WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Making a Difference : Probation Officer Brad Carson Pushes Job Training to Deter Crime in Oakwood

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A trip to a Venice gymnasium two years ago changed Brad Carson's mind about his job as a county probation officer.

Entering the Oakwood Recreation Center, where he often played basketball in an effort to connect with local probationers, someone whacked him over the head.

Some angry words followed. And Carson, who was often viewed suspiciously because of his ties to law enforcement, found himself the target of a torrent of charges from the local youths in the gym.

He didn't give a damn about the community, they said. He only wanted to send people to prison. He was, they said, a sellout. A traitor to his race.

"I came home that night and didn't sleep at all," said Carson, who until that moment thought he was making a difference. "I really thought about quitting."

But Carson, whose easygoing demeanor masks an intense drive, didn't quit. Since that spring day in 1993, the 36-year-old native of Los Angeles has worked tirelessly to bring jobs to Oakwood, a gritty community of about 10,000 residents in barely a square mile area, as a means of fighting crime.

He also helped broker a truce between black and Latino gang members, whose spree of attacks and counterattacks in a nine-month period last year left 17 dead and 55 wounded, many of them bystanders.

And what he has accomplished, with so much more on his agenda, has been realized because Carson has decided to make a difference. His efforts recall an earlier era, when probation officers faced trouble head-on. An era when they acted much like social workers not law enforcement officers, meeting face-to-face with lawbreakers rather than handling their job--like many distant bureaucrats--by phone or even by mail.

Carson is not inclined to trumpet his accomplishments. He doesn't like publicity, preferring to work behind the scenes.

But others say he has been pivotal in bringing some quiet to Oakwood.

"He has gone beyond what a law enforcement officer does, by his own volition," said Jim Bickhart,a member of the Oakwood United community group that has assisted Carson's job-creation efforts. "He recognizes that you have to go beyond just punishment and keeping tabs on lawbreakers. You have to create and identify opportunities to keep them out of trouble."

Over three years, Carson, along with a handful of community activists, has helped create dozens of jobs--in fields such as construction and ceramic crafts--in the Oakwood area, many of them going to people on probation. His efforts contrast sharply with a prevailing public view that strict punishment is the answer to crime.

*

As a youth, Carson stayed out of trouble by playing basketball. After graduating from Westchester High School in 1976, where he starred on the varsity team, Carson went to UC Irvine on a scholarship. In his junior year he switched to Cal State Fullerton but didn't play because he transferred too late. He then switched to Southern California College in Costa Mesa, a private Christian school, where he graduated with a B.A. in psychology in 1982.

A willful man who doesn't like to lose, Carson pursued his hoop dreams with a short stint in an American pro-am league. He then toured the country with a comedy basketball team called the Magicians. But cross-country travel in a van crammed with his teammates eventually took a toll. A tryout with the NBA's Houston Rockets in 1986 failed and Carson found himself looking for work.

His competitive energies soon found a challenge in law enforcement.

When Carson was hired in the Santa Monica office of the Los Angeles County Probation Department in 1987, he joined an organization in upheaval.

Cuts in the department's budget in the early 1980s, dictated by the tax cap measure Proposition 13, devasted the work force. Caseloads doubled from 150 to 300 per probation officer. The department reverted to an Orwellian probation system called "Automated Minimal Service," that discouraged personal interaction and relied on contact with probationers through the mail. Only the most serious lawbreakers were personally supervised.

In 1980, authorities say, there were 30,000 gang members in Los Angeles County. Today there are more than 140,000 in 1,144 gangs, said Sgt. Richard Davidson of the Sheriff's Department's Safe Street Gang Bureau. And last year alone, those gangs were responsible for 779 slayings, Davidson said.

The state's prison population has risen five-fold in the last 15 years, from roughly 25,000 in 1980 to about 125,000 now. And with that prison population boom has come a staggering price tag--corrections officials say building each maximum security prison cell costs $107,000.

