It all started when LA County Probation Chief Jerry Powers reported to the County Board of Supervisors at their meeting two weeks ago that he was having a bit of trouble hiring the 470 new probation officers required to fill the expanded staffing needs caused by AB109—AKA prison realignment.
The board had approved the 470 new hires in question some months ago and now, all this time later, Powers said he had only hired 222 of the 470 deemed necessary to oversee the influx of newly released inmates who, due to the AB109 restructuring, would be handed over to county probation rather than state parole (which would have had them in the past).
Much of the reason he had not filled the remaining 248 jobs, explained Powers, was that he was hogtied (my word not his) by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the employees’ unions that restricted him from hiring the people he needed to hire.
In the simplest of terms, according to union rules, he was required to fill the positions by reaching down into the existing probation work force only. He could not hire new people from the outside, unless pretty much all those on the inside had turned him down for the jobs. Powers said he had already hired 222 out of the existing pool of probation staffers. To continue to hire only from the ranks, meant he had to do one of two things: He could promote people into the jobs who were not really experienced enough to handle the complexities of the AB109 population, many of whom had serious mental and emotional problems, substance addictions and, all too often, violent pasts. Alternately, if he moved some of the better trained peopled into the AB109 slots, this meant, in most cases, he was yanking much needed experienced staff out of the juvenile probation camps, which was its own kind of disaster.
He said he had around 25 more people “in the pipeline” who were ready to be promoted, had taken their tests, done their interviews, and would be moved into the AB109 slots, but after that, things would be more difficult.
ROBBING PETER TO PAY PAUL—PROBATION STYLE
Powers had a point when he suggested that snatching the best and most experienced people from the probation camps to solve his AB109 staffing problem is a seriously awful idea.
For most of the decade before AB109 became the story du jour, probation’s main source of lawsuits, horrors and media scandal was its juvenile camps.
As we reported last October, the county’s juvenile probation camps, while not rife with the same level of ghastly staff behavior that brought the feds in 2006, are still, by and large, not places you would send a kid you cared about and expect him or her to be….you know….helped.
However, in the last four years, at least most of the camp staff who are supposed to be trained in things like what to do if a kid displays suicidality, and how to get kids to do what you need them to do without slamming them into walls or dousing them with pepper spray, have indeed received the proper training.
Therefore to fill the AB109 positions by raiding the staffs of the already woefully understaffed camps (which are still under federal oversight), and then, in turn, fill the suddenly vacant camp positions by promoting other less-experienced staffers from the juvenile halls or elsewhere, and back fill those positions with…still less experienced recruits-….Let’s just say it’s a really, really un-swell plan.
Chief Jerry Powers basically said as much in the Supervisor’s meeting of January 22.
Powers also mentioned that there would be advantages to hiring at least some qualified people from the outside who were already experienced with the AB109 population—like, say, the parole officers who were being laid off due to cutbacks at the state level.
“We’re going to have to work with our labor friends on a work-around, frankly, to be able to accelerate filling some of these positions,” said Powers.
It would understate matters in the extreme to say that the heads of the four probation unions were not terribly enthusiastic about Power’s “work-around” thingy—particularly Ralph Miller, the president of the biggest, baddest of the four fraternal organizations, Local 685, the LA County Probation Officers Union.
“A PUBLIC SAFETY CRISIS”
To express their displeasure, the unions struck back with a furious and more-than-just-vaguely threatening letter addressed to the Supes (which WitnessLA has obtained) in which they accused Powers of “creating a public safety crisis—perhaps intentionally to try to circumvent our labor contracts—by failing to properly staff the critical AB109 program...” They also said that, due to Powers’ actions, they feared that one day a little girl was going to be killed by one of the evil and violent AB109 probationers—or words to that effect.
(To be clear, at the Supers meeting on February 22, it was Gloria Molina who first advanced the vision of the imaginary little girl who was going to be killed because of realignment, but the union energetically embraced the idea in their letter.)
The letter closed with a threat that Powers needed to either get with the program…or else.
(I’m paraphrasing, of course. You can read the letter yourself here: Union Board Letter)
Since the unions had a great deal to do with getting rid of the last probation chief, Donald Blevins, the threat had teeth.
The clear implication of the letter was: we’re not pushing for you to be fired….YET.
This week, Chief Powers shot back with his own seven-page letter to the supervisors-(which WLA has also obtained).
Powers called the unions’ allegations that he’d perhaps intentionally “created a public safety crisis” to try to get around the labor conflicts…” reprehensible, and called the union out on “personal attacks and threats.”
“The letter is long on hyperbole and short on solutions,” Powers wrote, “other than confirming that the unions want to do business the way they always have. It has been successful for the union and apparently, in their view, it must mean it is successful for the department…..”
He would continue to work with the union, Powers said, but as probation chief, he must address “the broader picture of departmental operations as they related not only to my employees, but to those under our responsibility, and to the safety of our communities….”
There’s much, much more, but that last is the heart of the matter. While LA County Probation has many good, devoted and capable employees, they also have truly lousy ones, people who should never in a million years be working with kids.
At least two administrations in a row—maybe more—did nothing about this toxic mess. Powers, while not perfect (and frankly less visionary in his outlook than we would like), seems determined to clean up the place and make it functional, so it can serve the needs of the people it’s supposed to serve—not merely the desires of the unions.
Let us hope the board of supervisors supports him in this endeavor.
Then maybe the visionary-thing can come after.