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Probation officers clash with chief over monitoring ex-inmates

Los Angeles County probation officers are at loggerheads with their chief over the way he wants them to monitor lower-level felons who have become the county’s responsibility as a result of state prison realignment.

The officers’ union is complaining that Chief Jerry Powers wants members to make unannounced visits to the homes of probationers, but without carrying weapons. Union leaders say that’s too dangerous and are threatening to sue.

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The issue is the latest in a series of snags in implementing AB 109, the realignment law that took effect in October 2011 to comply with a court order to relieve state prison overcrowding.

Under the rules, some lower-level felons — generally, those whose most recent offense is nonviolent and nonsexual — are now sentenced to county jail instead of prison, and those paroled from prison are supervised by the county rather than state officers.

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The Los Angeles County Probation Department oversees about 10,000 ex-state prisoners, although at any given time, 2,000 or so have fled from supervision. The department has hired 220 additional probation officers to handle those cases and is hiring an additional 143 — a process that the chief said was slowed by labor requirements to try to fill the positions internally but that the union said was slowed by the chief being too particular about whom he would promote.

Most of those officers are not permitted to carry arms. The department has 46 officers who carry guns and plans to eventually raise the number to 100, spokeswoman Carol Lin said.

The probation officers’ union cites a June incident in which a probation officer was grazed by a bullet and a Los Angeles Police Department officer was shot in the face while searching a house during a probation check in unincorporated South Los Angeles. A man hiding in the attic opened fire on them, marking the first time in the county department’s history that a probation officer had been shot on the job.

“We don’t want to go in to do an unannounced check and someone pops up with an AK-47,” said Sue Cline, second vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 685, which represents most probation officers. “What are we supposed to do, throw a BlackBerry at them?”

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The union sent a “cease and desist” letter to the department in response to a training memo in late July. Those instructions said that after conducting an initial visit to a felon’s home accompanied by an armed officer, probation officers would be required to periodically make unannounced visits. During those first visits, officers were to walk through and draw a diagram of the home, and if necessary, handcuff residents or make them leave until the work was done.

A second memo issued last week clarified that the home visits should not entail handcuffing residents or searching the home, but still said probation officers would be required to return for unannounced visits “regularly without armed assistance.” The mind-set during the visits should be “engaging rather than enforcing/intimating/confrontational,” the memo said.

In response to the union complaints, Probation Assistant Chief Margarita Perez announced that she would get fitted for a safety vest and begin making unaccompanied home visits herself. And at Tuesday’s weekly meeting of the county Board of Supervisors, Powers fired back at the union.

“Field supervision is a core component of being a deputy probation officer,” he said. “You’re a peace officer. You don’t get peace officer status to sit behind a desk…. We need to get out, we need to engage. We will have a better success rate with our offenders.”

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He said officers could always ask to be accompanied by one of the department’s armed officers or by an armed officer from another police agency — assuming someone was available.

In an interview, Powers said that in reviewing some of the high-profile crimes committed by AB 109 probationers after their release into county custody — including the recent fatal stabbing of a woman by a panhandler in Hollywood — the department found “missed opportunities” to connect with offenders before they committed a new crime.

Although the probation department is the lead agency in implementing realignment, other law enforcement agencies have been handling the bulk of so-called compliance checks, more invasive operations that may involve searching a parolee’s home for contraband such as weapons or drugs.

But that approach has occasionally created its own set of problems.

Some treatment programs and group homes for ex-offenders have complained repeatedly that the LAPD has conducted armed, SWAT-style compliance checks, often with several squad cars unaccompanied by a county probation officer.

A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a South Los Angeles home for women coming out of prison, brought up the issue publicly more than a year ago, and LAPD representatives attended community meetings to address the concerns, but A New Way of Life Executive Director Susan Burton said the practice has continued and even increased in recent months.

Burton said her residents have to comply with their probation or parole terms to stay at the home, and that the practice is disruptive to women who are trying to turn their lives around.

“The women have served their time in custody, and this is a time for rebuilding,” she said.

Resident Rasheena Buchanan, 30, said she was alarmed when an LAPD officer came to her room with a gun drawn at 7:30 a.m. during a compliance check in late June.

“That took me back to a place I really didn’t want to go. This was like my safe haven, and I felt like they violated that,” said Buchanan, who is on parole after serving 61/2 years for second-degree robbery.

Capt. Phil Tingirides of the LAPD’s Southeast Division said officers get a list of names and addresses of AB 109 offenders who are released, and have to check on all of them without the more in-depth knowledge of their background and risk levels that probation or parole officers would have. Given the officers’ limited knowledge and the violent situations that have erupted during some checks, he said, police have to treat all the ex-offenders as a potential threat.

“It just creates a very difficult situation for us,” he said. "…Trust me, we would prefer that [parole or probation officers] do it. It’s really not our thing. This is a community relations nightmare for us.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was present at one of the compliance checks last year at A New Way of Life, said the continuing complaints fed his concerns that monitoring offenders is not as well-coordinated as it could be.

“Probation made a big push to be on the front line in terms of AB 109, so if compliance checks are such a huge issue …who’s supposed to be responsible for making sure it’s being done correctly?” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. In a separate interview, he said, “Frankly, all of them are supposed to be working collaboratively to make sure AB 109 works. If productive programs are being disrupted, then AB 109 is not working as it should.”

abby.sewell@latimes.com


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