"As we've lost resources, we've stopped doing delinquency prevention, and it's not a coincidence that we've seen an explosive growth in drugs and gangs," said Barry Nidorf, the county's chief probation officer. "Punishment without services is useless, just as services without sanctions will never be effective. We're now going all punishment--a trail that is doomed to failure."

When Carson arrived at the probation department, he and another officer were put in charge of 2,500 cases. He held large orientation meetings for new inductees and tried to monitor thousands of cases through a constant barrage of computerized forms. Rarely was he able to visit a client's community.

He began to see madness in the methods.

"A small group of people were committing most of the crimes, and I began to see these cycles of repeat offenders," Carson said. "They would get out of jail with no skills and go back to the same environment with limited choices. I became convinced that jobs and education could be the impetus to break that cycle."

Twenty years ago, probation in Los Angeles County involved intense one-on-one supervision. It was a way for the courts to not only wield control over offenders but offer education and social services that might break the cycle of more expensive imprisonment. The premise was that criminals could be rehabilitated and redeemed. Failing that, there was always prison.

Today, probation remains a bargain: It costs $21,000 a year to keep lawbreakers in state prison, corrections officials say. Carson's program costs $2,000 annually per probationer, according to county administrators. And with both the number of prisoners and their incarceration costs soaring, some experts argue that a return to the days of hands-on probation should be considered.

Carson is among the believers.

After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Carson set out to lighten his caseload to provide more intense supervision of his charges. It was a mission granted by his superiors because of the intensity of Oakwood's problems.

With more free time for community work, and more personal supervision of his charges, Carson began to build a wide network of contacts in the community--police, politicians, activists, business leaders and gang members. On a typical day, as Carson makes the rounds in Oakwood, there is evidence everywhere of his hands-on style.

His first stop is a 9 a.m. community meeting at the Venice Library, where he and others get an update on the status of Westside Watersavers--a nonprofit organization that Carson helped set up last June. The group distributes low-flush toilets in association with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Metropolitan Water District. The group's offices, in Marina del Rey, employ about a dozen black and Latino at-risk youths from Oakwood.

After the Venice Library visit, Carson meets with Eleanor Sanchez, a deputy mayor for the city of Los Angeles, at a nearby cafe to discuss plans for a Pop Warner football league, a job training program and converting the current Venice Library into a community center. Urgently, he outlines a list of tasks that he hopes will make the case for additional city funding.

Once Carson reaches his car, he is stopped by a heavily tattooed O.G.--slang for a founding member of a gang, an original gangster--who asks Carson if he knows of any extra jobs in the area.

"I've got four to five guys and they want to work," says the O.G.

"I'm working on it and I'll see if we can put them on a waiting list," Carson says.

In a tightly woven community--one comprised of extended families and first cousins, one where everyone seems to know each other--Carson's gray four-wheel-drive truck quickly attracts attention. It is virtually a fixture in the neighborhood.

As Carson drives down Oakwood's tree-lined streets of quaint bungalows, knots of teen-agers on the sidewalk spring to attention as he arrives. It's usually a time for good-natured bantering.

"Hey, Carson, get the Feds out of your car," quips one youth, referring to a reporter and a photographer, both of whom are wearing mirrored sunglasses.

"Come up and visit me, I'm working this job," another youth tells Carson, pointing up the street to where he said he's employed. Carson nods and waves like an all-seeing uncle.

The next stop is a job-training program a few blocks away that began in January. Nine local youths are enrolled in the one-year project, earning minimum wage while they learn the skills needed to work in construction. Part of the program will include building a new 25-unit residential building.

"Remember, three unexcused absences and you're out of here," Carson says to the group.

In the early afternoon, he visits a new facility on Abbott Kinney Boulevard run by Franklin Mint, a manufacturer of fine ceramics. Carson got three of his probationers full-time jobs at the company last November. The group works on the shop floor, glazing, decorating and painting a new series of colorful plates.

