Ex-jail captain feeling the heat
July 12, 2012
Eight months ago, amid mounting reports of brutality in Los Angeles County’s jails, Sheriff Lee Baca would offer only a few words of explanation about why the former captain of the Men’s Central Jail had been placed on leave and sent home.
“I’m looking into a few matters,” the sheriff said.
In recent weeks, some of those matters have come into very public view.
Captain Daniel Cruz has unhappily found himself front-and-center in an investigation by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, a high-powered panel created by the Board of Supervisors to, among other things, “restore public confidence in the constitutional operation of our jails.”
During the commission’s last two hearings, Cruz has been accused by former and current members of the department of failing to hold deputies accountable for significant levels of serious force against inmates. According to testimony, scores of brutality investigations languished over the years in file boxes and desk drawers, undermining the department’s ability to track abusive deputies. One witness, a former lieutenant, said he was repeatedly told by Cruz not to spend too much time attacking the backlog that had been growing under the captain and his predecessors.
In an interview, Cruz insisted that he’s undeservedly being vilified for reasons that have more to do with personalities than with facts.
“I’m in front of the firing squad right now and everybody is taking a shot at me,” the 33-year department veteran told a writer for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s website. “I have to sit back and listen to everybody saying what a schmuck I am. If I was reading what’s in the papers, I would think this guy wasn’t doing his job. But that’s far from the case. It’s not a true representation of my character. I worked very hard to reduce force at CJ [Central Jail] and the numbers show that I did.”
Cruz served as the Men’s Central Jail captain between 2008 and 2010. He was transferred to the department’s Transit Services operation before being placed on paid leave. So far, he has not appeared before the 7-member commission, whose members include retired judges, the current Long Beach police chief and the one-time spiritual leader of First AME Church. But Cruz said he wants to share his side of the story with investigators. “I’d like to get my turn at bat,” he said.
Also emerging as a central figure in the commission’s inquiry has been the man who reportedly favored Cruz for the job, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. He, too, has been criticized in testimony for allegedly creating a culture that fostered excessive force by openly deriding the work of internal affairs investigators and by ordering supervisors to, among other things, “coddle” jail deputies.
For his part, Tanaka, the department’s No. 2 man and the mayor of Gardena, has so far remained quiet, declining requests for comment. He and Baca are scheduled to testify before the commission on July 27, a hearing that’s certain to generate considerable interest within a department that has been rocked by the ongoing controversy over its management of the county’s vast jail system.
By all accounts, conditions have improved markedly in the jail as Baca has moved to intensify oversight and accountability. He has installed new leadership there and created a commander-level task force that briefs him regularly on jail operations and trends. Incidents of significant force have fallen dramatically.
Still, the commission was given a mandate by the Board of Supervisors to look back at the possible root causes of the problems that led to the panel’s creation last October and offer recommendations for the future. Along the way, it has generated a number of disclosures about the policies and people who have governed jail operations.
Beginning during a commission hearing in mid-May, it became evident that panel investigators—many of them former federal prosecutors working pro bono—had begun to believe that specific individuals may have been as responsible for a rise in serious inmate injuries as any structural or systemic problems. During that session, both Cruz and Tanaka were criticized by two retired officials of the jail for allegedly undermining efforts to break-up deputy cliques and of failing to hold jailers accountable for unnecessary force.
That theme continued last week with testimony from an active-duty captain, Michael Bornman, a 30-year veteran who currently oversees educational programs in the jail. Obviously uncomfortable as he was questioned by the commission’s executive director, Bornman described his testimony as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.” Commission staff say he was encouraged to appear before the panel by Baca himself.
Bornman recalled instances that he said raised alarms in his mind about Cruz’s views on deputy violence—both on and off the job. One of those incidents involved the beating by several deputies of an inmate near a jail medical clinic, which was captured on a newly installed video camera about which few knew. According to Bornman, the prisoner was punched, kicked and repeatedly knee-dropped by one particularly bulky deputy. The inmate, he said, suffered broken ribs.
If that wasn’t disturbing enough, Bornman said, he was taken aback by what he contended was Cruz’s reaction. “I see nothing wrong with that use of force,” Bornman quoted the captain as telling a group of jail supervisors, who’d gathered to watch the video. Ultimately, an internal investigation—with Bornman’s active participation—called for the firing of one deputy and the suspension of two others.
Bornman also recounted a speech he said Cruz gave in 2009 to a banquet hall filled with jail deputies during their annual holiday party. “What do I always tell you guys?” Cruz reportedly asked the crowd. “Not in the face!” they responded in unison—an allusion, Bornman said, to how to strike an inmate without leaving tell-tale marks.
But Cruz, in the interview, disputed Bornman’s account, saying that his former subordinate offered a sinister and incomplete version of the event.
Cruz said he typically ended his remarks to the troops with three admonitions: “Don’t drive drunk. Don’t put your hands on your wives and girlfriends and don’t hit people in the face.” Cruz said that last warning had nothing to do with hiding the signs of a beating. “When you hit someone in the face, you can end up injuring yourself and the inmate,” he said. “It’s generally an ineffective tactic.”
Whatever the case, Bornman said he was so put off that he decided to sit out the following year’s ill-fated party at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello, where deputies from different floors of the Men’s Central Jail squared off in a wild parking lot brawl. When Montebello police arrived, Cruz assured them there was nothing left to investigate, that all was resolved. In the end, six deputies were ordered fired.
Said Bornman: “I could have predicted what happened there.”
As in the commission’s May hearing, panel members explored the relationship between Cruz and Tanaka. Under questioning from one commission member, former U.S. District Judge Robert Bonner, Bornman said Cruz “made it very clear that Mr. Tanaka had helped him.” In fact, Bornman quoted a defiant Cruz as insisting that he still reported to Tanaka, who was no longer even in charge of custody operations.
Although Tanaka is largely unknown to the public, he is powerful presence within the Sheriff’s Department, second in command to the elected Baca. He receives high marks from many in the department. But he’s been criticized during the commission’s hearings, which have dealt only with a limited part of his broad portfolio. Among other things, he’s been called to task for allegedly brushing back supervisors in the jail and elsewhere when they’ve tried to rein in deputies they believe are acting too aggressively.
On Friday, for example, the commission released a 2007 memo that memorialized a visit by then-Assistant Sheriff Tanaka to the Century Station, an area of high gang activity. The memo was written by the station’s captain at the request of the region’s field operations commander. In it, the captain quotes Tanaka as warning captains and supervisors not to be “hasty” in filing complaints, or “cases,” against aggressive deputies, “who should function right on the edge of the line.” Tanaka said such actions can have “a negative impact on his performance and personal life.”
The memo went on say that Tanaka does not like the Internal Affairs Bureau and then recounted this promise from the assistant sheriff: “He said he would be checking to see which Captains were putting the most cases on deputies and that he would be putting a case on them.”