MAILANDER’S LA - You don't meet many law enforcement Commanders in the County of Los Angeles who are anxious to talk about reforming County jails. You meet even fewer who are anxious to criticize the Department's top boss.
But LA County Sheriff's Department Commander Bob Olmsted, candidate for Sheriff of Los Angeles County, is not only anxious to talk about reform in the jails--a few years back, he went to the FBI to make sure his concerns were acted upon.
And he is not shy to criticize the man he is trying to replace, Sheriff Lee Baca.
When I asked him if Baca's re-election would be bad for the County of Los Angeles, he answers unequivocally.
"Yes," he says.
"Yes," he repeats. "The Sheriff has been an absentee Sheriff for a long time," Olmsted tells me assertively, but with a touch of disappointment in his voice too.
Olmsted, a US Army vet of the conflict in Southeast Asia in the 1970's, was managing a mild-mannered career in law enforcement until 2006, when he oversaw the lockup at Men's Central Jail. He soon issued a report on abuses. And he went to the FBI when he couldn't solve the problems he saw interdepartmentally.
Certainly his daring whistleblowing activity--his willingness to step outside the system when he felt the system wasn't responding--indicates that Olmsted is passionate about justice. But he also brings to public safety concern for the kind of statistical rigor that indicate a strong intellectual presence as well.
And statistics on effective law enforcement are never far from Olmsted's mind. Even in answering a question about dealing with assessment in the tough first response moments of a possible terrorist strike, he cites a formula of Colin Powell's about not waiting too long, involving electeds when about seventy percent of the facts on the ground are known.
The passion for reform combined with the intellectual rigor he brings to administrative matters, make Olmsted an unusual kind of figure in the County's law enforcement hierarchy. If his other lead opponent in the race, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, "was not raised to be a whistleblower," as Tanaka told the LA Weekly, you sense that Olmsted was not raised to be one either--but also that conscience demanded of him that he become one.
You hear him mixing a cop's passion for justice with an administrator's talent for achieving result and come to believe that he was raised to be a steely if charitable, honor-bound businessman who wants to see the janitor get treated fairly too.
Indeed, even while enumerating deeply-entrenched cultural problems in the County's jails, Olmsted rattles off statistics with the fluidity of an insurance agent citing an actuarial table.
"The abuses in the jails are an enormous problem. I'm going to put a Sheriff's office right inside the jail," Olmsted pledges. "I don't mean on the outside, I mean right inside it."
It is the kind of solution to a longstanding problem that invites comparisons to management consulting, a Total Quality Management approach to prison reform. And it leaves me wondering if there's anything else to reform in LA County's most esteemed--and most feared--law enforcement establishment.
Again, he's got stats in pocket.
"Century Station [Lynwood] has a [case] filing rejection rate of 70 percent," he tells me. "The DA rejects 70 percent of the cases filed. Something's wrong there and it has to change."
Olmsted grew up in the South Bay of LA County, and is a graduate of Torrance High School. His military tour for the Army involved tours of Thailand and the edge of Laos at the height of the Vietnam War. He came to law enforcement in the late '70's, when man WWII and Korean War vets were filling the LASD's ranks.
From those, he learned the value of community interaction, foot patrols, and working the streets.
"You're only as successful as your informants," Olmsted says.
Sheriff Baca, the beleaguered incumbent, was in decent standing with most media until the long-brewing problems with conditions in LA County jails surfaced a couple of years ago--in part through Olmsted's whistleblowing efforts. Baca then made a series of erratic moves that left his re-election as LA County's top law enforcement officer much in doubt.
The LA Times even urged Baca last month not to seek another term. "Don't run again, Sheriff Baca," the headline blared. "Evidence that sheriff's deputies regularly beat inmates in the jails is mounting," the editorial claimed. The unusual editorial noted that a Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence "blasted him [Baca] last year for ignoring multiple warnings and declining to ask probing questions or to implement reforms."
"I want to bring the shine back to the badge," Olmsted tells me.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)
Vol 11 Issue 74
Pub: Sept 13, 2013