Too Much Mr. Nice Guy: How Lee Baca Let Paul Tanaka Run Amok in County Jails 

How did progressive L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca end up running some of the nation's most violent jails? By letting Paul Tanaka do whatever he wants.

Thursday, Dec 13 2012

Shortly after he was made captain of the Men's Central Jail, Robert Olmsted picked up on a disturbing pattern. Many of the guards had broken right hands.

The threat of violence permeated the facility. Mouthing off to a guard could lead to a beating. Sometimes, when inmates would expose themselves to female guards, the male guards would march into the cell to defend the women's honor.

Olmsted wanted to put a stop to all that. He knew that Sheriff Lee Baca wanted inmates treated with respect and compassion. It was right there in Baca's stated "core values": Deputies were called to uphold "the dignity of all people."

click to flip through (4) TED SOQUI - “You ever see a liberal mom or dad who lets - their kids do everything? That’s what Baca - is,” Robert Olmsted says of Sheriff Lee Baca, - pictured.
  • Ted Soqui
  • “You ever see a liberal mom or dad who lets their kids do everything? That’s what Baca is,” Robert Olmsted says of Sheriff Lee Baca, pictured.

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Olmsted held briefings with every shift: "We can't be doing this type of stuff," he said. He instituted new practices, and over the course of a year, he saw progress. Uses of force declined.

Then he was promoted to commander, and a new captain took over — Dan Cruz. Cruz was a favorite of Paul Tanaka, the hard-ass assistant sheriff who had Baca's ear.

Soon after Cruz took over, Olmsted heard that violence was on the rise again. In one shocking case, a paraplegic inmate was mouthing off, so the deputy retaliated by searching his anal cavity. In the ensuing struggle, the deputy broke the inmate's eye socket.

Olmsted began tracking the use of force systematically. He attempted to get Cruz to address it head-on — but Cruz was more interested in finding out who had leaked to Olmsted.

Olmsted took the issue to his boss, who told him it was impossible for anyone to change the culture in the jail. "Let him fail," he was told.

Instead, Olmsted went over his boss's head to the assistant sheriff for custody, who gave Olmsted the impression that he couldn't do anything without Tanaka's support. So Olmsted went to Tanaka.

Tanaka was a longtime assistant to Sheriff Baca. He also served as mayor of the city of Gardena, and aspired to be sheriff one day. Tanaka had been amassing power within the department by placing loyalists in key positions.

After looking into Olmsted's complaints, Tanaka agreed that Cruz had failed to manage the jail. But he didn't want to reassign him. Instead, he told Olmsted to work with him and help him develop the skills that would get him promoted to commander.

Olmsted felt he had no choice but to take his concerns all the way to the top. As he would later testify, Olmsted tried to buttonhole the sheriff twice. Both times, Baca promised to talk to him, only to wander off.

Within months, the troubling situation erupted into a massive scandal. The American Civil Liberties Union documented scores of brutal attacks on inmates and called on Baca to resign. The FBI launched an investigation, even going so far as to smuggle a cellphone in to a jailhouse informant. It was only then that Baca agreed to sit down with Olmsted.

He gave Olmsted 10 minutes, which he used to tell the sheriff that Tanaka was undermining his authority and his values.

"Do an informal survey on the department. Find out how you get promoted on the department informally," Olmsted told the sheriff. "Here's what they're going to tell you. You're going to have to give campaign contributions to Mr. Tanaka. You got to smoke cigars with Mr. Tanaka. You gotta go to City View restaurant with Mr. Tanaka. You got to belong to the cigar club with Mr. Tanaka. It's not Baca. It's Tanaka."

Baca's response: "Sometimes I need to hip-check him every once in a while."

Olmsted was dumbfounded that Baca wasn't more concerned by Tanaka's out-of-control behavior.

"You ever see a liberal mom or dad who lets their kids do everything?" Olmsted tells the Weekly. "When the kid acts up, he says, 'He's just growing up. He's being a boy.' That's what Baca is."

The jails are just one symptom of a more general decline affecting the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Discipline is lax. Revelations of cronyism are routine. Investigators and plaintiffs' lawyers are combing through every facet of the department's operations.

"It troubles me deeply to see the reputation of the department where it is now," says William T. Sams, a retired sheriff's chief. "It's a pariah in a lot of ways."

Two men bear the greatest responsibility for the department's low standing: Leroy D. Baca and his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka.

Baca is a nice guy. Even his critics tend to begin by saying, "I like the man." Now 70, he has always been quiet, introverted and a little strange. When he was first elected sheriff, in 1998, supporters hailed him as a Zen mastermind. He was overflowing with ideas about how to make policing more humane.

Detractors called him a social worker with a badge, or Sheriff Moonbeam. But progressives adored him, and so did voters. Scandals that would have scarred others' reputations glanced off him. He got another nickname: the Teflon Sheriff.

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