Community Law Enforcement

The dogs of war come home

August 8, 2013

She was a hero overseas and now Tula, along with handler Dep. Guillermo Loza, is making L.A. County safer.

Just last year, Tula was in Afghanistan, sniffing out buried explosives and saving lives and limbs in the war zone.  Now her beat is Los Angeles County, where on a recent afternoon she put her exceptional sniffing abilities to work on a random stroller she encountered in Grand Park.

The glossy black Labrador retriever has traded in her military handler for a new partner on the homefront, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Guillermo Loza.

Tula and Loza are part of Countywide Services Division K9, a new sheriff’s unit that started operating last month with a mission of keeping watch over county facilities, parks and events. Tula is an explosives dog, trained to find the various bomb materials that could be used in an attack. She and another black Lab, Ruby, joined the department after serving with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. There, Tula and Ruby were experts in locating roadside bombs known as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. IEDs are the leading cause of fatalities for the U.S. and its allies, responsible for the deaths of 3,275 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq as of Memorial Day, 2013.

“They uncovered more than 40 IEDs each,” said Sergeant Mark Jennings, who heads the new division, which also includes his narcotics-sniffing dog, Chip. “They can’t give me a number of lives these dogs saved, but with convoys, it’s in the hundreds.”

Jennings, a former Marine, scored the sought-after hero dogs for Los Angeles County last fall in North Carolina, where representatives from dozens of law enforcement agencies vied for 50 of the returning military canines. The program is part of a campaign to place the dogs as the U.S. reduces its canine military strength in Iraq and Afghanistan from 480 dogs to 180.

As Tula and Ruby went through their paces in front of the law enforcement crowd, Jennings was impressed—and he wasn’t alone.

“Just about everyone wanted Tula and the other half wanted Ruby,” he said. “We had to do a drawing, and we got lucky.”

The 3-year-old Tula and the muscular 6’4” Loza made a striking duo as they made the rounds in Grand Park recently.

“I like your dog,” shouted a young girl while skipping toward the park’s splash fountain.

“Aww, what’s her name?” asked a woman dressed in business attire, while a tourist snapped a photo.

They’re getting used to attention from the public.

“At first they see this tall deputy and they’re like ‘oh my God’ but then they relax and say, ‘Oh look, there’s a dog here,’ ” Loza said.

On cue, Tula darted off and investigated bushes, trash cans, bags and anywhere else a bomb might be hidden. Finding nothing, she returned for a bit of affection and a chance to play with her favorite chew toy.

Like other veterans, Tula and Ruby returned with a few psychological scars.

“Initially they wanted to be very close to you,” Jennings said. “As far as noises and being around people, they were a little hesitant, a little jumpy. They definitely showed signs of what I call PTSD in dogs.”

Handlers of explosive-sniffing dogs need to be the best of the best too, Jennings said. The wrong handler “can screw up a dog very easily.” Loza and Deputy Danny Cassese, who handles Ruby, were at the top of their training class—a prestigious distinction.


Deputy Danny Cassese and Ruby, with a recent ammo find.

Before being deployed, the dogs and deputies trained together with a local expert for four weeks. As they make the transition from military to civilian duty, it helps that they are Labradors, a popular pet breed. The dogs are mellow and gregarious in crowds. German shepherds, on the other hand, tend to intimidate people, Cassese said.

The biggest hurdle was training Tula and Ruby to work on leashes. In Afghanistan, all their searching was performed “off-leash.” Handlers would send them ahead to scout for explosives. On their new beat, much work must be done “on-leash.”

Yet the ability to work off-leash is what sets Tula and Ruby apart from the dogs assigned to the 60 other K9 units in the county, which search for bombs and also things like narcotics, guns and dead bodies. Working off-leash allows the former war dogs to explore suspicious situations while human deputies keep a safe distance.

The dogs live with the deputies and the pairs develop a close bond, which is essential to their performance. Continued training is part of the job description and up to 3 hours of each shift is devoted to it. When the day is done, Tula and Ruby live the good life of any other well-cared-for pet in Southern California. Tula likes running on the beach and investigating every corner of Loza’s house, while the 5-year-old Ruby “will play with a tennis ball until she passes out,” Cassese said.

The deputies receive daily training on trends in terrorism and counter-terrorism efforts, said Loza, who believes domestic attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing could increase as U.S. war efforts draw to a close and create a greater focus on stateside targets. That’s where Tula and Ruby come in.

Last week, the dogs “cleared” (declared safe) a suspicious package at Los Angeles City College. Their biggest find so far came on a parole compliance sweep, which is one of their secondary duties, performed on request. Because guns and ammunition contain gunpowder, the dogs can detect it. Ruby located a belt of 75 high-caliber rifle rounds meant for a machine gun, 50 smaller rifle rounds and a 12-gauge shotgun round that were in the possession of a prior felon. (Loza said both dogs found the bullets, but Ruby got the credit “this time.”)

