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Retired sheriff's commander is at center of internal investigation

Robert Olmsted accuses department officials of rigging a probe into excessive force in jails to scapegoat him and shield brass from blame. A department spokesman denies his allegation.

February 05, 2012|By Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore, pictured last year, said it was "unequivocally not true" that the probe would be used to whitewash Cmdr. Robert Olmsted's allegations against top department brass.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore, pictured last year, said it… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

A retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department commander who publicly accused department brass last year of ignoring his warnings about jail abuse is now at the center of an internal investigation.

According to the Sheriff's Department, the investigation was launched to determine if anyone had stopped Cmdr. Robert Olmsted from correcting the problems he had seen with excessive force and jailer cliques. But Olmsted is accusing sheriff's officials of rigging the probe to scapegoat him and insulate high-ranking officials from culpability, saying he has seen them protect people in the past.

"This is going to be a witch hunt," Olmsted said. "They're going to alter and mask the truth at my expense to discredit me and anyone else who wants to bring critical information to ensure that the truth prevails about what went on in the jail."

When public scrutiny of the county's lockups intensified last year, Sheriff Lee Baca said he had been kept in the dark by his staff about problems in his jails. But Olmsted told The Times that Baca and other managers ignored his warnings about inmate abuse and deputy cliques.

After those public comments, Baca blamed Olmsted for not fixing the problems when he was a jails commander.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said it was "unequivocally not true" that the ongoing probe would be used to whitewash Olmsted's allegations against top department brass.

"The sheriff wants to make it very clear, he has nothing against Bob Olmsted, he thinks he was a very competent leader," Whitmore said. "The sheriff wants to know if the retired commander was impeded in any way.... He just wants to get to the bottom of it."

Before Olmsted went public with his concerns and as scrutiny of the county's lockups intensified last year, Baca sought Olmsted's advice for fixing the problems and asked him to temporarily work on the department's reform efforts. Olmsted, 60, declined.

Olmsted consented to one interview with Cmdr. Joseph Hartshorne, who is heading up the probe, but has since stopped cooperating.

In a recording of that interview reviewed by The Times, Hartshorne insisted that he's been given a green light by Baca to conduct a fair evaluation of what went wrong. "I'm not here to fix the jails, I'm just here to see what the problems were and why they weren't fixed at the time," he said.

During the interview, Hartshorne revealed that the department had discovered that a large number of force packages, files used by supervisors to keep track of clashes with inmates and to ensure jailers follow department policies, were missing from Men's Central Jail. The lost reports go back years, he said, spanning the tenures of three captains at the lockup: Olmsted, Daniel Cruz and John Clark.

"It's a mess," Hartshorne said, adding that internal affairs investigators were looking at the issue.

During the three-hour interview, Hartshorne asked Olmsted about his attempts to warn department officials about jail force and the audits he commissioned that found disturbing evidence of excessive force and shoddy investigations.

Olmsted has said that on two occasions he tried to take his concerns to Baca but was ignored.

Olmsted told The Times last year that he alerted his immediate supervisor, Chief Dennis Burns, who he said told him the jail's culture could not be changed. Burns has denied that account. Olmsted said he also took his concerns to Assistant Sheriff Marvin O. Cavanaugh, who he said was sympathetic but told him the same thing.

Olmsted said he then went to current Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who Olmsted says was slow to act but eventually transferred Cruz, the captain Olmsted blamed for many of the lockup's problems.

According to Olmsted, Cruz often ignored his orders and failed to discipline problem employees. Cruz was in charge of the jail when 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,' " according to confidential internal documents. Cruz was recently put on leave as his performance at the helm of Men's Central Jail is investigated.

Olmsted told Hartshorne that well before the department put Cruz on leave, sheriff's brass protected Cruz from a lackluster performance review Olmsted tried to give him, altering it to be a good one. He said the alterations were ordered by Burns.

A sheriff's spokesman, speaking on behalf of Burns, declined to address the allegation citing personnel privacy. Cruz declined comment.

During the interview, Olmsted and Hartshorne also discussed a perception of favoritism created because Baca and Tanaka — who is mayor of Gardena — accept campaign contributions from department employees. Baca and Tanaka have collected thousands of dollars in donations over the years from deputies.

In an interview with The Times last week, Olmsted suggested that Cruz's contributions to Tanaka were part of the reason Cruz wasn't transferred from his jail post sooner.

Olmsted also said that he doubted the integrity of the probe into his own tenure because Hartshorne had made a $100 political contribution to Tanaka in 2009. Sheriff's officials, including Hartshorne in his interview with Olmsted, reject the suggestion that small donations affect personnel decisions.

It is unclear when Hartshorne's investigation will be completed. Reached by phone, he declined comment.

"I don't know how far the sheriff wants to take it," Hartshorne said during the interview with Olmsted. "I'll report back to him."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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