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Editorial

After the Baca scandal and beatings of juvenile hall inmates, county leaders face a moment of truth

Are Los Angeles County Supervisors finally going to get serious about curbing employee misconduct?

The question arises yet again after prosecutors charged Probation Department employees in beatings of juvenile hall wards. One of the accused appeared in court Wednesday, the same day that jurors convicted ex-Sheriff Lee Baca for orchestrating a scheme to block an FBI investigation — into the beating of inmates by deputies.

The county has a long and shameful history of abuse of people in their care or custody. Juvenile halls and probation camps are supposed to emphasize rehabilitation rather than punishment, but they nevertheless are jails, and the similarity between the beatings of adult jail inmates that characterized Baca’s tenure and the probation officers’ alleged use of force at the juvenile hall in Sylmar is unmistakable.

Especially after the county’s experience with cover-ups in the Sheriff’s Department, it is essential that evidence of abuse in the Probation Department or any other county office or agency be promptly exposed and investigated, and that proven misconduct result in discipline (and of course criminal charges, if warranted). That should be the approach in every county department, but especially those with sworn employees who have the power to exert force and enforce laws, and who therefore should be held to a higher standard of conduct.

One of the better moves by the flawed Baca toward the end of his tenure was to hire Terri McDonald, a career state prison official, to take charge of his jails. By the time McDonald left, serious use-of-force injuries had plummeted. Now McDonald is the county’s chief probation officer, and she has shown a welcome impatience with misconduct committed by her employees.

That kind of impatience is long past due at the Probation Department. Alongside the many deputy probation officers trying mightily to direct adult and juvenile offenders alike to more productive and law-abiding lives are recalcitrant employees who don’t report to work, irresponsible employees arrested for drunk driving and, at least in the recent past, abusive and even criminal employees who have had sex with wards, stage fights among them and steal from the county. Some probation officers claim that the department is beset by cronyism and personal loyalties that take precedence over professional conduct. The Sheriff’s Department under Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka again comes to mind.

The issue of lax employee discipline also brings to mind the Board of Supervisors and the strong union support that helped put each of its members in office. It is widely asserted that the liberal board is too beholden to labor to effectively discipline county workers. One case in point, arguably, was an agreement brokered last year between the probation officers union and the interim chief probation officer to allow steadier promotions for employees whose careers were stymied because of misconduct. The supervisors expressed surprise and outrage at the deal — but they don’t appear to have done anything to reverse it.

But they did hire McDonald.

And they did call for reform of the county’s civil service commission, which has often thwarted efforts by sheriffs, chief probation officers and others to impose discipline, including termination, for serious misconduct.

That reform effort has been slow and plodding, like much county business, but it does appear to be moving. The board is scheduled to take up two key elements Tuesday.

One may come across as rote and mundane, but it is crucial: It calls for new training for the hearing officers who form the first layer of discipline review. Without updated curriculum, these quasi-judges are applying decades-old methods and standards.

The second concerns the civil service commission’s authority to decide whether sworn officers should be fired when past conduct makes them no longer credible in court. This is the so-called Brady issue, after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires prosecutors to turn over any evidence favorable to the defense — such as a record that the law enforcement officer who made the arrest has a history of lying, evidence-tampering or excessive use of force.

A sheriff might choose to fire deputies who lose their value as credible witnesses. Sheriff Jim McDonnell is trying to give the district attorney the names of some 300 deputies with “Brady material” in their files but so far has been blocked in court by a lawsuit filed by the deputies’ union.

Each of the board motions may require some discussion and are subject to amendment, and are but two baby steps toward more responsible conduct by and oversight of county employees. But they move in the right direction. Labor unions will surely object. It is up to the Board of Supervisors to decide whether it will stand up to them, or roll over.

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