Columns, Op-Eds, & Interviews Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment LA County Probation

Op-Ed: 30-Year Veteran LA Probation Officer Says Department Reform Is Urgent—And Must Be Youth Focused

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Written by WLA Guest

Strong Civilian Oversight Needed to Transform LA’s Broken Probation System

by Eduardo Mundo

When the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday, February 19, to phase out pepper spray, several dozen probation officers cheered at the board hearing in support of an individual who called black and Latino youth “savages” who were deserving of the use of chemical spray. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl denounced their actions as she called for the vote, 5 to 0, in support of the motion’s passage.

Last year, I abruptly retired from the LA County Probation Department after 30 years of service as a Deputy Probation Officer and supervisor in the juvenile division. Like many of my colleagues, I joined the department to positively impact the lives of the youth and families probation serves. But after decades of trying to improve the department, I came to accept the fact that its consistent label by youth advocates and press as troubled, beleaguered, ineffective and even harmful, was a truth I saw each day from the inside.

These failures have prompted the board of supervisors to take the unprecedented step of voting to create the country’s only civilian oversight body over a probation department. As part of that work, the board has scheduled a special hearing for March 16, at Carson Civic Center to talk about the use of pepper spray in youth lock-ups.

Around the time of the board’s vote, the probation department shared questionable data with the LA Times, which some officers used to suggest that they are the actual victims, and that staff will be unsafe without the use of pepper spray due to a massive spike in assaults by youth. The Office of Inspector General issued a letter the next day to reject the integrity of that data, and the conclusions drawn from it. Meanwhile, legitimate data shows that unnecessary, abusive use of force and pepper spray by staff on minors has significantly spiked.

None of this surprises me. During my final three years with probation, I served as a supervisor assigned to the Intake Detention Control unit, responsible for determining the detention status of recently/newly arrested youth.

During my routine walks at all three of the department’s juvenile halls, I would listen to most staff demonstrate little understanding of their work and duty to care for the youth they supervised; worse, many harbored extremely negative views of the youth they oversaw as bad, undeserving, dangerous, and irredeemable. It was no different than my experience while assigned to Camp Scott. There were exceptions, of course. But most often staff were focused on punishment, flouting the words of court orders that entrust probation with the “care and custody” of youth. As difficult as it was to work in this toxic environment, it was more difficult to come to terms with the unresponsiveness of leadership.

Probation is not just “troubled” and “beleaguered” – it is broken and requires transformation. Aside from changing practices like hiring, training, promoting and assigning of staff, the department needs to extract itself from a self-preservation mode. Currently, the combined intake average for all juvenile halls totals about 400 per month, yet the department continues to staff the unit, and pay overtime, as it did in 2008 when the intake average was 1200 a month. In fact, the caseloads of probation officers across the board, including at schools and field offices, have fallen dramatically. For three years I attempted to have the Detention Bureau leadership address this misuse of tax payer funds. But I was told that if we cut back on jobs, we would never get them back.

In placing the interest of the minors, adult probationers and the community first and foremost, the department can and should voluntarily shrink and reduce its footprint in the system. By doing so, it would not only do a better job with a smaller population under its care, it would also free up resources to be used by other county agencies and community based organizations that focus on health, education and other essential supports for people.

The current efforts by the board of supervisors to create a Probation Oversight Commission with robust powers, including but not limited to subpoena power, is essential and I am committed to its long-term work to enable the success of—not deter—the department. I had the privilege to serve thousands of minors and their families while employed by the Los Angeles County Department of Probation. When I was hired on in 1988, the makeup and attitude of the department perfectly squared with the spirit of the juvenile code to care for its wards. My supervisor and training officers at Camp Holton clearly identified that my main responsibility was to assure the safety and security of the minors I supervised. This is no longer the case.


Eduardo Mundo was a probation officer for the Los Angeles County Probation Department for 30 years before retiring in 2018.

