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L.A. County makes it easier for probation workers with discipline problems to get promotions

Pictured above: A view inside Camp Scott, a juvenile facility run by the Los Angeles County Probation Department in Santa Clarita (Barbara Davidson / Los AngelesTimes)

This story appeared in the Los Angeles Times on September 25, 2016.

By Abby Sewell and Garrett Therolf

More than 50 employees working inside Los Angeles County’s juvenile lockups received promotions despite a history of disciplinary problems or criminal arrests under a deal county leaders quietly cut earlier this year.

The workers had previously been denied promotion for actions ranging from mistreatment of children in custody to off-duty drunk driving. The rules were part of a larger effort to reform the Probation Department, which has faced years of scrutiny for mistreatment of children and spent a decade under monitoring by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The county softened the policy after the union representing the employees filed a lawsuit challenging the denial of promotions. A judge ruled in favor of the county. But when the union appealed, the county decided to settle the case and create a new policy allowing more employees with discipline records to receive promotions.

Cal Remington, the interim probation chief, said the county softened the rules in an effort to improve relations with employees.

“Even though the county won [the lawsuit], we still had a big mess in terms of employee relations. Right or wrong, that was my feeling,” Remington said. “I mean, it’s tough, because some of these people are going to work 30 years for us. We’ve got to have some process so you can overcome the mistake you’ve made.”

One beneficiary of the new policy was an officer who was disciplined for excessive force after slamming a boy’s head into a bed frame. Officials gave him a 15-day suspension, according to a county official with access to his file who requested anonymity because California law prohibits the disclosure of peace officer discipline. After the rule change, he was promoted earlier this year, helping to raise his pay by more than $9,500 above last year’s total compensation of $95,000, county officials said.

Remington acknowledged that the officer’s actions were serious, but he stood by the rule change.

“Excessive force. Slamming a kid’s head. Yeah, I don’t like that,” he said. “I didn’t look at any of the specific cases. You just had to meet the new policy, and he must have.”

The change in the promotions rules capped several years of battling between the probation officers’ union and the county.

Former probation chief Jerry Powers established the policy of delaying promotions to staff who had been disciplined for misconduct. The union, AFSCME Local 685, filed unfair labor practice complaints with the county employee relations commission and sued the county in 2013 over the issue, arguing that the department should have negotiated the policy with labor representatives.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled against the union in April 2015. The union dropped an appeal of the suit under the settlement reached in May with Remington, who took over the department after Powers stepped down in December.

“The union felt that promotions should be based on seniority, and there shouldn’t be a component to the process that included discipline, and obviously we disagreed strenuously,” Powers said in an interview. “In most instances, employers don’t discipline employees for behavior that doesn’t impact their job.”

Esteban Lizardo, an attorney representing AFSCME in the case, said the union had objected to the fact that Powers and the department had “unilaterally” implemented a new promotions policy without negotiating and without explaining what the new standards were.

“The union was not against the idea that past performance in the form of past discipline could be a consideration in promotions,” he said.

Negotiations to reach a settlement had begun under Powers, but went nowhere, the former chief and union representatives said.

Remington said that when he took over as interim chief of the department, the county’s five elected supervisors expressed concerns about the state of relations between management and the probation union.

The overall labor contract between the county and probation officers says seniority should be the deciding factor in who receives raises and promotions.

The new policy dealing with the role of discipline in promotions was based on a policy used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department but is more lenient when it comes to when officials who faced discipline can get promotions.

Consideration of job attendance and performance evaluations should not be a factor in promotions, the labor contract states, as long as the most recent report shows the worker was “at least competent.”

Under the new policy, a history of minor discipline is no longer considered, and the policy shortened the time that other employees would have to wait for a promotion by starting the clock at the date of the misconduct rather than when discipline was imposed.

Lizardo said that in the majority of cases, such low-level discipline involved “non-repeat behavior issues” such as absenteeism or off-duty incidents, and that holding employees back from promotion would hurt morale and reduce productivity. And he argued that because of the amount of time it takes for cases to work their way through the civil service process, it was unfair to count from the date of discipline.

The settlement was finalized without any public disclosure, and attorneys working for the Board of Supervisors denied a public records request for a copy of the agreement, citing attorney-client privilege.

The Times obtained the document, however, along with a list of the 57 officers to be promoted

They included one worker who was disciplined in 2012 for putting his hands around a juvenile’s neck, in 2013 for injuring another juvenile, and in 2014 for abusive language, dishonesty and failure to perform his duties, according to a source with access to his file.

Another worker had been disciplined in 2011 for misuse of force for striking a juvenile, according to a source with access to his file. A third had been given a 20-day suspension in 2012 for “failure to properly supervise” and “failure to exercise sound judgment.”

That arose from a 2010 incident in which she was on duty in a dormitory at one of the juvenile lockups and one minor was assaulted by another and sustained a serious jaw injury. The department’s investigation found that the officers on duty “allowed the dormitory to remain in a chaotic state with virtually no supervision.”

An additional 18 probation employees, some with more serious misconduct, are currently being considered for promotion, Remington said.

Therolf, a former Times staff writer, is a reporter at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and Common Sense News.

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