Jennings said the program is a great financial deal for the county. Bomb-sniffing dogs are bred specifically for the task and undergo months of expert training. All told, each would normally cost upwards of $50,000. As more return from the war, Jennings hopes to expand the division to include up to 5 more K9 teams.

Not all returning war dogs are deemed young enough and fit enough for further service. Some have had serious injuries.

Bob Agnor, a senior trainer for K2 Solutions, a company that provides the dogs and training to the military, said those dogs are returned to civilian life, often being adopted by their Marine handlers.

“These dogs literally saved their lives,” said Agnor, whose company hosted the North Carolina event at which Tula and Ruby were recruited. “They think, ‘This dog has earned the right to live in my house and be treated like a king or a queen.’ ”

Tula and Ruby still wear military dog tags in honor of their service abroad. When they retire from the Sheriff’s Department, Loza and Cassese will have the first option to adopt.

“I’ll get to keep Tula,” said Loza, smiling broadly. “And I will, of course. She’s the best partner ever.”

A baby stroller hung with packages draws Tula's attention outside the Hall of Administration.

Posted 8/1/13

Summer crimes hit LA’s promenades

August 7, 2013

A boardwalk shrine stands as a a reminder of last weekend's hit-and-run tragedy in Venice.

The news of last weekend’s tragedy on the Venice boardwalk had scarcely broken when Finbar O’Hanlon began fielding the inevitable calls. 

“I’m from Australia,” says O’Hanlon, a tech entrepreneur and musician who relocated eight months ago to Venice, “and my friends from overseas were all, ‘Come home! It’s not safe! What are you doing, living there?’ “

Across town, on Hollywood Boulevard, Silvia Figueroa is hearing a similar message. In June, a troubled panhandler stabbed a young woman to death on the Walk of Fame, a few feet from where Figueroa hawks bus tours of homes of the stars. Since then, she says, her mom in Echo Park hasn’t stopped calling—and it didn’t help when a so-called “bash mob” tore down the boulevard in July, randomly robbing people. 

“She keeps telling me it’s not safe,” says Figueroa, who, at 23, is the same age as the stabbing victim. “She doesn’t want me to work in Hollywood anymore.”

It’s been an unsettling summer in Los Angeles’ tourist hotspots, with three high-profile violent incidents—the stabbing, the hit-and-run and the “bash mob” robbery spree—in two of L.A.’s most famous promenades.

Not so unsettling that the tourists have stopped coming—visitors from around the world jammed the Walk of Fame this week as usual, interspersed with the inevitable hustlers in Star Wars and Mickey Mouse costumes. And Venice’s beach carnival atmosphere was back within 24 hours after a transient plowed a 2008 Dodge Avenger onto the boardwalk Saturday, veering around traffic barriers to kill a 32-year-old Italian honeymooner and injure 16 others.

But the incidents have been worrisome enough to incite calls this week for improved security measures.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to augment existing traffic barriers by temporarily blocking more of the nearly 30 streets and alleys on which cars can reach the boardwalk, and to study the possibility of more permanent barriers. Meanwhile, in Hollywood this week, local business representatives plan to present a set of recommendations to Mayor Eric Garcetti aimed at making the Walk of Fame and surrounding area safer.

The list, drawn up by Hollywood’s business improvement districts and Chamber of Commerce, asks, among other things, that the city’s aggressive panhandling ordinance be reviewed and tightened, that sidewalk CD vendors and tour operators be banned from Hollywood Boulevard and that street performers around Hollywood and Highland be required to register with the city, kept to a designated limit and banned from wearing masks.

Los Angeles Police Commander Andrew J. Smith says the demands are understandable, given the crimes’ shocking nature. But, he says, the incidents are anomalies in areas that already have extensive security. The LAPD, he says, has had 20 to 40 extra officers deployed in Hollywood since the June stabbing, “on bikes, cars, foot and horseback”, and deployment is “already robust” in Venice.

“Crime is down across the board in Los Angeles,” Smith notes. “And both Hollywood and Venice are extraordinarily safe, especially compared to the crime rates of ten or 15 years ago. But when something like this happens that gets attention, it gives a false impression.”

That attention worries Stuart Sarbone, 73, a retired businessman who lives so close to the boardwalk that he heard the Venice crash on Saturday from inside his home. Sarbone notes that both the Hollywood stabbing and the hit-and-run down the block from his home appear to have been committed by unstable men.

Nathan Louis Campbell, the 38-year-old Colorado transient arrested after Saturday’s incident, reportedly had a history of substance abuse, and 26-year-old Dustin James Kinnear, charged with killing Christine Calderon on the Walk of Fame, was said to have been in and out of mental health treatment since childhood.

