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Camp Holton probation officers won't be charged

An investigation into alleged abuse at the San Fernando facility closes.

December 29, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County prosecutors announced Friday that they would not file charges against two probation officers who were accused of kicking, slapping and verbally abusing several teenagers serving time at a San Fernando Valley probation camp.

The decision brings to a close the criminal portion of an investigation into alleged abuses by a group of six officers and one supervisor at Camp Karl Holton in San Fernando, although the employees will likely face internal discipline.

L.A. County Probation Department officials had reassigned the six officers this spring after the allegations of mistreatment. The minors alleged that officers had struck them on the back of the head and legs, belittled them and threatened additional criminal sanctions against them, according to county Chief Probation Officer Robert Taylor.

He described the behavior as an "inappropriate use of power."

The county Sheriff's Department investigated the claims and issued its findings to prosecutors in August. Sheriff's investigators had identified three deputy probation officers whom they suspected of physically abusing three minors, one 15 and two 16, during two incidents in March.

The district attorney's review of the case included allegations by two teenage boys that officers grabbed one minor by the throat and held him to the ground and took another into a closed room where, out of view, he was punched. However, the review concluded that the evidence was insufficient to prosecute deputy probation officers Albert Banuelos and Shadfar Barkordar.

With respect to the alleged throat-grabbing incident, the report states, "There are no independent witnesses and there is no physical evidence that the alleged assault took place, or that if it did, it was not a reasonable use of force under the circumstances." The alleged punching incident was undermined by a witness' differing accounts and inconclusive video evidence, the report said.

"It is rare that we get cases from probation camps," said Sgt. Dan Scott of the Sheriff's Department's special victims unit.

Taylor said minors in county custody remain safe.

"We're there to provide treatment to these minors; we're not there to punish them," he said.

One youth who had been locked up at Holton for about two months complained that officers seriously injured his arm even as he tried to comply with their commands.

"All I could do is try and take it until I couldn't take it no more," said a 17-year-old former Holton resident. The youth, whose name is not being published because he is a juvenile, described an incident one day last December when probation officers allegedly twisted his arm behind his back and smashed his face into a wall at the facility.

The juvenile, who was not one of the complainants in the district attorney's investigation, has since been released from county custody and agreed to talk to a Los Angeles Times reporter about his experiences at Holton.

An official Probation Department summary of the December incident describes the youth as being "very angry" and attempting to physically resist the officers, at which point they pushed him to the ground. But affidavits written by other Holton youths who witnessed the confrontation described the teen as following officers' instructions.

About 60 employees work at Camp Holton, including 50 who deal directly with adolescents.

The county's three juvenile halls and 19 probation camps, which house about 4,000 teens, have been the subject of Justice Department scrutiny in recent years, as federal officials work to impose reforms to improve conditions for youths there.

Justice Department investigators visited Holton in March to evaluate it and found alcohol in an employee's locker, Taylor said.

But because the contraband was discovered when the officer was not present -- a violation of rights that protect peace officers -- the Probation Department could not pursue criminal charges, Taylor said.

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susannah.rosenblatt@ latimes.com

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