Director’s policies plague Probation front-liners

February 15, 2008



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, 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. 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 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.

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By: Anonymous on 2/21/08

Attn: Grow Up

As one of many current employees, don’t try to minimize the relatiohship between the kitchen cook and Chief Barrett to a mere friendship. It’s more than that and everyohe knows it!

When the cook is assigned to be just that “a cook” and manage the kitchen at the Juvenile Hall, why is it she has been given special privileges by Chief Barrett such as running special programs that should be assigned to JSO’s, supervisors and/or DPO’s.

This was a big issue in the past and when the kitchen cook was constantly tossing Chief Barrett’s name and their relationship to the extreme, as a tactic to influence herself into other areas that went beyond her job assignment. The cook used her relationship with Chief Barrett in order to get what she wanted and everyone knows it, including you. Many employees have been disciplined because they reported their concerns regarding the kitchen cook to Chief Barrett. Instead of dealing with the kitchen cook who was out of line, the employees reporting their concerns were the ones disciplined or retaliated against. The kitchen cook was never held accountable for any wrong doing or inappropriate behavior even when whe was involved in many internal investigations.

If interviewed everyone asking about this so-called friendship… there would be a whole new story to be told like how the kitchen cook would brag about their vacations together and how their husbands are best of friends and so much more. I’m sure current and former kitchn cooks can confirm this and so much more.

By: Anonymous on 2/21/08

Chief Barrett–do the right thing for once and give David Edge and your employees a break by resigning or retiring before the whole truth about you comes out! It’s not fair to the employees who have to show up to work every day to a hostile and dysfunctional environment. Everythibg about you being dishonest, deceitful and vengeful is coming out and there are no more ways to hide the truth.

It’s time to move on and do your employees, the agency and the community a favor and get out with a little bit of dignity while you still can!

By: Anonymous on 2/21/08

Current JSO… yeah right? In your very first paragraph you state that you are not speaking on Chief Barrett’s behalf, yet throughout your whole comment you’re doing just that, incoluding saying what she meant with her statements. If you are a current JSO, which I doubt, how would you begin to think you know what Chief Barrett meant to the point of stating that she only “EMPHASIZED” certain statements. I can assure you that the JSO’s who truly are current employees don’t appreciate your comments and also believe you are not one of them. Come on Chief Barrett… we all know this current JSO is you or one of your friends. We’re not as ignorant as you think and have stated to so many people!

By: Anonymous on 2/20/08

As a currently employed officer at Juvenile Hall I would like to add my comments to this topic. I would also like make it clear that I speak only for myself; I do not speak for Chief Barrett or the Probation Department nor am I an apologist for either. My only motive for posting is to add my own perspective of the truth concerning what has been alleged. I’ll begin by stating that the allegation that the use pepper spray was banned in any way at Juvenile Hall, at least during my tenure with the Probation Department, is false. If that were the case, there would have been an official notification to that effect and all officers would have been required to turn in their canisters. Neither has ever occurred. Has there been discussion about the appropriate use of pepper spray? Absolutely, as well there should be. Have officers been cautioned about its use? Absolutely, as well they should be. And it was within this context that Chief Barrett made her comment that “if you get popped, you get popped.” I was at the meeting when she made that statement and if it possible, I would like to put her remark within the context that it was made.

It should be pointed out that it is the Chief’s responsibility to ensure that those under him or her are adhering to department policy. Policies which, it is important to note, are in place not only for the safety and well being of the minors in custody, but also those of the staff. Chief Barrett was at the meeting to give us a better understanding of the possible ramifications of the use of pepper spray in the current environment of litigation. Given the impact a lawsuit could have on everyone involved, both the deparment and the individual officer, this seems both prudent and reasonable to me. It also seems an appropriate topic within the scope of the appropriateness of pepper spary. Under discussion at the time of the Chief’s comment was the topic of how best to gain compliance from an unruly and potentially violent minor while he or she was in his or her room.

The chief’s comment came as she spoke about her own experience when working at the Hall. She noted, rightly, that there is always an inherent risk when working with these offenders and one cannot effectively do the job without assuming at least some risk. She said that when she was working at the Hall, she was not afraid to open a minor’s door in an attempt to counsel him or her and that “if you get popped, you get popped.” While her comment may have been ill thought out and off the cuff, she was not advocating that this was department policy or that everyone should do this and she said so at the time. That some have thought this is due, in large part, to a misconception about the point she was trying to make at the time.

Chief Barrett’s comments at that meeting emphasized the need to view pepper spray as a last resort measure to control a situation (something I might add is consistant with existing department policy), not as a method for staff to minimize the dangers and risks of the job. Some may disagree, but I beleive this is both good advice and good policy. It is always staff’s responsibility to attempt to resolve a situation with the minimum amout of force necessary and Chief Barrett’s address to the staff that day was meant to reinforce that. There was nothing in her comments, when taken as a whole, that should have led anyone to beleive she was banning the use of pepper spray at Juvenile Hall although this is obviosly the case.

Now, I will agree with those who say there are deficiences with regard to training, specifically new staff. However, it is my belief that this has much more to with the department being under budgeted rather than a disregard or lack of concern on the part of management. I have long been troubled by our almost continual need to “scrimp and save” in order to accomplish our mission; this simply should not be necessary. But those deficiencies need to be addressed by the Board of Supervisors and County Administration, they can’t be corrected at the department level. I beleive both Chief Barrett and Superintendent Salio work hard to effectively manage the resources they are given but it simply isn’t enough. But again, this is something that needs to be addressed by those who control the purse strings.