Bob Olmsted Blew the Whistle on Sheriff Lee Baca. Now He Wants Baca's Job
ILLUSTRATION BY DARRICK RAINEY
Bob Olmsted has an odd hobby: He enjoys restoring vintage gas pumps. He picks them up at flea markets and outfits them with period decals. He watches a lot of American Pickers, the History Channel's reality show about antique hunters, so he knows something about the market. He says the pumps are worth a lot of money.
When Olmsted retired from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department three years ago, that's what he figured he'd spend most of his time doing. That, and traveling to minor league ballparks to watch his son pitch.
It has not worked out that way. Olmsted, 62, is now an unlikely candidate for sheriff, running a long-shot campaign against the entrenched incumbent, Lee Baca, as well as Baca's former top lieutenant, Paul Tanaka. Both Tanaka and Baca have years of political experience and deep networks of support. Both also have spent years running the department.
Olmsted has none of that. What he has is a story.
He was a whistle-blower. He was the highest-ranking person to expose abuse of inmates in Baca's jails — a scandal that has battered the department and tarnished Baca's reputation.
Olmsted agonized about blowing the whistle. He had considered Baca a mentor. But once he decided to do it, he committed all the way. He first went to the FBI. After that, he went public, telling everything he knew to reporters. When the county held hearings on jail violence last year, Olmsted was a star witness.
Baca was wounded but showed no intention of stepping aside. Olmsted had hoped someone else would run against him. But the only one who stepped up was Tanaka, who Olmsted believed was even worse. Baca merely ignored the problems; Tanaka caused many of them.
So Olmsted decided he would have to run himself. So much for the gas pumps, the minor league baseball games and the quiet retirement.
"It's almost a duty at this point," he says.
But it's one thing to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. It's quite another to run for office. Olmsted's candidacy is sort of like Edward Snowden deciding to run for president of the United States.
Olmsted is a political neophyte. But even most neophytes have spent more time planning to run for office than he has.
"His Rolodex is not huge," says John Thomas, his political strategist. "He's scrambling."
On a recent Monday, Olmsted has an appointment at the Jonathan Club, the downtown refuge for the city's most fortunate. He's addressing about 30 men — mostly retirees — who belong to a service organization called the Vikings.
Olmsted has long been involved with the group, but so has Baca. He has to be careful.
"I'm not here to bash Lee," he says at the outset. "I love Lee Baca."
There are no mass rallies in local politics. Ten million people live in the county, but only a few dozen of them can be expected to show up at any given time and place to hear a political speech. People have other things to do.
After 15 years as sheriff, Lee Baca is the master of this style of campaigning. His life is a succession of ribbon cuttings, funerals, chicken dinners and swearing-in ceremonies for small-town politicians. It's not even campaigning. It's just what he does. No matter how minor the occasion, Baca can be expected to show up, in uniform, often with an official scroll under his arm.
It's all new to Olmsted, though, and he's still trying to get the hang of it. As the Vikings dig into their pork chops, he tries to tell his story in a way that will connect.
"Have you ever had to go outside your organization to accomplish goodness?" he asks.
Apparently no one has.
"That's a hard thing to do," he continues. "I lost about three days of sleep before I decided to go to the feds."
With his white cop mustache, Olmsted has the manner of a friendly DARE officer. He talks about the scandal, and how the culture of violence within the jails can have a lasting effect on deputies when they go out into the streets. But he's a little vague on what needs to be done to fix it.
"The only way to bring a change to the internal culture of the organization is we need to change the heart of the people in the organization," he says.
That's not really a plan, but the audience doesn't seem too interested in changing the culture of the jails anyway. Instead, when the questions come, they focus on the expense of housing inmates (too much) and the amount of time that inmates serve (not enough).
One questioner asks about addressing overcrowding in the jails through outsourcing to private facilities, and Olmsted latches onto it.
"You can't not look at privatization," he says. "If private industry can do it at a better cost, then that's something we need to explore."
L.A. County sheriff may be the most secure job in politics. No living sheriff has lost a bid for re-election in the last 80 years.
Only sworn peace officers are eligible for the job, which narrows the field of potential challengers considerably. Plus, the county is the most populous in the country by a wide margin, which makes campaigning expensive.
Traditionally, the only way to become sheriff has been to get the blessing of the retiring sheriff. Baca was a notable exception to that rule. When he won for the first time in 1998, he had the good fortune to be running against Sherman Block, who had recently died.
Under normal circumstances, then, Baca should be able to win a fifth term next year without breaking a sweat. But these are not normal circumstances.
