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L.A. County probation chief announces plan to retire

Robert Taylor defends his legacy in leading the troubled department and says his departure will probably come early next year.

May 27, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Los Angeles County Probation Chief Robert Taylor, charged with overhauling a troubled department amid repeated federal investigations and criticism from children's advocates, has announced plans to retire early next year.

Taylor, 66, was appointed probation chief three years ago, after then-Chief Paul Higa had a fatal stroke. At the time, Taylor was serving as county ombudsman and told supervisors that he would probably stay until at least 2010 so he could complete 50 years of government service.

Taylor defended his legacy Tuesday, saying that he revamped department training, human resources, technology and internal affairs. He led a committee that redesigned the education plan for youth in county detention and said he shifted 500 youths from detention into less restrictive community supervision.

"I think we've accomplished more in the past three years than we have in the past decade," Taylor said. "Within probation, we've gone through a major cultural shift from a custodial setting to a treatment-oriented setting."

Before he came to work for the county, Taylor served as deputy chief of public safety at USC for nine years and with the Los Angeles Police Department for 29 years. Before joining the police, he served about four years in the U.S. Army.

Taylor, who has two grown children and three grandsons, announced his retirement plans in an e-mail to staff Saturday, saying he wanted to "alleviate any anxiousness" and address rumors about his retirement that circulated after the department's chief deputy, Dave Davies, announced plans to retire next month.

"I know that this may generate anxiety with some members of the department; others may feel a sense of relief," Taylor wrote of his retirement. "A department is not about its chief, it is about the successful pursuit of its mission."

Taylor drew criticism from children's advocates earlier this year after he admitted that the department had mistakenly billed guardians, including foster parents, for the time youths were held in county detention. He later announced a moratorium on such billing, and county supervisors appointed a panel to study the issue and report back this summer.

Kim McGill of the Inglewood-based Youth Justice Coalition served with Taylor on the committee that redesigned probation education and said he had done little to fix the troubled department.

"We've talked a lot to mid-management at Probation, to recent retirees, probationers and their families, and we have yet to find anyone who agrees with him. In fact, what we find is people say he's made things worse," McGill said, adding, "I hope that the Board of Supervisors really takes the community consideration into account in choosing a new chief."

Taylor said the search for his replacement will start within a month and will probably last about six months, after which he will stay on for a few weeks "to help the new chief with a transition period."

Taylor's successor will face the tough task of supervising the largest probation department in the country, including about 6,200 staff members, 60,000 adult probationers and 20,000 youths (including about 3,600 in county-run detention halls and camps). The department has an annual budget this year of about $720 million but faces millions of dollars in cutbacks under proposed county and state budgets.

The county's 22 juvenile halls and camps are being monitored by federal officials after repeated investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice revealed widespread problems with safety, staff training and medical treatment, among other things. Taylor said that he has made most of the improvements required at the halls and that the department will have made about a third of the improvements at the camps by the time he retires.

The county has had trouble recently filling the top position in several departments. William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, said he has begun searching for a planning director, is interviewing final candidates for human resources director and is "real close" to hiring a health services director.

County leaders, including Supervisor Don Knabe, said that the search for Taylor's replacement will almost certainly be national but that out-of-state candidates may be hesitant to accept the job given the statewide budget crisis.

"I don't have any problem going outside the county family," Knabe said. "The biggest problem of recruiting right now is the budget situation."

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molly.hennessy-fiske @latimes.com

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