it works,” he said. “And, it was fun. I was doing such a good job as captain of the Men’s Central Jail that Lee Baca promoted me.”
Olmsted served as captain of the Men’s Central Jail from 2009 to November 2010, a period that corresponded to the steep declines in use force incidents as noted by the County Commission on Jail Violence.
Olmsted said he took the Broken Windows theory approach to changing the dysfunction at Men’s Central Jail when he was commander.
Olmsted recalled his third day on the job during which a judge called, requesting to take a look at the jail.
“I said, ‘come on down.’” Olmsted said of the conversation.
The judge wanted to look at all the writings on the wall. “Yeah sure, that’s what inmates do,” Olmsted recounting his thoughts at the time. “They scribble on the walls and stuff.”
But the judge said, “No, I mean in the control booths area where the officers are locked to control everything.”
The judge didn’t tell Olmsted where exactly this was. Men’s Central jail is a large place and Olmsted hadn’t yet had the opportunity to do a walk through on his own. The judge came within the hour. And Olmsted, together with the judge went to the 3000 floor where the majority of all of these problems were occurring.
“We went down to 3100,” Olmsted recalled. “We walked in there…. It was atrocious. Someone had taken a sharpie and scribbled derogatory statements all over the walls. What really upset the judge was that there was a bumper sticker on the key box where you control all of the jail cells that said, ‘Please don’t feed the animals.’
“That’s what upset him. The window was broken and laying on the ground and there was scribbling on the fire hose and there was scribbling on the computer monitors all the way around and the keyboards. There was scribbling everywhere. That’s the only place where guards are at. You have to go through three locked doors just to get into the control booth area where the deputies work. Strictly deputy or custody assistant mentality.
“We determined that it probably had been going on like that for six months. So, can you imagine that was just one small element of what Men’s Central Jail was on 3100. What was the rest of the jail like.”
It was this experience and others that moved him to focus on the small details that turned out to make a world of difference, such as the replacement of burned out light bulbs. In a facility that’s been derided as antiquated before it was even completed and as having as many blind spots as to make it impossible for inmates and deputies alike to be safe, changing the light bulbs should be a no brainer.
Olmsted assigned a deputy to document the number of burnt out fluorescent lights. The deputy came back with a number exceeding 2,000 bulbs and Olmsted sent out the work order.
“Metaphorically, the next day when you walked in, the lights came on,” Olmsted said. “Everybody was able to see and it just brought a new dimension almost.”
Olmsted credits this and other actions he took, but he ended up with the nickname, the Light Bulb Captain. Despite these successes, Olmsted saw deeper more troubling issues, which the Jail Violence Commission documented from their interviews and which ultimately appeared in the Los Angeles Times investigative series.
The Jail Violence Commission found in sheriff’s department data, that in 2011 there were 581 use of force incidents in the jails. Of these, 250 or 43 percent involved either an inmate versus inmate assault or an inmate-versus-staff assault.
Though the department’s documents containing this information did not specifically define “assault,” but it appeared Assistant Sheriff for Custody from 2007 through 2010, Marvin Cavanaugh, and the Chief of Custody Operations through 2012, Dennis Burns, that these incidents fall within the department’s definitions of “assaultive/high- risk” or “life threatening/serious bodily injury” inmate behavior, which encompass situations in which an inmate assaults another person.
The commission went on to report:
While LASD’s documents did not provide specific details as to what types of behaviors were involved in these remaining 331 incidents, it appears likely that, under LASD’s definitions of inmate behavior, the inmates must have been “resistive,” as no force should be used if the inmate is cooperative and any assaultive or high-risk conduct is likely included in the incidents classified as an inmate vs. inmate assault or an inmate vs. staff assault. Thus, the remaining 57% of the use of force incidents in 2011 did not involve inmate assaultive activity. Put differently, in nearly three out of five force incidents, LASD personnel used force against an inmate who was not engaged in an assault and who may have done nothing more than passively disobey an instruction.
Olmsted began collecting the numbers not long after he took command of Men’s Central Jail and they became the bases of a number conclusions the commission came to in regards to jail violence.
