Jerry Powers

Jerry Powers, third from left, is chief probation officer. (Gary Friedman)

Los Angeles County probation officials have made substantial strides in reducing criminal misconduct committed by department employees, according to a report released Tuesday.

Officials said the improvement — with cases falling from 74 in 2011 to 32 last year — was the result of an expanded internal investigations team and the imposition of more stringent professional standards for the department's roughly 5,000 employees.

"We've come light-years from where we were to where we are today," probation Chief Jerry Powers said.

The probation officers' union disputed Powers' assessment of the reasons behind the decrease.

"It's cyclical," said Ralph Miller, president of the county probation officers' union. "So taking credit for reducing the number of people arrested … it's almost like taking credit for the sun rising and setting every day."

The department's officers supervise criminals upon their release from jail or prison, or those who are sentenced to probation. And they run the county's juvenile camps and halls.

In 2011, 74 probation officers and other department staff were arrested on charges including driving under the influence, theft and assault.

The following year, the figure dropped to 44, but included some high-profile cases, such as a probation officer arrested on charges of filing fraudulent workers' compensation claims. Two weeks after that incident, Carl Edward Washington, a division chief of intergovernmental relations and a former state legislator, was arrested on federal charges of defrauding banks by falsely claiming to be a victim of identity theft.

Most arrests were for off-the-job conduct. As in previous years, the greatest number of those arrested in 2013 — 15 — were for driving under the influence.

In recent months, the department has been praised by the county Board of Supervisors for implementing stricter hiring standards, including requiring a polygraph test and conducting more extensive background investigations of applicants.

But the probation officers' union has complained that the new standards are unrealistic and that the slow pace of hiring is jeopardizing public safety. More than 1,000 of the department's 6,600 budgeted positions remain vacant just as county workers are being asked to track more former inmates because of the state's prison realignment program.

In a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors last week, unions representing probation employees asserted that Powers had "seriously mismanaged the hiring and promotional process, resulting in a grave public safety crisis."

abby.sewell@latimes.com