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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Making a Difference : Probation Officer Brad Carson Pushes Job Training to Deter Crime in Oakwood

March 02, 1995|ADRIAN MAHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A trip to a Venice gymnasium two years ago changed Brad Carson's mind about his job as a county probation officer.

Entering the Oakwood Recreation Center, where he often played basketball in an effort to connect with local probationers, someone whacked him over the head.

Some angry words followed. And Carson, who was often viewed suspiciously because of his ties to law enforcement, found himself the target of a torrent of charges from the local youths in the gym.

He didn't give a damn about the community, they said. He only wanted to send people to prison. He was, they said, a sellout. A traitor to his race.

"I came home that night and didn't sleep at all," said Carson, who until that moment thought he was making a difference. "I really thought about quitting."

But Carson, whose easygoing demeanor masks an intense drive, didn't quit. Since that spring day in 1993, the 36-year-old native of Los Angeles has worked tirelessly to bring jobs to Oakwood, a gritty community of about 10,000 residents in barely a square mile area, as a means of fighting crime.

He also helped broker a truce between black and Latino gang members, whose spree of attacks and counterattacks in a nine-month period last year left 17 dead and 55 wounded, many of them bystanders.

And what he has accomplished, with so much more on his agenda, has been realized because Carson has decided to make a difference. His efforts recall an earlier era, when probation officers faced trouble head-on. An era when they acted much like social workers not law enforcement officers, meeting face-to-face with lawbreakers rather than handling their job--like many distant bureaucrats--by phone or even by mail.

Carson is not inclined to trumpet his accomplishments. He doesn't like publicity, preferring to work behind the scenes.

But others say he has been pivotal in bringing some quiet to Oakwood.

"He has gone beyond what a law enforcement officer does, by his own volition," said Jim Bickhart,a member of the Oakwood United community group that has assisted Carson's job-creation efforts. "He recognizes that you have to go beyond just punishment and keeping tabs on lawbreakers. You have to create and identify opportunities to keep them out of trouble."

Over three years, Carson, along with a handful of community activists, has helped create dozens of jobs--in fields such as construction and ceramic crafts--in the Oakwood area, many of them going to people on probation. His efforts contrast sharply with a prevailing public view that strict punishment is the answer to crime.

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As a youth, Carson stayed out of trouble by playing basketball. After graduating from Westchester High School in 1976, where he starred on the varsity team, Carson went to UC Irvine on a scholarship. In his junior year he switched to Cal State Fullerton but didn't play because he transferred too late. He then switched to Southern California College in Costa Mesa, a private Christian school, where he graduated with a B.A. in psychology in 1982.

A willful man who doesn't like to lose, Carson pursued his hoop dreams with a short stint in an American pro-am league. He then toured the country with a comedy basketball team called the Magicians. But cross-country travel in a van crammed with his teammates eventually took a toll. A tryout with the NBA's Houston Rockets in 1986 failed and Carson found himself looking for work.

His competitive energies soon found a challenge in law enforcement.

When Carson was hired in the Santa Monica office of the Los Angeles County Probation Department in 1987, he joined an organization in upheaval.

Cuts in the department's budget in the early 1980s, dictated by the tax cap measure Proposition 13, devasted the work force. Caseloads doubled from 150 to 300 per probation officer. The department reverted to an Orwellian probation system called "Automated Minimal Service," that discouraged personal interaction and relied on contact with probationers through the mail. Only the most serious lawbreakers were personally supervised.

In 1980, authorities say, there were 30,000 gang members in Los Angeles County. Today there are more than 140,000 in 1,144 gangs, said Sgt. Richard Davidson of the Sheriff's Department's Safe Street Gang Bureau. And last year alone, those gangs were responsible for 779 slayings, Davidson said.

The state's prison population has risen five-fold in the last 15 years, from roughly 25,000 in 1980 to about 125,000 now. And with that prison population boom has come a staggering price tag--corrections officials say building each maximum security prison cell costs $107,000.

"As we've lost resources, we've stopped doing delinquency prevention, and it's not a coincidence that we've seen an explosive growth in drugs and gangs," said Barry Nidorf, the county's chief probation officer. "Punishment without services is useless, just as services without sanctions will never be effective. We're now going all punishment--a trail that is doomed to failure."

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