"It's challenging, fun, enjoyable--it gives me something to wake up to in the morning," said one 21-year-old probationer, who earns about $6 an hour.

Thirty minutes later, Carson meets with Doug Gardner, project manager for the multibillion-dollar Playa Vista development near Marina del Rey, a mammoth construction enterprise set to begin next year. The project will eventually house 29,000 residents, serve as a workplace for 20,000 and include 5 million square feet of office space.

The endeavor could be Oakwood's best hope yet, a chance for dozens, if not hundreds, of construction and maintenance jobs that could span more than a decade. Prodded by Carson and other community leaders, as well as a city transportation clause that limits vehicle trips in the area, the project's parent company, Maguire Thomas Partners, has committed itself to hiring some of the neighborhood's at-risk youths.

"In spending time with (Carson), I've come to believe that many gang members would rather work than not," Gardner said. "Employment is the key issue, and we are working on this upfront rather than at the end of the process."

Others, however, don't believe that low-paying jobs are the cure-all for a community that has had its share of intractable problems.

"There are many other problems that go beyond jobs, specifically the amount of money that can be made selling narcotics," said Los Angeles Police Detective Kevin Rogers, a gang specialist assigned to several Westside areas, including Oakwood.

Carson recognizes that most criminals cannot be treated with kid gloves. As many as 5%, he estimates, may be sociopaths who are beyond rehabilitation. But, after seven years of probation work, he believes that the majority of lawbreakers are capable of redemption.

"If you work hard for eight hours a day, you're too tired to commit crimes," he said.

*

Frustration, though, remains constant.

There is endless paperwork. Clients fail to show up for appointments and revert to bad habits. There are not enough jobs for a long list of people who want to work. And there is a high rate of offenders--Carson estimates about 90% of his cases--who are unable to successfully complete their probation.

But the last few years of effort are finally beginning to pay off, Carson said. More than 30 jobs for at-risk youth have been created--helping bring calm to the neighborhood. Crime rates have dropped. Hope has replaced despair. Employing 100 key individuals could seal a peace that would last for a long time, Carson said.

"Something is happening to this community, it's hard to measure, but we are having an impact," he said. "Before, people wouldn't even talk to me, now they're asking me for jobs."

Among those who seem to have been swayed by Carson's commitment is a youth who was Carson's chief antagonist in the gym confrontation but later helped broker the gang truce.

Still, never far from Carson's mind are the memories of last year's gang carnage.

At the height of the nine-month war, helicopters hovered overhead and police sirens rang through the streets. Children were traumatized after witnessing shootings. Some suffered from insomnia, depression and became overly anxious. Others had chronic headaches, insomnia and fatigue.

Bullets shattered windows and lodged in refrigerators. Families barricaded their homes with furniture and ate dinner while lying prone on the floor. For protection, babies were put to sleep in bathtubs. Local schools practiced drop drills on their playgrounds--it came in handy at one campus, where neighborhood gunfire erupted more than half a dozen times in the nine-month period.

Oakwood's residents, who live in one of the Westside's poorest census tracts, noticed a chilling apathy from those in wealthier surrounding communities. During one stage of the conflict, Tommy Stokes, recreational director of the Oakwood Recreation Center, sent out letters to 50 large businesses such as banks, supermarkets and restaurants, appealing for a $100 sponsorship for his little league baseball teams.

Not one dollar in donations came in.

Carson knows he is in a race against time and money. He has made commitments. People are in training programs and others are pressuring him for work. On the street, one's word means everything, and Carson feels he's earned his credibility. But money for projects is running short and he knows patience is finite.

"The people who made the peace are still on the corner with nothing to do," Carson said recently, driving through Oakwood. "We've got a short window of opportunity here to get them an employable skill, some training and an education. It's so much less expensive to do now versus the millions in police overtime and the cost of lives later.

It's the cheap way, it's the humane way, it's the moral way, it's the only way to go."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°