The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department may be failing to weed out problematic or underperforming deputies during the standard year-long probationary training period, according to a report from Inspector General Max Huntsman presented to the LA County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The board approved a motion by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Michael Antonovich to direct Sheriff Jim McDonnell to report back with a plan for ensuring that the probationary supervision period “is a meaningful part of the employee selection process.”
After deputies graduate from the Academy, they must complete a one-year probationary period, which is spent in the Custody Division. First, they attend a four-week, classroom-based training course to prepare for work in Custody, then they are divided up among the county jails.
After that, new deputies spend 12 weeks in an on-the-job training program under the guidance of Training Officers. During this time, the TOs are expected to assess and give trainees feedback regularly, and complete bi-weekly evaluations of the deputies’ training progress.
At the 90-day mark, a unit commander (usually a captain) must review a trainee’s work habits and performance, with a focus on “issues such as honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, and character, and any other characteristic” that would show whether a deputy was fit for a law enforcement career. If the trainee passes the assessment, he or she moves on to an assignment within the jail. Thirty days before the probationary period is up, the unit commander must complete a final evaluation of career performance to determine whether the deputy will move on from probation. This is a crucial step, because during the probationary period, deputies do not have the same protections held by permanent LASD employees, and if trainees do not meet department policy standards, they can be “released.”
None of the LASD Academy’s 334 Deputy Sheriff Trainees (DSTs) who graduated in 2014 were eliminated for poor performance.
Over the last two years, the department has reportedly revamped it’s hiring practices in order to get a large number of recruits through the door quickly.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was sworn in on December 1, 2014 (and has had the task of reforming a department plagued by abuse and misconduct scandals), has said he only wants to hire officers with a strong moral character. “While we’re heavily recruiting and we want to be able to fill the ranks, we’d rather work short than hire the wrong people,” McDonnell told the LA Daily News last year.
A veteran LASD manager, now retired, said that in the past, under former Sheriff Baca’s rule, there were too few background investigators to handle the number of LASD applicants, and some applicants that should have been disqualified were hired (despite objections from investigators) in order to quickly increase the sheriff’s department ranks.
The IG’s report took an in-depth look at 16 of the deputies’ probationary training files. According to the report, 9 out of 10 evaluations of new deputies on probation occurred after the one-year deadline, leaving no way to get rid of any unfit trainees—which is the main purpose of the probationary period. Those final evaluations are supposed to be completed a month before the end of the probationary period. The untimely assessments were reportedly completed between 1.5 and 5 months after the end of the probation period. Some were never completed. Moreover, many of the written evaluations included non-specific, cut-and-pasted comments about the trainees.
AN INDIVIDUAL TRAINING STORY
In one particularly alarming case reviewed by the IG’s Office, a problematic trainee was passed around among several Training Officers like a hot potato, but still managed to finish his probationary period. The deputy’s first TO wrote that the trainee was “not comprehending the importance of having knowledge of department policy and unit orders,” and not taking his TO seriously, despite multiple conversations about the issue.
After a pile of similar reviews, the department moved the deputy to a new TO, with similar outcomes. The deputy was passed to a third TO who said the trainee was “not taking his position here at Men’s Central Jail as a Deputy Sheriff seriously” and that his “integrity is a major concern not only in his role as a Deputy Sheriff but also for the safety of his partners.” The department sent him to yet another TO, who was able to push the deputy through the training program 10 months into his probationary year.
The deputy finished his year, and did not receive a final assessment. “Even though this DST received rigorous evaluations over the course of his probation that revealed the significant likelihood that he was not a fit for the position of Deputy Sheriff, the Department nonetheless failed to take advantage of the opportunity to release a low-performing employee before he obtained the substantial rights provided by civil service protection,” the IG’s report said.
IG Huntsman recommends certain clarifications on current custody training policies, like actually defining what a “meaningful” assessment entails, as well as what specific competencies a trainee should have (with measurable benchmarks) in order to move on to patrol.
The report also recommends that each deputy trainee be assigned to one dedicated Training Officer for their entire probationary year, and that custody training officers receive a boost to their salary for their extra responsibilities.
Huntsman makes a good point, said our veteran source. “But it is not as easy as it seems.” Making sure there are enough seasoned, capable training officers in Custody, which has in the past not been considered a coveted assignment, he said, “will take some real leadership, standards and honest assessments of employees.”
Unfit deputies should actually be let go during their probationary period, the report says, and higher-up commanders—rather than captains—sign off on each trainee’s completion of probation 30 days before the end of the year.
Sheriff McDonnell only agreed with the recommendation to review department policies, including defining “meaningful” training. McDonnell did not agree with the other recommendations—assigning a trainee to one TO for the whole year, releasing unfit deputies, and moving evaluations up to the commander level—citing staffing issues.
The Supervisors voted to have Sheriff McDonnell report back to the board within 60 days with a plan for implementing the first recommendation, as well as options for achieving the remaining recommendations (and what each option will cost), and any other recommendations for improving the department’s probationary training system.