Battered by scandals, for the first time ever Baca faces serious competition. His former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, announced his candidacy over the summer. Olmsted also is in the hunt, as are two lesser-known candidates, Lou Vince and Patrick Gomez.
Looked at individually, none of these candidates should be able to win. But one of them will have to, unless someone else joins the race.
Baca is still the favorite, if only by default. Inside the department and out, there is a growing sentiment that his time has come and gone. He has been with the department for 48 years, the last 15 as sheriff. Everyone else in his academy class is either retired or dead.
Baca is a likable person, and people have been voting for him for a long time. But the inmate-abuse scandal exposed him as out of touch, more interested in taking junkets abroad than in taking the reins of his department. He also has been accused of cronyism. In its report, the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence said that if Baca were a CEO, he would have been fired.
The news has not improved since then. In a recent embarrassment, Baca was forced to cut ties with a manufacturer of nutritional shakes, whose products he had endorsed. He also was ordered to pay $100,000 out of his own pocket to an inmate who had been Tased and beaten with a flashlight. The inmate's attorneys persuaded the jury that Baca had ignored repeated warnings about use of flashlights as a weapon. (Baca intends to appeal.)
As bad as the commission report was for Baca, it was much worse for Tanaka. Until recently, Tanaka was the undersheriff, widely assumed to be Baca's handpicked successor. But the jail scandal revealed that while Baca was off pontificating in far-flung locales, Tanaka was seizing control of the department. He moved his allies into key positions, undermined discipline and fostered a culture of aggression, often encouraging deputies to go over the line.
Belatedly, Baca pushed Tanaka into retirement. But Tanaka had been planning to take the top job for years, and he was not about to give up that goal. Once ousted, he turned on Baca and launched his own campaign.
Tanaka has a broad network of support within the department, which should help finance his campaign. (He is considered the favorite to get the endorsement of the deputies' union.) He also is mayor of Gardena, which gives him political experience that money can't buy. But running against his old boss, with his own ample baggage, Tanaka faces an uphill fight.
Olmsted is an even longer shot, lacking both a fundraising network and a political base. He is not even well-known within law-enforcement circles. To be a credible candidate, he will have to do in a few months what Tanaka and Baca took years to do: gather endorsements, raise money and develop a vision for the department.
Olmsted is running as a reformer, but that makes him seem more liberal than he is. In fact, like most cops, he is fairly conservative. Until recently, he was an Orange County Republican. (He moved to Long Beach and reregistered as an independent in order to run for office.)
Inside the department, Baca's liberal ideas often are seen as simpleminded or goofy. But Baca's progressive philosophy has served him well with a left-of-center electorate. Olmsted is running as the white hat who will stand up and do what's right, but he may have a hard time connecting on social-welfare issues.
"When you sit with [Olmsted], there's no doubt you're sitting with a cop," says Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. "He's a very nice guy, but he's of the older school."
Bob Olmsted grew up in a police household in the South Bay. His father, Jerry Olmsted, served 24 years with the Sheriff's Department. Bob graduated from Torrance High in 1969, and enlisted in the Army in the waning years of the Vietnam War. He ended up near the border of Laos, intercepting Morse code transmissions from the North Vietnamese army.
When he returned home after a two-year tour, he did odd jobs. For a while, he worked as a mechanic at a bowling alley in South L.A. There, Olmsted met the receptionist who would become his wife.
Eventually, he followed his father's path to the Sheriff's Department. For the first 15 years or so, he was a beat cop.
When he got promoted, he worked as a department spokesman for a while and did a two-year stint lobbying in Sacramento on behalf of Baca's predecessor, Sherman Block. Olmsted took leadership courses and taught community college classes on criminal justice. He tended to take a paternal approach to dealing with younger deputies.
By that point, he had become a father. He and his wife adopted a son, Michael, in 1987. In the years following he spent a lot of time coaching youth baseball. (It paid off — Michael Olmsted is now a 26-year-old relief pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization.)
Alex Villanueva, a sheriff's lieutenant, remembers Olmsted's approach to mentorship when they worked together at the Lynwood station: "We always had our whiners and complainers that couldn't quite wrap their minds around new policies and procedures. He dealt with them in a straightforward way, took time to explain it to them, and got a lot of buy-in."
Olmsted gravitated toward books on business leadership. His ideas for improving management at the department tend to involve importing business concepts, like return on investment.
But he never had any ambition to rise to upper levels of management.
"What's really great about law enforcement is that, every two years, you can do something different if you like," he says.
He was a captain on the frauds detail in December 2006 when he got a call from Tanaka, then an assistant sheriff, asking Olmsted to take over at Men's Central Jail.