 


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14 Comments

  • SDPO Mundo’s comments are to be taken with a boulder of salt. An IDC supervisor spends almost all his/her time in an office adjacent to the courts, far from the working rank and file of the Juvenile Hall. In all my years in the Halls, I’ve never seen Mr. Mundo making any “routine walks” at Central or Sylmar, ever. I, on the other hand spent years in detention as an officer and supervisor. Most of the employees I’ve been proud to work alongside were dedicated to the welfare of youth and behaved accordingly. The few who made the papers for their abuse were fired, and rightfully so! No-one comes to this job to make bank and abuse children. There are so many people in Detention who give of their time and money to provide for our youth, and they will remain unsung, thanks to articles like this! Mr. Mundo’s evaluation of staffing is quite un-informed. Detention, owing to the need of providing one-to-one coverage of metal health minors, may need as many as twenty extra officers per shift. This accounts for forced hold-overs and rampant overtime. One thing we can both agree on, the Department lacks credible leadership and the training afforded our newer staff misses the mark.

    • Your problem is called Teri McDonald, aka Big Red. She literally destroyed the jails, and now it’s your turn, unfortunately. You can thank your board of supervisors for that one. They are so out of touch they still think she did a whizz bang job on her last assignment, just ask her.

      • Absolutely right. They have appointed Chiefs for years now that had no business at the helm. It’s the equivalent of seeing a dog at the controls of a plane. You’re shocked at the decision and know it’s going to end badly.

        Won’t happen of course but I’d love to see the self important clown that wrote this article and the Board members try and deal with someone that’s young, strong, mentally ill and having a bad hair day. I’d like to be a fly on the wall as they try to talk them down using the latest techniques and watch them react as it sinks in that their efforts to chat aren’t working. Maybe as they were getting the crap pounded out of them, they’d understand the need for a weapon of some sort to use to defend ourselves or someone else.

      • Absolute truth!! Can you take her back? She is hell bent on firing as many people as she can. No facts? No problem. Her mantra is “let them get their job back in Civil Service.” Horrible leadership.

  • You appear disheartened that life as a supervisor at the detention facilities you worked at in 2016 was not a 1988 style nirvana. Reality is that the demands placed on staff and the offender profile have changed a lot since those days. It is not surprising that you encountered staff that seemed confused and/or upset. Due to the working conditions and promotional opportunities, the turnover has been unending at the halls. That exhausts veteran staff and supervisors alike and impacts attitude and productivity. As a former DSB supervisor, you already should know all this but interestingly, didn’t include it.

    Before getting into more detail, a concern. In reviewing the tape of the Board of Supervisors meeting, are you referring to the meeting pfFebruary 19th? It appeared that unidentified people cheered to show support for retaining OC spray to protect the kids, themselves and other staff. No one would condone people of color being called savages. Let me add that with only two or three exceptions, the people from the Department that appeared before the Board to speak that day were all people of color. Your allegation is insulting.

    You describe the Probation Department’s data as inaccurate – although you were no longer employed when it was gathered and provided. How do you know it’s inaccurate?You appear to accept the OIG report as accurate and also reference to “legitimate data” that shows a rise in staff misuse of pepper spray. How did you reach the conclusion that data was accurate? You might be correct btw, I’d just like further detail in this area.

    It appears that there is much about the basis for staffing ratios and administrative processes that you have not experienced. Admissions to the halls have decreased but the offenders admitted are generally very serious. All it takes is one combative youth to tie up several staff at the same time and if there is a use of even the mildest form of force, next comes everyone completing all the paperwork. As the situation unfolds, other staff respond to back up unit staff and monitor those that are uninvolved. How could you discuss staffing levels in such a cut and dry manner and not incorporate the realities of the workplace? Similarly, caseloads in the field have decreased but casework expectations have increased commensurately. Did you ever supervise a juvenile unit in the field?

    In your good old days during the 1980’s, camp staff had the kids all day one day and they went to school all day the next. Remember? That time together allowed for the un-rushed completion of casework, sports events that were fun and furthered a positive atmosphere, special events, etc. As opposed to now, people had time with the kids and many staff started special clubs for the kids to enjoy. When the kids were at school, camp staff could compete casework and court reports during the day, as opposed to staying up to midnight to get that done before returning to the dorm early the following morning as they do now. I heard a colleague suggest returning to that schedule a few years ago to the then Acting Chief of the Department as it seemed to work better for the kids and staff. He replied that the Los Angeles County Department of Education would never allow it now. So, there is a lot about the custodial world that is not up to Probation – including something as basic as a schedule that locks everyone into what has widely been demonstrated as ineffective.

