Jail deputies acted like gang members, ex-sheriff's officials say
Two retired Los Angeles County sheriff's supervisors Monday painted a violent picture of life inside Men's Central Jail, recounting for a county jails commission tales of deputies beating prisoners, ignoring bosses, forming cliques and engaging in off-duty misconduct.
The former sergeant and lieutenant, who both retired in 2007, said they felt their efforts to discipline wayward deputies were undermined by a top manager they accused of ordering supervisors to “coddle” young deputies in the jail.
Daniel Pollaro, the former sergeant, complained that deputies used inappropriate force against inmates as a form of discipline. He cited one example in which he learned that a deputy beat an inmate being moved to a cell on the floor where Pollaro worked. The deputy, he said, left the bloodied inmate without reporting the incident or seeking medical attention for him. The inmate’s injuries were discovered during a later shift, and the deputy was suspended, Pollaro said.
Some deputies, he said, routinely arrived late for work and ignored orders from direct supervisors, preferring instead to listen to rank-and-file deputies who had worked at the jails for several years and earned the informal title of “OG,” short for “Original Gangster.”
Alfred Gonzales, a retired lieutenant, echoed Pollaro’s testimony about insubordination and excessive force, telling commissioners that one hard-core gang member broke down during an interview about how a deputy had broken his jaw while he was handcuffed. “I didn’t deserve this,” Gonzales said the gang member told him.
He said he grew alarmed by the off-duty behavior of some deputies, including several arrested for assault and drunk driving, and by how large numbers of deputies assigned to the same floor made it a habit to arrive and leave work together and would not mix with colleagues from other floors.
Gonzales recalled being so concerned that he compared the cliques to gangs in one conversation with a young deputy.
“I said, ‘You guys, this is reminiscent of a gang….This is how gang members act,’” he told the commission.
The commission, which is investigating allegations of jail violence, was created by the Board of Supervisors soon after news broke last year that the FBI was investigating allegations of inmate abuse and other jail misconduct.
Gonzales began his testimony by explaining he had agreed to speak “not to malign or bring discredit upon the Sheriff’s Department” but to show what was occurring at the nation’s largest local detention facility from 2003 to 2007, when he was assigned to the jail.
He and Pollaro said they believed Undersheriff Paul Tanaka undermined jail manager’s efforts to prevent the deputy cliques and deal with insubordination.
They cited a 2006 proposal to regularly move deputies around the jail as an effort to break up the cliques. Tanaka, then an assistant sheriff, blocked the move after complaints from deputies. The commission made public an email forwarded by several deputies in which they complained that the change “would anger and force many to leave.”
Gonzales and Pollaro said Tanaka later met with all of the jail’s supervisors and told them they were too strict with deputies and had to “coddle” them.
“How are we going to supervise deputy personnel that know that they can email the assistant sheriff and at their whim he’s going to come over to the jail and tell them, ‘Don’t listen, you do what you want,’” Pollaro said.
Gonzales told the commission: “The chain of command was totally broken….These were good men. They just needed strong leadership.”
The captain who proposed the job rotation, however, has said under oath that the change was not meant to address deputy cliques or groups, which he didn't believe existed. Tanaka has said that he opposed the change because it would have disrupted hundreds of deputies for the sake of a few problematic ones, a move that would have faced serious opposition from the deputies union.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said deputies contacting Tanaka by email would not be a violation of department rules. Sheriff Lee Baca, he said, has an open-door policy that allows any employee to contact the sheriff or his top executives directly without reprisal.
Whitmore said Baca and Tanaka plan to wait until the commission releases its final report, expected later this year, before commenting on any specific testimony.
Among others who testified Monday was retired Cmdr. Bob Olmsted, who said he twice tried to tell Baca about excessive force and deputy cliques in the jail but was ignored.
Amid the jails’ misconduct scandal, Baca last year set up a task force to look at ways to reform his jails. But Olmsted noted that the sheriff has not taken public action against some of his top executives who oversaw the jails’ problems.
“When do you start rolling some heads from the top?” he asked.
-- Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi
Photo: Men's Central Jail. Credit: Los Angeles Times