EDITOR’S NOTE: Under AB 109—AKA realignment—thousands of low-level offenders who once would have been supervised, post release, by state parole, are now landing in the caseloads of county probation officers. The primary idea behind the switch is the notion that probation is better equipped than parole to help former inmates successfully reenter their communities, which, by extension, will help reduce California’s crushing recidivism rate.
But along with the low-level AB 109-ers coming to probation, there is a more challenging population, which has caused LA County’s probation department to quickly rethink some of its traditional methods, an endeavor that contains its own risks and challenges—especially when it comes to arming traditionally unarmed probation officers.
WitnessLA’s Matt Fleischer reports.
INSIDERS SAY LA COUNTY PROBATION IS RIGHT TO EXPAND ITS ARMED UNIT—BUT QUESTION WHETHER NEWLY ARMED OFFICERS ARE GETTING ADEQUATE TRAINING
by Matthew Fleischer
On April 2, armed deputies from the Los Angeles County Probation Department’s Special Enforcement Operations unit (SEO) began an aggressive series of door-to-door sweeps throughout LA County. The targets of these operations were sex offender probationers whose crimes were serious enough to necessitate GPS tracking devices – a populace, according to the probation department, that includes child molesters and violent rapists.
Unlike more typical probation encounters where probationers schedule an office visit, SEO teams paid unannounced visits to their clients. Houses were searched, neighbors, friends and family members were interviewed, and computer hard drives were pored over to scan for illicit sexual material – all to ensure that the offenders’ terms of probation were being followed.
Sending armed probation officers into the field for compliance checks is far from unprecedented. Although the majority of those working for the department do not carry guns, members of a small, elite unit of armed LA County probation deputies have been participating in such sweeps since 1999.
This operation, however, was different.
For the first time ever, probation deputies handled these sweeps on their own – without police assistance. Given the potentially volatile nature of these field operations, and the likelihood of arrests being made, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies or local law enforcement departments have typically led the operations. Even with the cops in attendance, however, such sweeps can be dangerous, as was demonstrated on June 26 in South LA when an LAPD officer and probation officer were both shot, the LAPD cop seriously, during an ordinary complience check in South LA..
Handling these operations solo was an eye-opener for probation deputies.
“Our staff were surprised at how confrontational these guys were,” Assistant Chief Probation Officer Margarita Perez told WitnessLA. “Despite the fact we came in force.”
Incidents with occasional troublemakers notwithstanding, probation considered the operation a success. Over the course of more than three weeks, 137 homes were searched, resulting in 21 arrests
“We found criminal sex offenders living with children,” explained Perez of the arrests. “We found drugs. These checks are important.”
THE MATTER OF GUNS & PROBATION
If new chief probation officer Jerry Powers gets his way, this will only be the beginning of probation’s more aggressive role in monitoring its clients.
“I have an expectation that my probation deputies be more proactive,” Powers told WitnessLA. “We can’t adequately monitor offenders by just making contact in the office. Most offenders, when they come to see their probation officer, will be law abiding by that visit. They won’t come in under influence, they won’t be carrying a firearm, they won’t be wearing gang clothing. If we want a good handle on what our probationers are doing, we need to see them in their homes, at their work, and in the community.”
Powers’ stance has earned broad backing in LA County, largely because of AB 109 – the state’s realignment plan, which is moving thousands of inmates from the state’s prison system into probation monitoring. To deal with that new populace, which, the department claims, includes hundreds of “high-risk”* clientele, Powers plans to boost the number of armed deputies in the probation department to 100 by the end of the year, up from around 30 before he arrived.
“The number of armed officers we had when I got here, in my experience, was inadequate to do what we were expecting them to do,” says Powers.
The County of Los Angeles Office of Independent Review agreed with Powers in March in its most recent report on the probation department, noting that “SEO is operating under capacity.”
Arming probation officers, however, is a move that is not without controversy.
“A probation officer is not a social worker, and they’re not a cop,” LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina famously told the LA Times back in 2003. “They’re in the middle, until you give them a gun. Then they’re a cop.”
Molina felt strongly enough about the matter at the time that she demanded all probation officers in her district be unarmed.
That was until April, however, when, for the first time, Molina signed off on armed probation sweeps in her district.
“Our policy hasn’t changed,” explained Molina spokesperson Roxane Marquez, “but we did make one big exception to it [for the] AB 109 compliance checks on sex offenders with GPS tracking devices.”
“She was supportive of it,” said Perez of Molina. “There was no issue there.”
Expanding the roster of armed probation deputies has broad support in the law enforcement community across California.
