I just reread this morning’s LA Times editorial about Los Angeles County Probation in which they say that the LA County Supervisors have a “Second Chance” to “Renew LA County Probation.”
On a second reading, I find I am deeply perplexed by it.
First of all, LA County Probation doesn’t require “renewal.” It’s not some wilting flower that needs a little plant food and some water.
It’s a broken, toxic mess of a contraption that the new probation chief, Donald Blevins, must yank up by its handles, turn upside down and shake hard until all the bad things roll out. And then rebuild the whole kit and caboodle from the wheels up.
Literarily speaking, it’s a page one rewrite.
But okay. No need to be peckish over a mere choice of images. (And, yes, I know that there are many good and deeply devoted people working within the department. That isn’t the point.)
However, then the Times editorial board goes on to say that the second chance in question is the approval at today’s meeting of the County Sups of a motion that allows Chief Blevins to hire new managers from outside the civil service structure.
This is of course a very good idea and will very likely be passed. The new chief should be unhampered in his ability to clear the decks when it comes to his top managers. (Again, he needs to turn the thing, shake everything out, and then start over, etc. etc.)
But then the Times opines, without any logical back-up, that there is no necessity for federal oversight. That what is really needed is for the county to “press for improvement.”
Well, duh. Yes, of course the County Board of Supervisors need to be, as the Times writes “committed” to “seeing that process [of reform] through.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But what the hell do those words mean? And what in the past behavior of LA County governance leads anyone to believe that the top-to-bottom reform needed at this nightmare of an agency can be accomplished without the do-it-or-else motivation and tools that a federal consent decree (or equivalent) can provide.
Seriously. Name one example. I dare y’all. Hmmm. Let’s see. Martin Luther King-Harbor hospital, otherwise known as King-Drew? Yeah, that worked out well.
I’m sorry, but the smart money—and a bunch of city and county history—suggests that a new department head (in this case, Blevins), no matter how well-intentioned, talented and capable, cannot take on a task of this magnitude unless he or she is very, very well armed. And the only government entity with guns big enough for the task are the feds.
(Yes, I know I have just mixed metaphors to an even more alarming degree than usual.)
Federal intervention is what gave Sheriff Lee Baca the tools—and the impetus–to reform the worst of the LA County jail conditions. (With more reform still needed.)
More dramatically—and relevantly, really—the federal consent decree is what gave master manager Bill Bratton the tools he needed to fundamentally reboot the damagingly-entrenched culture of the LAPD.
The Times suggests that calls for federal intervention by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (and their own Tim Rutten, and, well, me, if I want to be picky) are a vote of no confidence in the new chief.
To the contrary, when done right, federal intervention doesn’t preclude good management, it demands it—and, if capable leadership is already present, aids it.
We would hope that, should the Department of Justice decide to wade into the mess of LA County probation, it would do so with care and precision. Fortunately, with Eric Holder’s recent reconstitution of the DOJ’s civil rights division, chances are better than ever before that any new fed intervention would be wise, not clumsy.
Having spent the past three weeks talking to people with a stake and/or experience in some aspect of LA County Probation—ranging from activists, service providers and reformers at one end, to law enforcement types at the other—I can tell you that the belief that federal intervention is necessary is surprisingly widespread and getting wider.
The reason is simple. Most recognize that this is an all hands on deck moment, and that the well-being of the kids—our kids—with whom probation comes in contact simply cannot wait for another round of good tries. The time for business-as-usual 2.0 has run out with a vengeance.
So why in the world is the LA Times coming out against federal involvement? Really. A lot of us out here would like to know.
UPDATE: THE LA TIMES REPLIES—AND CLARIFIES
Tuesday afternoon I got a call from Lisa Richardson, a very smart and thoughtful woman who also happens to be one of the group of LA Times editorial board writers who composed the editorial about which I wrote the above rant. She phoned, she said, to say that the Times was not against federal intervention at all.
They definitely did not, Lisa said, think that forceful action on the board’s part and having the feds step in, were mutually exclusive. But since federal intervention was not something that we could trigger here at a local level, they wanted to call for committed action on the part of the Board of Supervisors. (Or words to that effect. I am paraphrasing mightily here.)
So it appears that we are on the same page after all—or close to it. Lisa said that the Times wasn’t ready to actually call for federal intervention, but they were assuredly not opposing it.
Fair enough. And thank you for the call. Dialogue is a good thing.