LA County watchdog documents problems, progress at troubled Probation Department as feds mull takeover

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L.A.'s probation department fired 14 employees for serious misconduct last year, a number the county's Office of Independent Review said Wednesday is evidence that “great challenges” continue to face the agency responsible for thousands of juveniles caught in the criminal justice system.

“The reasons for the discharges ranged from lying about an improper use of force against a minor, to defrauding a federal loan program, to carrying on a cover relationship with a felon,” the OIR’s annual report said.

Investigations into misconduct often face hurdles, the report noted: “Uncooperative witnesses are common. Video evidence is rare. Medical evidence is sometimes missing.”

The report said off-duty behavior resulting in arrests “also continues to flourish.” It said police arrested 69 Probation Department employees in 2011, almost half for driving under the influence.

On a positive note, the report said probation has implemented almost all of the 34 recommendations made by the OIR in 2010. “The Department remains very receptive to OIR's proposed reforms,” said Deputy Chief Attorney Robert Miller.

The report is the first since the L.A. County Board of Supervisors asked the OIR to permanently assign two investigators to the Probation Department in 2010, amid allegations of excessive use of force at juvenile halls and probation camps. The report also arrives as a new probation chief assumes control of the department. In December, former Stanislaus County Probation Chief Jerry Powers took over.

Since 2008, the United States Justice Department has also been examining the Probation Department. In December, federal officials said the department had made “great strides” but failed to comply with more than a dozen reforms, including identifying and treating minors with mental health problems.

Federal officials have left open the possibility of seeking a court oversight of the department, similar to the oversight over the LAPD ordered by a judge in the wake of the Rodney King beating and Rampart scandal.

The L.A. County Probation Department is the largest in the nation. It houses nearly 2,300 minors at three juvenile halls and 15 camps. It also supervises more than 80,000 adults on court-ordered probation. But officials say most of the agency’s problems have involved youth.

The OIR report said the department has improved its internal investigations and discipline procedures. Investigations “are no longer instigated by flimsy allegations,” it said.

Miller also said Probation is now conducting investigations in a timely fashion, so that discipline can be meted out without the statue of limitations expiring. “They have stopped blowing statute of limitations. That’s quite a dramatic change.”

But Miller said the department has been slow to install much-needed cameras at its facilities to help with investigations into misconduct. Progress has been "glacial,” he said.

The OIR report also said probation faces an “extraordinary rate of employees who cannot return to work or are working with restrictions.”

Nearly 400 of the agency’s 5,630 employees are on some type of medical leave, the report said. “Another 353 employees are ... on modified duty.”

The Probation Department’s problems are costing L.A. County money, the report said. In fiscal year 2010-2011, it was the subject of 56 new liability claims, and the county paid out nearly $4 million on claims and lawsuits.

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