Page 4 of 5
But the pressure to take the issue seriously became overwhelming. Cagily, Baca reversed course. In its report last year, the commission made 63 recommendations. Baca agreed to all of them.
So far, about two-thirds of them have been implemented, says Richard Drooyan, who was the commission's general counsel and now is monitoring the department on behalf of the Board of Supervisors. Some of the reforms that have yet to be implemented require funding — such as hiring new internal affairs investigators.
After the spike in 2009, violence in the jails has declined steadily every year. There are now fewer incidents at the Men's Central Jail each year than when Olmsted was in charge there in 2007. "I think they have taken the recommendations very seriously," Drooyan says.
Among the most visible changes Baca has implemented is that Tanaka was forced to retire. Other commanders also have been pushed out. To oversee the jails, Baca hired a new assistant sheriff with a background in prison operations. With Tanaka's retirement, Baca is the only executive still working for the department who was in the chain of command over the jails during the worst period.
Miriam Krinsky, who was executive director of the jails commission, notes that the department has improved its disciplinary policies and is professionalizing its custody division. But, she adds, "Changing a culture is a more difficult objective. It takes time and isn't something that's going to be achieved overnight."
"I have seen some improvements," says the ACLU's Peter Eliasberg, who has been Baca's staunchest critic. "But I certainly am not convinced that the Sheriff's Department and its running of the jails is where it needs to be."
A key concern among the department's critics is what will happen when the public's attention moves on to something else.
"I'm getting phone calls from people on the inside, saying it's just smoke and mirrors," Olmsted says. "When this is all said and done and the lights go off, are we gonna see the change that's been recommended? I would say that we're nowhere near solving any of the stuff."
Even if the reforms have taken hold, the worst may not be over for Baca. The Department of Justice is still investigating. Federal prosecutors are expected to charge some Sheriff's Department personnel with civil rights violations, though it's not clear when that will happen or how high the indictments will go.
The feds also are investigating the department's handling of a federal informant who was caught with a cellphone behind bars. Top sheriff's brass have been accused of hindering the federal investigation by moving the inmate to a different jail.
Some in Olmsted's camp are nurturing the hope that Tanaka could be indicted. A few even think Baca could be charged — though that seems unlikely.
Some observers think that would give Olmsted his only chance at victory.
"I see a two-way race [between Baca and Tanaka] with a possibility of indictments changing the race altogether," says Brian Moriguchi, president of the Professional Peace Officers' Association.
Even low-level indictments would reflect badly on both Tanaka and Baca, and there is still plenty of time. The primary will be held in June. If no one gets 50 percent of the vote, then the top two candidates will advance to a runoff in November 2014.
But John Thomas, Olmsted's consultant, says he is not relying on the feds to ride to his rescue before then. "That shit never happens when you need it to," he says. "Would we like indictments to come before the election? Yes. Are we counting on it? Absolutely not."
That leaves Olmsted with some basic challenges. He is learning how to ask people for money. He will need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, at the very least, to be a credible challenger.
He also is working on convincing voters — most of whom don't see themselves as potential inmates — that they should care about conditions in the jails. His argument is that fresh recruits start their careers in the jail system. If they are indoctrinated in a culture of violence, they will take it with them later in their career, when they're on patrol. That attitude will cause incidents of excessive force, which will cost taxpayers money in litigation.
Among his promises: If elected, he will spend at least one day a week in Men's Central Jail, walking the floor just as he did when he was the captain there. He says that's the only way to avoid being insulated from problems, the way Baca was for so long.