“I saw what was going on in the organization and all the jail beatings after I left,” Olmsted said. “I went to my boss [the Chief of Custody Operations through
2012, Dennis Burns] and said, ‘I got stats here that show that the place is out of control. We need to move the captain.’
“He says let him fail. I said I’m going over your head. So I went over his head and went to his boss [Assistant Sheriff for Custody from 2007 through 2010, Marvin Cavanaugh, and],” Olmsted recalled.
“He said there was nothing I can do. I went to Mr. [Paul] Tanaka and he said, ‘We’re not going to do anything. In fact, we’re going to promote this guy.’
About the time Olmsted went to Tanaka about the issues at Men’s Central Jail, Olmsted’s wife became terminally ill. He took a leave of absence to care for her until she died.
“At the point I just said I’m going to retire,” Olmsted recalled. “I tried to fix it. Prior to retiring, I went to Baca and told him, we have some very significant problems, I need to tell you what’s going on.”
Olmsted made this plea to Baca while they were in attendance of a charity event together.
“He said OK, but he never got a hold of me,” Olmsted said. “I had 33 years. I was frustrated. Nothing was working right and I saw what was going to transpire.”
His attempt to meet with Baca happened shortly after a fight between two deputies in Montebello that would prove to be the unraveling of the sheriff’s department.
In December 2010, a fight broke at the Quiet Cannon banquet hall between two groups. The party was attended by sheriff’s deputies and supervisors and the fight was uneven —it was six on two. Seven deputies were suspended and ultimately the six deputies were fired.
“There was a Christmas party right after I retired,” Olmsted said. “And, the captain that instigated all the brutal beatings threw this party for all his men and women [in uniform] in Quiet Cannon [banquet hall]. The unique thing about this was these two groups of deputies that fought were fighting over a policy of goodness. They weren’t fighting over a football game or a girl.
“Deputies in the visiting area were trying to facilitate allowing family members to visit people throughout the jail. Specifically the 3000 floor. The 3000 Boys, and these were the rogue deputies, said no, we’re not going to do it and they started getting upset. We control the deputies… no you got to follow policy.
“Alcohol came into play and then it was just a downhill brook. It was like six against two. And that particular case when the police finally rolled, came from Montebello, and it was covered up by the captain. They didn’t report it at all.
“It didn’t get reported until the two deputies that got beat up made a criminal complaint with the Montebello police department.
“When I heard about this and it hit the paper, I said, nobody is taking care of the good people. Rogue people are running the ship. And so I had to go outside of the organization.”
Five months later, the two deputies Chris Vasquez and Elizario Perez filed a complaint alleging that the sheriff’s department is “inadequate” in disciplining and controlling deputies, “particularly with respect to illegal acts and acts of excessive force.”
The lawsuit names Sheriff Lee Baca, Los Angeles County and seven deputies, most of whom were apparently assigned to the third floor of Men’s Central Jail, where a gang-like clique of employees had formed, the plaintiffs claim.
Olmsted felt Baca was dodging him. Olmsted could have stayed retired and let sleeping dogs lie. But that path, Olmsted said, wouldn’t let him sleep in peace.
“If the organization is going to ignore the problem… I have a duty. I take this seriously. [As an officer] you raise your hand and take an oath,” Olmsted said. “The Times ended being in my house for four or five days, showing them all of the documents that I had retained. At some point I had to make a decision, am I going to be public or not.
“Do you know how much sleep I lost on that one? Days. I say that because I went to military school as a kid, I’ve been to the army, the coast guard reserve. Thirty-three years out of the department, I know how to work within the parameters of a military and paramilitary organization. I know the chain of command…. it couldn’t be fixed. So I had to report it. It was bothersome. But I’d do it again. I put my head down on the pillow at night, I can sleep and I don’t have any problems with it.”
Olmsted’s story illustrates that perhaps more than any label we would put on candidate, what is needed a candidate running for office that is disturbed enough by what he sees that is wrong and is willing to put himself on the line and blow the whistle.
Click here to read the Report of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.