On March 20, 2017, a Los Angeles County Probation supervisor allegedly physically assaulted a teenage boy inside the county’s Central Juvenile Hall, and three Detention Services Officers allegedly helped the supervisor cover up the beating.
On Friday, December 8, the supervisor—whose name is Norm Johnson, Jr.—along with the three DSOs, are scheduled to be terminated from their employment with the nation’s largest probation agency, according to an emailed notification sent by Probation Chief Terri McDonald on Thursday to the members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
In addition to the department’s internal investigation, the March 20 incident is reportedly under investigation by the District Attorney’s Office. Johnson’s actions are also reportedly being reviewed as a potential federal civil rights violation, according to McDonald’s letter.
Probation officials consider it likely that Johnson, who is allegedly the the person who actually physically harmed the teenage probationer, will be charged by the district attorney’s office. However, it is additionally possible that the three other employees who will be terminated Friday will also be charged by the DA. According to McDonald’s email to the board, these three are guilty of filing false reports to attempt to cover up the abuse.
Whatever the DA’s office decides to do, according to probation, following Johnshon’s notice of intent to discharge on Friday, he will be restricted from all probation properties for union activities.
It seems Johnson’s father, Norm Johnson, Sr, has long been an influential member of SEIU 721, the probation supervisors union. Now Johnson Jr. too has reportedly become influential with the union.
The alleged on-camera assault
WitnessLA originally learned about the alleged March 20 assault in August of this year when probation sources contacted us about an alarming incident that began after a tall, gangly teenage probationer in the XY Unit of Central Juvenile Hall said he didn’t want to go to school that day.
It seems that the boy, whom we’ll call Danny, had seen a so-called “enemy” in his class, and he was fearful of being in a fight. His solution was to avoid going to school at all.
According to our sources (who asked not to be named), when the kid said he wanted to stay in his room and skip class, Supervisor Johnson “laid hands on him.” It was at this point that a physical assault allegedly occurred that resulted in Danny screaming in pain about his arm being injured.
Our sources described how two staffers, reportedly friends of Johnson’s, took Danny to see the nurse, and allegedly tried to persuade him not to make a complaint about the incident.
They were not successful. The boy complained anyway.
Furthermore, there was a video of the incident. Plus there were three witnesses, Detention Service Officers Alejandro Ramirez, Jeffrey MacDuff, and Elizabeth Flores, who is presently out on maternity leave.
Amazingly, the witnesses, who were reportedly also quite visible on the video along with Johnson and Danny, either claimed they didn’t see what had occurred, or allegedly lied to back Johnson’s version of events.
Johnson had the personal cell phone numbers for two of the witnesses, according to our sources, and, after the incident, he reportedly called the two men and told them what they should and shouldn’t say on the post-incident reports they were required to write.
We also were told that the situation grew further problematic when Johnson’s father, Norm Johnson Sr., reportedly presented himself to one of more of the three witnesses to the incident, and suggested that he would be acting as their union rep for the matter.
The Pace of Change
“The overwhelming majority of our staff are hard working, committed public servants who take seriously their roles as youth advocates,” Chief Terri McDonald told WitnessLA via an email, when we inquired about the four staff terminations. “However, if and when we encounter situations where staff actions do not align with our collective values and expectations regarding treatment and protection of our clients, those staff will be held accountable,” she wrote.
“When staff engage in abuse, indifference, or failure to report abuse, they do not represent this organization or the thousands of hardworking and committed members of this team who hold themselves to the highest standards.”
In her communication with the supervisors, McDonald said she has received increasing reports of staff members declining orders to use force in situations when force was unnecessary, and other reports of staff acting to calm their colleagues when the colleagues got upset and might otherwise have used force when it was not needed.*
We asked a veteran source who also works at Central Juvenile Hall what kind of message, if any, the news of the terminations would send.
“I think it will have an effect,” our source said. “I think it will tell people that, ‘Listen, you can’t let people tell you what to say and what to write in these situations. You’ve got to do what’s right and tell the truth.'”
For a long time, continued the source, people like Norm Johnson “have been bullying people to say what they want them to say.” Whereas the new terminations, said the source, will help people to stand their ground and to say, “‘No, you can’t tell me to lie.'”
This is the fourth incident of probation staff allegedly physically assaulting the kids in their charge that WitnessLA has probed since we began our award-winning Beating Children series, which you can find here in WLA’s SERIES section.
* Correction – 12/8/2017, 10:25 a.m.- We initially wrongly suggested that Chief McDonald thinks that terminations raised morale. She did not say or suggest that at all. This was a mistaken interpretation on our part. It has since been corrected.