    In addition to the demands of the Department of Justice, the Department has had an endless stream of Chiefs that work to look nice for the Board – but fail to address the real issues. Basic living conditions for one – the open dorm model is ineffective, CMYC is about the most depressing place in the world in terms of design and the halls are falling apart. Sadly, it is always easier to blame the staff and hire a “Consultant” to conduct the latest round of mandatory training.

    These kids need help and a lot if it but there is NO rehabilitation unless people are safe. It seems that your career maybe ended on a less than positive note. If that’s the case, I am truly sorry but you would have done far more to help the kids you claim to care about if you had provided balanced information, advocated some workable changes and a viable alternative to OC spray to ensure everyone’s safety.

  • This come from a guy who was disliked by everyone he worked with. Egotistical, arrogant, and abrasive. I heard he went around the Pomona AO on his last days acting like a complete buffoon, whining and crying abut how f’ed up the Dept is. Now he writes this “piece” slamming the dept. he had no problem taking a paycheck from for thirty years!! Will he decline his pension too?? Be careful DPO’s the BOS will probably make him the next chief!

  • Probation, parole, policing, the courts and criminal justice have all changed in the past decade. We can all debate the reasons — advocates, unequal treatment, systemic deficiencies, unwarranted criticism, societal decline, etc. But the bottom line is that each arm of the criminal justice system must be open to positive change and implement new ways of serving the community. Yet, making officer and community safety the number one priority. Probation has missed the boat and the ship is sinking; has been for years. There are some good things occurring in the field offices. A shift has been made to addressing probationers individually, as opposed to “one size fits all.” Good stuff for those that truly desire to change their criminal behavior. But the media provides incessant criticism of our detention deficiencies. Frankly, it is well deserved. Camps and halls have spent years with unethical, lazy, horrible people at the helm. While we purport that we want change, how many director changes do you see? Especially in the halls. Most of them came up through the halls and got their positions based on nepotism/favoritism from an unethical bureau chief and his minions. They are ill-equipped and unable to transfer to the field (they will fail) and the field Bureau Chiefs know it; they don’t want them either. When an effort was made to bring in new directors/superintendents, those life-time hall directors made every effort to ensure that they failed. No change is wanted or will be allowed. It is horrible what they did to them. Ruined their careers on trumped up allegations. Sickening. Long time hall staff will never embrace change as long as their directors allow them to continue mediocre work and “business as usual.” And new, idealistic staff are quickly disillusioned when they realize that this is not what they signed up for. Without a doubt, we will continue to fail until the Department finally realizes that we cannot move forward until sweeping change is implemented in hall management.

  • We need to move past this idea that people only become evil when they’re an adult. Savages is an appropriate term, sorry libs.

  • Sir- prior to retiring, you were one of the most hated employee that every worked for this department. Why don’t you provide an opinion editorial on all the people you harassed, demoralized, and demeaned.
    You are a narcissist and an insensitive dirt bag of a human being. Please permanently retire and stop trying to take revenge on a department that is already in great tormoil from dealing with an incompetent head. From your 30-years of lousy service, I believe the county gave you a great retirement plan which I suggest you utilize it wisely, for the lifespan of a retired DPO is approximately 5-years after retirement.
    BTW- I’m being very respectful here because what I want to say about you I can’t without cursing you out.

  • For those of you know Mundo, he is a complete nutcase. Always critical of everyone and everything. Yet all those years he worked, he never took a stance for anyone or anything, especially those we were suppose to help. It’s unfortunate that those who read and listen to his comments believe his 5150 nonsense. I’ve got forty years in and am still fighting for those we are suppose to help and guide. The real problem is the chief, assistant chief and the Board of Supervisors who continue to bring in people who are suppose to be dynamic and have the answer to solve all the problems our department has. I must say, in all the years that I have served the community and the department, I have never seen it this bad. We can’t blame everything on Mental Health issues. Although it exist. It’s not the problem. I would venture to say that we are now trying to habilitate and guide the children who came from 1-2 generations of those we failed or could not change. Bottom line we are all responsible for what we are faced with today.

  • The Probation Department WAS a great department UNTIL Terri L McDonald. It is painful to see how the department is being ravaged by Terri. I don’t think the department can survive another year of TM!

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