In an unexpected move, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has named former LASD undersheriff, Ray Leyva, as Interim Chief of LA County’s Probation Department, the largest such agency in the nation.
He is expected to take the reigns of the complex and problem-plagued agency in mid-January.
Although Leyva is being hired on an interim basis while the board searches for a permanent chief, the period during which he will likely serve is an unusually crucial time for the department.
On October 1, of this year, for example, the board voted to create a civilian oversight body that is expected to steer the department through the process of fundamental reform. The Probation Oversight Commission, or POC, will launch in 2020, and is designed to have subpoena power, via the Office of the Inspector General.
The birth of the POC is only one of a number of upcoming major changes for the agency that Leyva will soon lead.
Also, during the next year, the youth side of probation is slated to completely phase out the use of Oleoresin Capsicum, commonly called OC-spray, the commercial-grade pepper spray generally rated to be 1,000 times “hotter” than a jalapeño pepper.
Plus, in August of 2019, the supervisors passed a motion that asked for a serious exploration of the potential goal of yanking LA’s youth probation system away from probation altogether.
Furthermore, probation staff members who work with the kids in the county’s system have a long list of pressing complaints, which include the emergency flags they sent up during most of last year, saying that the two still-open juvenile halls are simply not safe for either staff or youth.
In other words, in the coming year, the job of interim chief is anything but a place holder.
Two weeks ago, on December 12, the members of the existing probation commission sent the members of the board of supervisors a strongly-worded letter urging the board to take their time in selecting a new permanent chief, so that they get this critical choice right.
“The selection of a Probation Chief must be a transparent process that includes the public and those impacted by the policies and the failures of the Probation Department,” the commissioners wrote.
The department, they wrote, “has endured changes in leadership seven times in the last ten years. With each change in leadership, confidence has been eroded.”
The letter pointed out that members of the department’s labor force “have been very vocal about poor working conditions and confusion in the implementation of policies and procedures.”
Thus said the commissioners, this department “deserves an individual who has the temperament, skills, and willingness” to remain probation’s leader for the long haul, “so that reforms can continue to be implemented.”
(You can read the rest of the probation commissioners’ letter here.)
Meanwhile, the department needs a strong, wise, capable interim chief to steer the agency. So is Ray Leyva that person?
The list of people who were considered for the interim position was reportedly quite diverse, including candidates from inside the probation department, and others from the outside. Some had lots of juvenile justice experience, while others, like Leyva, came from law enforcement and had little to no experience working in an agency that has kids in its care.
A few out of the eclectic group of potential candidates who were approached said thank you but no thanks.
But Leyva, according to those who know him, was genuinely intrigued—problems and all.
For those unfamiliar, Leyva has spent more than 40 years in law enforcement, 32 of those years in the LA County Sheriff’s Department. In 2016, he retired from the LASD as a commander. (Specifically, he took a medical retirement, due to back and wrist problems.)
Then in December of this year, Leyva agreed to come out of retirement when then-brand new sheriff, Alex Villanueva, whose campaign Leyva had strongly supported, was putting together his command staff and persuaded the highly respected former commander to serve as his undersheriff.
“He missed being in the game,” one of his friends told WitnessLA at the time. “And he hoped he could contribute as part of the team.”
Yet, three-and-a-half-months into his tenure, Villanueva abruptly shoved Leyva out of the position of undersheriff and out the LASD door altogether, reportedly after Leyva attempted to steer his boss away from choices he thought would ultimately cause Villanueva and the department problems.
(The official line was that the sheriff wanted a sworn officer in the position, and Leyva had come back as a civilian.)
So how will someone like Leyva, whose professional life has been spent solely in the field of law enforcement, fare in a complicated agency where, at the moment, most of the thorniest problems are located on the side of the department that deals with young people?
“I think he’ll do extremely well,” said a supervising youth detention officer now retired from probation, who described Leyva as a “straight shooter” who will seek out strong, talented people “for his team.”
Others we spoke to described Leyva as an unusually intelligent and level-headed leader who will also be skilled at dealing well with labor unions, and the kind of complex workforce that makes up LA County Probation.
Those familiar with Leyva’s career know that, in addition to the accomplishments listed on his CV, his years with the LA County Sheriff’s Department forced him to deal with more than the usual amount of venomous interdepartmental politics—especially during the reign of former sheriff Lee Baca and his once-feared second-in-command, Paul Tanaka.
Leyva was one of three captains that former LASD under-sheriff, now federal prison inmate, Tanaka, told others in the department that he would never under any circumstances promote.
In part, the problems with Tanaka reportedly began when, in 2003 Leyva attempted to institute a series of reforms at the then notoriously violent Men’s Central Jail, which at the time had a growing deputy gang problem, which had yet to become public. Tanaka, who had the unhelpful habit of reversing such reforms (as the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence would document nine years later), transferred Leyva out to a much lower-profile assignment. Subsequent to that, like others who found themselves crosswise with Tanaka, Leyva was reportedly repeatedly passed over for promotion in favor of men with far less experience and talent, but who were Tanaka proteges and loyalists.
Matters did not improve when Leyva ran for sheriff in 2006.
Yet, rather than ducking and covering, Leyva, along with another on Tanaka’s “never promote” list, successfully brought a lawsuit against the department alleging discrimination and unfair practices in its promotional system.
So what do these experiences add to the mix?
Most of those whom WLA spoke with say that Leyva came out of the LASD trenches battle-tested, but strongly optimistic about law enforcement and other forms of public service.
Leyva’s reputation in the world of Southern Californa law enforcement was reportedly helped by the fact that he rose to the top of various professional organizations with which he’s been involved. For instance, he was on the national board for the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA) and served as its national president. Leyva also served as president of the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association—and so on.
“Ray Leyva is an excellent choice,” said Brian Moriguchi, the longtime former president of the Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA), the supervisors union for the LA County Sheriffs Department. “I have known him for many years. He has the management skills, respect towards employees, and integrity necessary to lead a department during a difficult transition. He was a great undersheriff who tried to keep Sheriff Villanueva on an ethical path….It’s good to see the Board of Supervisors recognized his value.”
Leyva holds a master’s degree in Business Administration from Pepperdine University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from California State University, Los Angeles.
WitnessLA will have more on the new interim chief in the near future.