It was not a plum assignment. The previous captain, John Clark, had encountered some problems with excessive force and deputy cliques — groups of deputies that behaved like gangs. Clark had tried to address the issue by rotating the deputies' assignments. But the deputies rebelled and Tanaka interceded on their behalf, canceling the rotation plan and cutting Clark off at the knees.
Clark was on the way out, and the problems remained. Olmsted got some advice from a former commander of the jail, who told him to spend 18 hours a week walking the floor, scouting for problems.
Olmsted followed that advice and found no shortage of problems. For one, the jail was grimy. The floors were sticky; the walls dusty. Olmsted believed that was part of the reason morale was low, so he decided to do a cleanup. In his view, he was applying the "Broken Windows" theory of policing to the jails.
He also took a close look at violent incidents in the jail, discerning patterns and trying to address them. For a while, such incidents declined. But in April 2008, Olmsted was promoted to commander. His replacement, Dan Cruz, was more permissive, and violence soon began to spike again.
Olmsted tried to rein it in, but he and Cruz did not get along. Cruz resented Olmsted's intrusions so much, in fact, that a commission witness would later testify that Cruz had an alarm installed so that he would be alerted every time Olmsted entered the building.
Olmsted grew so frustrated with Cruz that he took his complaints up the chain of command. But at every step, his concerns were brushed aside. He came to believe that Tanaka was protecting Cruz. He ultimately cornered Baca at a charity event and tried to get him to intervene, but the sheriff ignored him.
In July 2010, Olmsted went on leave to care for his ailing wife. When she died, he took his retirement. He was frustrated, but he figured he had done what he could.
But around Christmas 2010, two groups of deputies got into a brawl at a party at the Quiet Cannon restaurant in Montebello. It was so bad that local police were called to break it up. One of the sheriff's captains involved was Dan Cruz.
Olmsted was aghast. "Unacceptable," he says now.
That's when he went to the FBI.
The American Civil Liberties Union and clergy groups had been raising alarms about abuse for months. But when Olmsted and others within the department came forward to validate those concerns, the revelations began to snowball. The L.A. Times ran a series of stories on shocking mistreatment of inmates, and the Board of Supervisors established the citizens' commission to investigate.
Baca's initial reaction to the scandal was to ignore it for as long as he could. In his testimony to the jails commission, he repeatedly said he was not interested in dwelling on past mistakes. He rambled and said he didn't remember key incidents. When asked how the public could hold him accountable, he said, "Don't elect me."
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.
"You don't circumnavigate the globe," Olmsted says. "You have to stay home and take care of business.
"We need an infusion of new ideas," he adds. "We need to let people know there's a new sheriff in town. We need to shine that badge and get our reputation back."
If Baca and Tanaka are taking Olmsted's campaign seriously, they're doing a good job of hiding it. Baca is not campaigning right now, and declined a request for an interview about the race.
"The campaign is certainly not his focus at all," says Steve Whitmore, Baca's spokesman. "He's not going to get into any kind of tit-for-tat. The sheriff respects Bob Olmsted, and is fully aware of what Bob Olmsted is saying, and it's just not true."
Parke Skelton, Baca's political consultant, says he knows little about Olmsted — other than that until recently he lived in Orange County.
"Right now I think he's probably totally unknown," Skelton says. "It's hard to get yourself known in L.A. County without raising some money."
Jeff Corless, a Tanaka campaign adviser, also brings up the Orange County issue. "I'm not sure Olmsted presents a threat in this campaign to anyone," Corless says.
There is one wild card — a possible additional candidate who could provide another alternative to Baca and Tanaka. Over the summer, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell announced that he would not be a candidate. McDonnell, who served on the jails commission and was once an LAPD assistant chief, was widely seen as the most serious threat to Baca. Though he has no political background, he does have the credentials.
McDonnell's supporters are urging him to reconsider, and the filing deadline is not until March. If he were to change his mind, that would shake up the race. (McDonnell declined comment.)
But for now, Olmsted is the only halfway viable contender who is untarnished by scandal. In other words — as unlikely as it seems — he just might be the next sheriff.
Thomas, Olmsted's strategist, says the campaign will have to make a strong case that Baca and Tanaka have both failed, and neither should be given four more years.
"The real challenge for us is going to be to make sure that voters and the media understand that Paul Tanaka and Lee Baca are one and the same," Thomas says. "They've created the mess together."
As Olmsted puts it: "I don't have a hole to dig myself out of."
He expects things to get rough. His girlfriend works for the department, and one of his concerns was that her career would be harmed by his campaign. He says he's been assured by her boss that that won't happen.
Olmsted is as ready as he can be for anything else that might come his way.
"Most cops enjoy a good fight anyway," he says.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.