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L.A. County probation workers elude punishment for misdeeds

Lack of staff to administer discipline is blamed in 170 cases, half of which involve youths. Most of the employees remain on the job; it's unclear if they will ever be punished.

March 03, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard Winton

At least 170 Los Angeles County Probation Department employees have committed misconduct -- including cases of excessive force and abuse -- but have so far escaped punishment because there is not enough staff to mete out discipline, officials said Tuesday.

"We have too many cases and not enough staff," interim chief Cal Remington said in an interview with The Times. "I'm not happy with the time it takes to complete an investigation and determine the discipline."

Department investigations have concluded that the employees committed misconduct and should face discipline ranging from written reprimands to terminations, Remington said. Of the 170 employees, most are sworn officers and about half the cases involved allegations of abuse of juvenile probationers. Most of the employees remain on the job, and it was unclear if they ultimately would be punished.

Remington said he was also concerned about 112 pending misconduct investigations, some of which have been languishing unresolved for months. Of those cases, 51 involve employees who have been accused of abusing youths who are on probation, department officials said. Many of those investigations involved complaints of excessive force.

The disclosures come after a Times story revealed that juvenile probation officers in recent years have been convicted of crimes or disciplined for inappropriate conduct involving current or former probationers, including several cases of officers molesting or beating youths in their care.

"There was a failure to implement discipline across the board," county Supervisor Mike Antonovich said Tuesday as the Board of Supervisors ordered an independent review of the agency's discipline and internal affairs operations. "It was a breakdown in the process of investigations."

The department, with an annual budget of about $700 million, has been the subject of federal investigations in recent years for failing to prevent, report and document child abuse in its juvenile facilities. The department is responsible for protecting 3,000 youths in 21 halls and camps, one of the nation's largest juvenile justice systems.

The agency currently has 14 investigators to review hundreds of complaints leveled against 6,200 employees each year, including about 4,400 sworn officers, two-thirds of whom work with youths.

Several of the investigators were assigned to those positions in recent weeks, officials said. (By contrast, the Los Angeles Police Department has 271 internal affairs investigators for 9,900 sworn officers.)

When an allegation of misconduct is made against a probation employee, the case is assigned to an investigator. If the probe finds wrongdoing, the case is sent to a special unit to determine the level of discipline and carry it out.

Remington said the special unit is struggling to administer discipline in new cases while also defending dozens of older cases that accused employees have appealed to the Civil Service Commission. All of the 170 misconduct investigations occurred within the last year, officials said.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the department needs to make eliminating the backlog a top priority. He said he is concerned about the possibility that probation officials who mistreated juvenile offenders are still working at county facilities simply because officials cannot administer punishment.

"We need to get very, very busy disposing of these cases," he said.

In an article two weeks ago, The Times identified 11 cases of serious misconduct by probation officers working with juveniles.

In one case, a detention officer was convicted of having sex with three youths in the juvenile hall where she worked. She was sentenced last year to four years in prison after pleading guilty to five counts of felony sexual abuse.

In another case, a detention officer was sentenced to a year in jail last year for directing five teenagers under her care to beat another youngster who she mistakenly believed had stolen her cellphone.

The Times identified the cases through court documents, law enforcement records and department sources. Probation officials said they were prohibited by law from discussing the details of officers' misconduct.

The newspaper examined records from the last four years -- a period during which county officials hired Robert Taylor to head the agency with the mandate of reforming the department, including providing better oversight of officers.

At the time Taylor took over, the department was struggling with violence in its halls and camps and persistent criticism that it was doing little to help the juvenile offenders in its care.

Taylor retired last month. He defended his tenure, saying he tried to be proactive in rooting out employees who misbehaved. Remington, who was appointed interim chief, said he was in the midst of assessing the department's discipline system before newly appointed director Donald Blevins takes over April 19.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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