DO GOOD, AVOID EVIL
On Wednesday afternoon, the Chief of LA County Probation, Jerry Powers, sent out a short and pithy “Honesty Directive” to all of the department’s 6100 employees. It said, in essence that lying and stealing would not be tolerated.
Now, under ordinary circumstances, one would assume such strictures would be implicit. But inside the nation’s largest probation department matters are still not ordinary. Thus Powers found that, for a certain percentage of his staff, it was better to state this sort of thing outright.
Since he took over as head of the troubled department in December 2011, in addition to grappling with the new responsibilities brought on by AB 109, Powers has been focusing his reform efforts on some of the basics. He’s hired some fresh, new people at the top of his command staff, and has been cooperating with other law enforcement agencies to arrest law-breaking employees—totaling around 50 staff arrests, at last count. Most recently, Powers has gotten permission from the Board of Supervisors to hire some more Internal Affairs investigators and lawyers, to make sure that allegations of staff misconduct are investigated quickly and efficiently. (In past years, cases were allowed to languish uninvestigated, in frightening numbers.)
And now there’s the directive.
Here are its high points
“The mission of the Probation Department can only be carried out with the expectation of honesty from all employees at all levels….”
All dishonest acts committed during the course of employment will be considered a violation of this policy.
The following are some examples of some situations where, if an employee is dishonest, discipline may be warranted. (This list is not intended to be exhaustive.)
*Falsification of time records
*Written, oral, or electronic communications
*Responses to questions during investigations and or inquiries. Deliberate omission of relevant information will also be considered to be dishonesty
*Leave requests (abusing leave policies to obtain time off while not ill or injured)
*Pilfering department property for personal use (regardless of the value)
*Using departmental funds or equipment, such as vehicles, for unauthorized personal use.
The directive makes clear that failure to follow the aforementioned rules will result in discipline, including possibly termination.
And, just so there’s no misunderstanding, employees are going to be required to sign the thing in order to acknowledge that they’ve read it.
HONESTY, PART DEUX
This isn’t Powers’ first go round with the honesty issue.
In late November of last year, Powers sent out a message to all department members, this one in video form, explaining that the directive was coming and why:
“There appears to be a small fraction of our workforce that doesn’t feel that honesty is an essential trait of being a peace officer or working for a law enforcement agency,” Powers said in the video. “We’ve had too many instances where staff have filed fraudulent reports. They’ve been dishonest in reporting whether it’s use of force, time card fraud, workman’s comp issues. Please understand that honesty is at the core of what we do. If we’re not seen as an honest agency, if we’re not seen as an honest officer we can’t do the job that we’re required to do to keep these communities safe and the citizens safe.
THE RETURN OF THE LEMONS
After the directive was released on Wednesday, I spoke to Powers and asked him why such an obvious sounding set of instructions was needed. He laughed momentarily at the question—then turned serious.
“We found we hadn’t communicated very precisely on some of these issues.”
For instance, Powers said, it wasn’t clearly understood that, when someone made a verbal or written report on misbehavior by another employee, that one was obligated to be rigorously truthful. Staff tended to cover for one another.
“So what would happen,” he said, “is that we’d terminate an employee for wrongdoing, and our terminations would be overturned by the civil service commission because of inaccuracies on the part of the witnesses.”
So he was putting everyone on notice that, in the future, lying about one’s actions—or about the actions of a fellow employee—would not be tolerated.
Powers paused. “See, I don’t want to terminate a bad employee and then have to take them back because I haven’t communicated to everyone what our expectations are.”
He gave an example.
“A kid in our of our facilities will say, ‘A staff member beat me up.’ But then four staff members, three of them witnesses, will tell investigators that nothing happened, or that the kid was resistant and force was needed. But then when each of the four staffers are isolated, typically one will crack and say, ‘Here’s really what happened.'” And suddenly it becomes evident that the kid was telling the truth.
“But then the civil services panel will say, ‘Well, since the witnesses changed their stories, we don’t know which time they were telling the truth.’
“I understand we need that process when we’re talking about taking someone’s career away,” Powers said. “But honesty should be foremost in your activities. I want us to be seen as leaders in the field. But for that to happen, we need to be a more professional organization.”
The main union representing probation officers, AFSCME Local 685, was reportedly part of the process of hammering out the exact wording of the directive and, according to probation department spokesperson, Carol Lin, the union signed off on it.
However, when asked for a comment on the matter on Wednesday by KPCC’s Rina Palta, the union issued the following statement:
“The Department’s Honesty Directive is, almost entirely, a reiteration of existing policies and is more likely to generate employee complaints about management actions than net any new employee discipline,” the union said. “It is another example of current management that is overly focused on the small number of employees with conduct issues, while ignoring the overwhelming number of rank and file Probation Officers who work hard every day to provide vital probationary services and protect the public’s interests essentially without management’s assistance.”
One can certainly understand that the decent people in the department who are simply trying to do their jobs are tired of hearing about those who aren’t.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens when a ghastly amount of misconduct has, for years, been allowed to flourish inside a large public agency, as has been the case with LA County Probation. It’s rough on the good people.
Thus it would seem, simply from a practical perspective, that the union’s anger would be better served aimed at the probation employees who are still engaged in lying, stealing, kid-slugging, and so on, rather than at the guy who’s trying to put a stop to it.
HOUSECLEANING AND HIRING
Powers reiterated that, in order to build a good department, there will need to be some painful housecleaning—which will also include tightening up the hiring standards, including thorough background checks, when taking on new employees.
“There are tons of people in LA County with Master’s degrees who really want these jobs, because they genuinely want to do this work.” When probation next hires, they can cherry pick, he said.
“Look,” Powers said finally, “If everybody’s just honest and takes care of business, then we can have a great department. This is all just part of the process.”
Here’s a copy of the Honesty Directive if you want to read the text for yourself.