Director’s policies plague Probation front-liners
February 15, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN and KAREN VELIE
First in a series
Agents and officers of the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department have been burdened by policies of the department’s director which endanger the public in general and law enforcement agencies in particular, according to a grievance prepared by union representatives, UncoveredSLO.com has learned.
An official filing of the grievance reportedly is being delayed while union and department officials attempt to work out a variety of issues.
A group of nine San Luis Obispo County Juvenile Hall officers submitted their formal criticisms to their local union, California Organization of Police and Sheriffs. Complaints allege that a number of procedural changes have resulted in an unsafe working environment.
Among issues being discussed through the union are: (1) a shrinking field agent pool confronting a growing population of violent felons on what is supposed to be “supervised” probation; (2) a reduction in use of force and safety training hours and in programs for both veteran and incoming agents, and shortening of a “mentor” program designed to introduce inexperienced agents to the realities of the street; (3) the 10-month ban on use of pepper spray at the county’s Juvenile Hall, which reportedly resulted in more than a doubling of violent confrontations with staff; and (4) a directive prohibiting department agents from responding to calls for help from other law enforcement agencies.
Department Director Kim Barrett said through a spokesman that she would not comment on the matter until next week.
“There are no problems with safety issues,” contends Juvenile Hall Superintendent Jim Salio. “We have had dialogue with the union over training. It’s an ongoing thing that we always do.”
Union President Mike Dutra declined comment.
UnCoveredSLO.com interviewed more than a dozen agents, supervisors and others at the Probation Department for the preparation of this article. All agents asked to remain unnamed, claiming they would be fired or retaliated against for providing any information.
“After the new superintendent (Salio) cut the use of pepper spray in January, workers’ comp claims and incidents of excessive force skyrocketed,” said a Juvenile Hall employee. “It became an unsafe environment. The grievance was filed in November.”
According to agents and employees at Juvenile Hall, the pepper spray ban was also lifted in November, but not before the spike in violent incidences had occurred. One agent suggested the mere threat of pepper spray’s use was often enough to quell disturbances at the facility.
“We never removed the use of pepper spray,” countered Salio. “There haven’t been any changes in the operations of Juvenile Hall.”
“The comment from The Chief in a staff meeting with many witnesses was that ‘… if you (staff) get popped, you get popped,’” said one Probation employee. “She appeared to believe the safety of the detained minors overrode the safety of her officers.”
Agents also allege their workloads are stretched to a dangerous point, and program cuts continue.
“I think that if people knew how many serious felons are walking around this county… there are literally thousands of convicted felons on the streets and just a handful of agents to keep tabs on them,” said one agent. “That has created a very dangerous situation for us and for the public.”
Several Probation employees expressed concern over constricted training programs, including one designed to ease younger, more inexperienced agents into the field, where the possibility of violent confrontation is a day-to-day reality.
“Some of our new people have never been in a situation that required them to use serious force to defend themselves,” a veteran observed. “When instant response is necessary, these people might not be ready.”
Law enforcement agencies contacted by UncoveredSLO.com shrugged off the prohibition against Probation agents responding to an “officer-down” call.
A spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department, Lt. Rob Bryn, said such a policy decision would be Barrett’s alone: “It’s her call, her agency,” said Bryn. “Probation doesn’t work for us. But when there is an 1199 (officer down or in trouble) call, we don’t care what color the sirens are.”
Bryn noted that some law enforcement officers are not required to carry firearms while on duty, which is the case at Probation where the decision is left up to individual field agents. “But there is always perimeter work at the scene, like traffic direction and holding back crowds” that unarmed officers can provide, Bryn said.
Lt. Steve Tolley, day watch commander at San Luis Obispo Police Department, said he was not aware of Probation’s policy but noted it would have no effect on his department’s policy of immediate response upon receiving an “officer-down” call.
Last week, The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, probably unaware of the difficult issues plaguing the Probation Department, decided not to reduce budgets of the Probation and Sheriff’s departments and the district attorney to deal with a $20 million budget shortfall facing the county. All other departments have been asked to cut expenditures by 2.5 percent.
Nonetheless, extra funding has not been provided to address the agent and officer shortage. Instead, budget increases are currently earmarked to combat gang activity, said District 4 Supervisor Katcho Achadjian said.