by Hans Liang, President, L.A. County Probation Officers Union
In this time of reimagining community safety and rehabilitation of those who break the law, there is considerable debate on the appropriate ongoing role of police officers, social workers, and mental health workers. These discussions are critical; however, they omit one spoke in the wheel – the probation officers who dutifully serve the community in the chasm among these three disciplines.
I have been a probation officer for 22 years. I come from the community, speak fluent Chinese, and understand the cultural dynamics of the special unit to which I am assigned, the Asian Gang Unit. I am not an anomaly. The L.A. County Probation Department is a diverse agency, with officers representing the multiculturalism of Los Angeles. We live in the community, we speak the language, and we know the lingo. Our clients and their families are our neighbors. We live next door. Our kids play hoops together. We go to church together. We want nothing more than to restore justice for our communities while keeping Angelenos safe.
So what is our role in the justice system? Probation officers are peace officers, sworn to enforce the court’s orders, and trained with evidence-based tools and techniques to assess needs, provide and continually refine a restorative justice plan, and de-escalate conflict. Whereas police officers are in the business of enforcing the law and are tactically prepared to apprehend and arrest people when that is required, we don’t chase after people. They come to us after the judge has given them the right to return to the community if they comply with certain rules.
Our charge, on a person-by-person basis, is to identify the individual’s needs, curate a plan of action, bring in resources to optimize success (e.g., social worker, mental health provider, drug treatment, safe housing, employment resources, etc.), and report progress to the court. And, if a juvenile or adult probationer has difficulty adhering to the terms of his or her probation, we are there to provide reconstructive enforcements to get him or her back on track with the full authority of the criminal justice system.
Los Angeles County has shifted the supervision of lower-risk juveniles from probation’s halls and camps to community organizations – leaving the most troubled youth in our care. Concurrently, the county has implemented revised versions of the policies that have historically provided us with the tools and tactics necessary to keep juveniles, staff, and treatment providers safe. And, there have been some highly publicized incidents that have caused the public to question our work.
We recognize this is a time of change, and we believe that challenging preconceptions is healthy for both individuals and public institutions. For the past year, we have been collaborating closely with the Board of Supervisors and with Probation Chief Ray Leyva, as well as with community and faith-based organizations, to refine and adjust our practices to keep all stakeholders safe while enforcing the court’s orders.
At the same time, as probation officers, we understand and appreciate our role in the teamwork that is working to restore justice to our communities. With this in mind, our local, state, and federal leaders would be wise to build out the middle of the system – occupied by the probation officers who routinely and effectively bridge the divide between the courts, law enforcement, social work, mental health, and the myriad of private, community, and faith-based organizations that are vital to restorative justice work. We are uniquely trained and deputized to pair the compassion that allows us to rehabilitate with our knowledge of the community and the authority to enforce the court’s orders to help rebuild lives while we keep Angelenos safe.
We are ready to reimagine. Let’s embark on this conversation together.
Author Hans Liang is President of the Los Angeles County Probation Officers Union, AFSCME Local 685, representing 3,400 Probation Officers, Detention Services Officers, Group Supervisors, Transportation Deputies, and Workers, and Pre-Trial Investigators. He also serves as the Mayor of the City of Monterey Park, California.
We are very happy to have President Hans Liang’s voice in WitnessLA, and we welcome other voices who wish to contribute to the conversation.
Communication is a good thing.
The top photo shows probation staff helping clients and their families who are in need — in many cases, due to COVID-related stresses — by delivering groceries. Photo courtesy of @LACProbation Twitter.