“AB 109 does cause a change in clientele that probation departments across California are dealing with,” explained Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz. “Their case load is now more likely to have hardened career criminals. So it’s absolutely appropriate for them to be able to defend themselves.”
Diaz says that more armed probation officers are absolutely necessary to deal with the AB 109 populace.
“To paraphrase Father Boyle, you need the light and the heat. [Probation deputies] have specialized knowledge about the people being supervised by probation. It is valuable to let AB 109 [clientele] know someone will be watching — that we want to help you move towards the light. In that mission, they will be in harm’s way dealing with some of these folks, and you don’t want to see anyone in probation killed for lack of adequate tools.”
Sources inside the Probation Department tell us that they too are supportive of the effort to arm more deputies in the face of AB 109.
“With AB 109, we’re dealing with a different type of criminal,” said one probation source who wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “A person who has gone to prison has a level of criminal sophistication that people who have not gone to prison lack. People coming out of prison demand a certain type of respect. When you go to these guy’s houses, you don’t know what’s in store for you. So I don’t think arming is fear-based. It’s more of a reality check.”
Doug Harris, bargaining chair for the Association of Probation Supervisors union tells WitnessLA “More officers absolutely need to be trained [to handle firearms.]”
Yet despite the general backing for arming more of LA’s probation deputies, in recent months a sharp controversy has about the department’s ability to properly train its new wave of armed recruits.
In the past, the few probation officers who were allowed to carry guns received their firearms training and state gun certification from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. With an established protocol that has trained thousands of armed officers in its ranks, LASD, the thinking went, could not help but be better equipped than probation to handle the necessary instruction.
REINVENTING THE WHEEL?
At the start of the year, LA County Probation decided to reinvent its firearms training regimen, moving away from LASD — a decision that critics inside the department say is unwise and potentially dangerous.
In the face of the department’s AB 109 challenges, critics told WLA they were perplexed that management has further overloaded itself by moving away from the Sheriff’s Department and other established training procedures, to create a new brand of firearms training policies and use of force procedures on the fly. The result, they said, is a scattershot and incoherent training regimen that is far less thorough than the one it’s replacing.
“There used to be and 8-hour class in dealing with mentally ill. They’re not teaching that now,” said one source. “We had someone from the district attorney’s office come in, along with sheriff’s homicide, for 8 hours to talk about how they investigate shootings. Cultural sensitivity training — especially with the various ethnic gangs. They’re not doing any of that.”
Our source went on to suggest that these omissions weren’t calculated decisions, but rather the result of rushing to get deputies armed as quickly as possible to deal with AB 109 clientele.
“The department really hasn’t thought this thing out. When you start rushing, things start happening that aren’t good. When these new deputies hit the streets, I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt.”
Powers said the decision to handle training internally was by necessity: “This was not a conscious decision to move away from Sheriff’s Department training. Nor was it a reflection on the quality of Sheriff’s training. This was primarily driven by my desire to train more frequently. Our frequency of training not where I thought it should be. To pool sheriff’s resources wasn’t possible. We weren’t able to get range time we needed and things like that.”
He countered criticisms of the new training regiment by pointing out that prior to training internally, armed deputies only trained on their firearms once every three months. They now get refresher classes monthly. They also get field training on how to hit moving targets.
“Staff were receiving the minimal amount of training required by the state,” he said. “Once every few months, they shot ammunition at a target that never moved. But that’s not enough. We’ve adopted a training curriculum that deals with the integrated use of force. It’s not about pulling your gun and shooting at a target. It’s about how to use your body position; how to retreat to vehicle or a barricaded area; how to shoot at night. It’s not all about firearms, it’s about defensive tactics.
“Our previous training was adequate. That’s not good enough. I want them to be proficient, not just competent. I don’t put a gun in someone’s hand unless I’m sure the can handle it safely.”
Many longtime probation insiders, however, remain unconvinced. They say that while Powers’ decision to train more frequently is a welcome step, they are fearful that new training is too focused on the firearm itself, and not enough on how to negotiate difficult situations without having to rely on it.
Those sentiments were echoed by the OIR in its March report, which focused on the SEO unit prior to its expansion.
“SEO deputies are not provided adequate training to prepare them to perform the duties for which they have been tasked. The necessary training should include additional tactics and firearms use, as well as training in the legal and constitutional issues relevant to SEO operations.”
Rob Miller, the Deputy Chief Attorney on the OIR’s Probation team, confirmed that, while the OIR team had not found huge problems with the SEO’s instruction, they were concerned that “the training did not appear to include a constitutional policing unit, which as attorneys, is always going to be a particular hobby horse for us.”