Kinnear has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder. Campbell pleaded not guilty this week to one count of murder, 16 counts of assault with a deadly weapon and 17 counts of hit and run. His lawyer said that he is “profoundly depressed that he has potentially ended someone’s life”, and called the crash “a horrible accident.”

Sarbone says the incidents point to a need for improved mental health care and an examination of L.A.’s safety net.

“There’s a lot of crazy things going on now because people are under terrible, terrible stress,” he says, watching a TV truck set up a camera near a boardwalk shrine to Alice Gruppioni, the Italian woman who died in the Saturday crash. “They have no jobs. They have no money. They get desperate.”

O’Hanlon, the Australian transplant, sees the incident as a tragic-but-rare occurrence, outweighed by Venice’s bohemian excitement. “I could live anywhere in the world,” he says, “and I choose to stay here.”

For many veteran Venetians, however, the incident was a tragic reminder of the vulnerability that comes with living in a community in a tourist destination.

“This isn’t supposed to happen here,” said resident Rachel Shapiro, stopping during her morning walk at the boardwalk shrine with its flowers and candles. “Sixteen million people a year—people from all over the world—come down to this boardwalk. Nobody comes here to die.”

Despite two highly-publicized incidents, tourists are still crowding the Walk of Fame this summer.

Posted 8/7/13

Pit bull attack unleashes a crackdown

June 25, 2013

The county hopes new measures will reduce maulings, such as one that led to the death of an Antelope Valley woman. The owner of this dog, and others, has been charged with murder. Photo/AP

Even before a 63-year-old woman was mauled to death in May in the Antelope Valley, Los Angeles County animal control officers were increasingly concerned about dangerous dogs.

Some 10,000 calls last year—about one in ten—involved biting or aggressive canines. Packs of abandoned dogs in the high desert had become an ongoing issue for livestock owners.

“We had three really bad attacks against our officers in the past year,” says Department of Animal Care and Control Director Marcia Mayeda. “In one, a sheriff had to shoot a pit bull off our officer.”

So on Monday, as part of its 2013-14 budget, the Board of Supervisors addressed the problem by approving $3.5 million in new spending on animal control. Among the priorities: nineteen new animal control officers and supervisors, extra support for vicious dog investigations and prosecutions, a half-dozen new animal control trucks, more protective equipment and an additional call center in Lancaster to more quickly field complaints and deploy help in remote areas.

“This is going to be a big improvement in public safety,” says Mayeda. “Every one of these changes is going to make a difference.”

The appropriations come in the wake of the May 9 death of Pamela Devitt, a retired office manager who was mauled to death by a pack of pit bulls during a morning walk in her neighborhood in unincorporated Littlerock. The dogs’ 29-year-old owner, Alex D. Jackson, has been charged with murder. Prosecutors say he had been growing marijuana in his home, apparently using the animals as guard dogs, and that authorities had received at least two other complaints about them in the past six months.

About $1.5 million of the new money will build and staff a new call center in the Antelope Valley, where dog packs have become a chronic problem, says Mayeda.

“A lot of people abandon animals in the desert, and they form packs and cause harm,” she says. After the Littlerock mauling, Devitt’s neighbors told reporters that they carried guns in case of dog attacks, and brought their pets inside at nighttime.

The new call center, which will be set up in a modular unit on the grounds of the department’s Lancaster office, will be staffed with a half-dozen clerks, a supervisor and two animal control officers. Among other things, Mayeda says, it will help ensure that officers in the high desert get sent to the right addresses. It also will shorten wait times for callers throughout the county, who now get routed to the department’s understaffed hotline in Downey, where it’s not unusual for them to spend up to 20 minutes on hold.

Also in the budget will be a specialized 9-person countywide unit devoted to investigating and preparing the often labor-intensive petitions required to designate a dog as “potentially dangerous.”

Three more animal control officers will buttress the department’s Major Case Unit in Lancaster, working with the District Attorney to prosecute cases, and five more field officers will be dispatched to animal control offices throughout the county.

“If we’d had more Major Case Unit officers, the guy in Littlerock might have come up on our radar sooner and we might have been able to bring a case against him sooner,” says Mayeda.

In addition, she says, an expansion of the county ordinance that defines a “potentially dangerous dog” could help avert future tragedies. Currently, a dog is labeled “potentially dangerous” if it has killed, bitten or injured a person without provocation, or if it leaves its owner’s property and kills or injures another person’s cat or dog. A proposed amendment, now in the works, would expand the definition to include attacks on livestock, a particular problem in rural parts of the county, empowering animal control officers to take a larger number of dangerous dogs off the street.

