Advertisement

THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Part Dad . . . Part Cop . . .All Business

Robbie Robinson doesn't hesitate sending teen offenders to jail--or offering a shoulder. Putting them back on the right track isn't easy, but he knows where they're coming from: He could have been one of them.

July 14, 1996|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She is 16, pregnant and fears for her life.

She tells her story haltingly: Gang members are threatening her because they believe she ratted on one of their own who's now jailed for rape. She's no longer in school, too scared to leave home.

Only instead of telling the police, she's telling her former probation officer, Robbie Robinson.

And he is pacing her steamy living room, furious that a band of street hoodlums could force a family to hide in this tiny San Fernando Valley apartment.

"I will help you, sweetheart," he says. "I will help you."

It's a brief encounter, but it sets off a week of activity for Robinson. At breakneck speed, the full-time Los Angeles County deputy probation officer (and part-time Hollywood stuntman) works this case, meeting gang members in jail and at home, talking with attorneys, police, parents and counselors.

He moves, talks, even drives fast, spending more time on the streets, his bosses say, than any other probation officer in the Valley's gang unit, memorizing faces and cases without taking a note.

Most of all, Robinson cuts through that angry, straight-ahead stare of youth. Time and again tough-edged gang members buckle. He comes on strong but seems to know instinctively when to back off.

With one teenager at Juvenile Hall: "You owe me, boy, you hear? You'd better straighten up or you're going to [juvenile probation] camp."

With a second: "I know the influence you have on the street. I know you intimidate people, and I just can't let this go on."

And with a third: "I'm going to give you another chance, son. I'm going to let you go home, but I'm going to check on you and I'm going to keep making sure you don't mess up again."

Perhaps his success comes from understanding these troubled teens in a way his peers cannot.

He too was raised in poverty, lacking role models and a solid support system. His mother, too young for the responsibilities of parenthood, left him in the hospital the day he was born. He was raised in a foster family, separated from his seven brothers and sisters.

Robinson says he easily could have been lured by the street--all around him were the influences of drugs and crime. Instead, he sought refuge in a recreation hall in northwest Washington, D.C., where for years he took martial arts classes.

Today he thrives on the rush of adrenaline--and the attention. He is a judge one minute, parent and soul mate the next.

He plays soft and nice with a teenager, then threatens him with jail. He charms a gang member's mother into believing that yes, jail is the best place for her son. A young boy thanks him after being arrested.

After Robinson says he will help the frightened girl huddled on her living room couch, her eyes fill with tears: "I'm thankful God sent him to me. He's out there to protect me."

His bosses, too, gush.

Sure, he doesn't always submit perfect reports but, hey, it's Robbie and they don't have many like him. No other probation officer from the San Fernando Valley's specialized gang unit volunteers to handle as many cases. No other puts in as much time on the weekends and at night, visiting gang members at home and cruising the streets of Van Nuys, North Hills and Panorama City.

Robinson, 43, is also versed in a variety of languages--gang slang, cop talk, bureaucratese and some Spanish.

"God's gifted him with tremendous talents," says his boss, Bill Hanks. "The kids are captivated by him and they know he really cares. He'll give them breaks . . . but he'll also lock them up. I think they really respect him--we do."

*

And that's just half the story.

He's also a stuntman, using precious vacation time to appear in more than two dozen films. Since he began working in films 11 years ago, he's worked with some of the top stars in Hollywood. His latest--"Courage Under Fire" starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan--opened Friday.

After years of martial arts training, his forte remains karate and fighting. He's chosen for films that require fighting, boxing, stair falls and jumping. ("Hard, physical stuff," he says.) He puts in about four to six weeks a year on his Hollywood ambition.

He even stops during his work week to call agents, pick up copies of his demo tape--showing some of his best fighting and karate moves--and order new equipment from a Van Nuys stunt store.

But through it all, Robinson insists he would like nothing more than to work another two decades for the county and retire from the probation department. Then, in other conversations, he muses about becoming a famous actor or maybe retiring to Santa Barbara or the south of France to write books.

"I wouldn't trade this job for anything in the world," he says one day. Then, a couple hours later: "Maybe I'll go write my memoirs somewhere and become an author."

Can Robinson be hard to take? Sure. But do most people overlook his idiosyncrasies? Ditto.

His critics say he's on a power trip--perhaps enjoying too much the authority he's given. But in the next breath, they commend him for being passionate about his work.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|