We heard similar sentiments from veterans of other branches of law enforcement. “It’s not hard to teach people how to shoot,” said one longtime LAPD training supervisor, now retired. “The difficult part is teaching them when to shoot.”
TRAINING CONTROVERSY & AN UNSCHEDULED SHOOTING
Sources also said that despite the new focus on the weapon, deputies are receiving firearm training that is not up to par with what the Sheriff’s Department can provide.
They pointed to an incident that occurred last January involving the department’s range master and head training officer, Lee Washington. According to sources with knowledge of the incident, on January 7th of this year, Washington was demonstrating firearm safety to a class of training probation deputies at the Pomona Police Department’s firing range.
While instructing deputies on the basic mechanisms of the current department-issued Baretta 92F 9mm handgun, Washington pulled the trigger on his weapon, thinking he had safely removed all of the bullets.
He hadn’t. Though his clip was empty, he had forgotten about the round in the chamber. Washington happened to be pointing his gun downrange, so no one was injured, but a round was fired feet away from recruits who lacked proper eye and ear protection.
“My bad,” Washington allegedly said. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
The inadvertent firing of a weapon, called a “negligent discharge,” is a serious matter.
“Modern firearms are more reliable then your toaster,” said Diaz, who prior to his time at Riverside, was a Deputy Chief for the LAPD, and previously headed up the department’s Training Division, which oversaw the academy training of all new police officers. “[When something goes wrong with a gun] in virtually every case, it’s operator error. When [negligent discharges] happen, it’s almost always in the hands of an experienced person. Mostly by complacency.”
Diaz said that during his tenure at the LAPD, the occasional negligent discharge did happen, sometimes by a training instructor. Diaz says the punishment varied, depending of if there were injuries, “Almost certainly they would be reassigned away from training.”
Asked about the incident, however, Powers said he was never informed of a negligent discharge, and that Washington will remain in charge of the department’s firearms training.
“It wasn’t related to methat way. What was told to me was that the range master discharged the round without instructing staff to have their ear protection on. It was not a negligent discharge.”
WitnessLA contacted Washington last week about the incident but he declined to provide a comment before our deadline.
Powers said appropriate discipline was meted out, and that he has full confidence in Washington’s ability to continue leading the department’s firearms training.
Powers’ confidence, however, apparently isn’t reciprocated by all of his managers. Several weeks ago, the department caused an internal stir by announcing that armed deputies would not be allowed to enter probation headquarters carrying their firearms.
“If they don’t trust our armed officers in probation headquarters, why are they trusting them with the public?” one probation insider told WitnessLA.
Perez said “that policy is under review,” while Powers attributed the rule to “an eager person in risk management. It didn’t come from me.”
Sources inside the department, however, said that while the decision was damaging for morale, management may have a right to be cautious. The training new armed officers are receiving simply does not meet the standards of other law enforcement agencies in LA County.
“When you have a mishap, it’s rarely the bad guy that gets [accidently] shot,” said one probation insider, “it’s almost always the kid nearby.”
Doug Harris said that while he is supportive of the effort to arm more deputies in the face of AB 109, he too has serious concerns: “Our issue is making sure our deputies get proper training. [Our department’s] whole approach to AB 109 has been to do it on the run. Our guys are training from a draft policy. We’re concerned the department may be placing officers and citizens in harms way.”
Powers counters that his deputies need to be armed as soon as possible to ensure their safety. “I can’t call timeout on AB 109 and say hold on until we change our curriculum. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that our deputies are getting better training now than before AB 109.”
POST SCRIPT: As this story neared completion, the LA County Probation Department cancelled the training of new, armed recruits indefinitely, citing an inability to recruit enough suitable candidates to hold an academy class. Perez said she expects to have classes up and running again by the end of the summer.
“I’m not going to tell you everything is perfect in the program,” she said. “There are gaps. But we’re working to refine it. And we’re moving in the right direction.”
*AUTHOR’S NOTE: According to multiple California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokespersons we talked to, the mechanism by which these “high-risk” individuals came to reside under probation’s watch is complicated. AB 109 specifically excludes “high-risk” offenders from participating in any sort of program that would transfer them from state prison to probation prior to the terms of their original sentence being met. However, this criteria does not apply to prior offenses. An armed robber who served his full prison sentence in the ‘90s, only to be sent to prison for marijuana later on, would not be considered “high-risk” under AB 109. Thus probation could be responsible for a person who, on paper, is a low-level drug offender, but in reality is someone with a violent crime or crimes in his background.
Photos courtesy of LA County Probation