Thanks to mostly to Hollywood and TV news, Los Angeles cops are world famous. It's not uncommon for an LAPD officer walking down the street to be stopped by tourists for a quick photo.
But L.A. County's Probation Department, one of the county's most important criminal justice agencies, has stayed under the radar — until now.
A year and a half ago, prison "realignment" — the result of 2011's AB 109 — shifted some lower-level, non-violent offenders from the state prison system to county custody. When those offenders finish their time, they're supervised by county probation officers — not state parole agents.
Bigger caseload, more attention
The offenders shifted to county custody represents new caseload for the L.A. County Probation Department — one that happens to attract a lot of attention.
"We’re getting a lot of media attention on that end," said Deputy Probation Officer A. Espinoza on a recent weeknight.
Espinoza was driving at the tail end of a task force that was rounding up juveniles who'd run away from group homes. He was also driving directly behind a Fox 11 news van, a logo-free all-white van news crews use when they're trying to not draw too much attention.
A cameraperson for the station had been assigned to follow the team around, recording extra video for a new Thursday night segment focused on the AB 109 population: "LA's Most Wanted." Assistant Chief Probation Officer Margarita Perez is the segment's host.
“What we’re doing in essence is profiling five of the worst of the worst offenders who are currently on the run and whom we’re looking for," Perez said.
In the past, these “absconders,” as they’re called, would have been state parolees; now they’re the responsibility of county probation.
And they’re creating some headlines.
Probation absconders "a higher risk to the community"
Police say in December, one absconder murdered four people in a Northridge boarding home. That’s an extreme example, but Perez says that she’s not optimistic about the intentions of some 1,500 absconders in L.A. County.
“They’re more than likely going to be a higher risk to the community," Perez said.
Supervising this higher risk population has forced the probation department, which has always straddled the line between law enforcement and social services, to invest more in the enforcement side. They’re even creating a new unit to specifically go after so-called "AB 109ers."
That new, tougher image comes through in the Fox 11 TV segment. During the first edition of the program, solemn music played in the background as photos of offenders popped up on the screen.
First up, Allis Coleman, convicted of carrying a loaded firearm and battery. Coleman’s photo shows a big man, leaning in towards the camera with a menacing frown.
And the list continues: Dex Aaron Herrera of the Skinhead Dog gang, Garfield Thompson, convicted of assault and terrorist threats. The rundown of evasive AB 109ers makes for a wake-up call about the seriousness of the offenders the probation department is dealing with.
Informing — or alarming?
Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson said the TV segment on the AB 109 "absconders" could help probation track down runaway offenders.
“There is some public benefit in getting the public to pay attention to what is happening in the criminal justice system and the problems it has and the people who are on the loose," said Levenson.
But she says it shouldn’t be confused with a true analysis of whether the realignment program is effective. Joe Domanick at the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice says such shows lean more towards alarming than informing.
“Those kinds of shows, the way they’re always done, it’s ‘be scared, be very scared,'" he said.
Domanick said it’s natural for the probation department to get out the names of cons on the run — that’s their job. And it follows a local news trend: According to a Pew study released last month, crime news occupies 17 percent of local TV newscasts, second only to traffic and weather.
Domanick said that focus, along with “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops” — the kind of true — crime TV programs that cropped up in the 1990s — don’t reflect reality in L.A.
"It flies in the face of what is actually happening in the criminal justice system," said Domanick. "Crime is down almost everywhere, and particularly it’s down in Los Angeles.”
That’s true. It’s also true that the probation department’s Margarita Perez has 1,500 “absconders” to find.
“One of our responsibilities as a department is to utilize all of the resources at our disposal to comply with our mission requirements," said Perez. "Whether that be assisting our offenders to reintegrate into the community, or holding them accountable, or anything and everything in between.”
And so Perez will be on TV each week with a new list of names.