Mayeda says she’s encouraged by all the new efforts aimed at cracking down on animals—and owners—who are jeopardizing the public safety and security. “This is a big step toward getting us where we need to be.”

Posted 6/25/13

Front and center at Probation

April 4, 2013

Margarita Perez has brought experience and energy to her new high-profile job with Los Angeles County.

Unlike countless showbiz hopefuls waiting on tables or schlepping to auditions, it didn’t take long for Margarita Perez to land a Hollywood gig. Not that she even thought about breaking into the business when she hit town.

After all, her day job is now among the most important in Los Angeles government. Five months ago, after years in Sacramento, Perez was tapped to help remake the county’s Probation Department and guide its response to California’s controversial AB 109 law, which has placed thousands of former state prison inmates under the agency’s supervision.

On Thursday nights at 7, Perez can be seen hosting a news segment on KCOP-TV Channel 13 called “L.A.’s Most Wanted.” The unique collaboration between the station and the Probation Department calls on the public for tips to help track down five former convicts each week—most of them with serious raps sheets—who’ve disappeared into the community.

“I think it’s exciting,” Assistant Chief Probation Officer Perez says of the segments, which began airing last week. “It’s a great opportunity to highlight probation’s good work and engage the public in holding accountable those offenders who are not availing themselves of our oversight.”

And don’t be deceived by her looks. Although diminutive and fashionable, the high-octane Perez means business. She’s a self-described former “gun-toting parole agent” who broke into the criminal justice system as a guard at Avenal State Prison, a men’s institution in Central California. As an officer in the California National Guard, she was awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement after entering Iraq with the front-line troops during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. “I’m as gung-ho as they come,” she says.

Perez says her parents, born and raised in Mexico, “drove into my head that your success revolves around you. There are no crutches. If you’re not successful, then you didn’t take advantage of the opportunities in this country.”

That advice propelled Perez through the California corrections bureaucracy during a career of more than two decades. Last year, she was put in charge of the Adult Parole Operations Division, where she was responsible for 3,500 employees and a budget of about $650 million.

But that job was increasingly looking like a dead end because of AB 109, the so-called “realignment” law enacted to ease overcrowding in the state’s 33 prisons and save money. As supervision of certain newly released inmates shifted to California’s counties, there was less work for state parole officers, who increasingly faced layoffs. Perez says the number of state-supervised offenders plummeted from 128,000 to 50,000, with only more of the same ahead.

So Perez was ready for a new challenge, a desire that made its way to Los Angeles County Probation Chief Jerry Powers, who assumed the top job in October, 2011, with a mandate to not only implement AB 109 but to also shake-up a department rife with personnel and financial problems. For months, he’d been unable to field a top management team with the expertise he believed necessary to tackle the enormous issues confronting the agency.

“To be honest, I was wearing down,” Powers says. “I was trying to cover the entire house with just me.”

Probation Chief Jerry Powers

But late last year he found his reinforcements in Perez, whom he hired to oversee adult and juvenile field operations, and in Sacramento County’s former probation chief, Don Meyer, whom he put in charge of the department’s juvenile halls and camps, which had a history of problems so severe that the U.S. Justice Department was compelled to intervene.

Powers says his two new assistant chiefs, outwardly, couldn’t be more different.

“She’s like a tiny little dynamo,” he says. “She talks fast, she walks fast, she works fast. Everything about her is fast.” Meyer, on the other hand, is “a beast,” Powers says, a “barrel-chested” weightlifter who’s competed in and won international law enforcement competitions.

“It’s ridiculous when they stand side-by-side,” Powers says with a laugh. But both, he adds, share this in common: “They get things done.”

Of the two, Perez will certainly play a more visible role—even beyond her TV spots—given the rising concerns and controversy over the potential impact of AB 109 on public safety.

In recent months, two high-profile crimes were allegedly committed by suspects sent to the county for supervision after serving prison terms for non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses. Under the new law, prior criminal histories are not considered when determining an inmate’s post-release supervision, except for high-risk sex offenders, sexually violent predators or “mentally disordered” offenders, who remain under state supervision .

In December, one of the county’s new wards was charged with a quadruple murder in Northridge. Then, just last week, another was named as the prime suspect in the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl. He remains at large.

Critics of realignment have suggested that such crimes might not have been committed had the state not hurriedly foisted AB 109 on the counties—a contention disputed by most law enforcement officials, including Powers. He says that in 2010, the year prior to AB 109’s passage in Sacramento, more than 170 men were arrested in Los Angeles County for murder while under the supervision of state parole officers.

“If you take 11,000 offenders from the state and put them in Los Angeles County, you can predict that a portion of those offenders are going to kill people and you can predict that a portion are going to rehabilitate themselves and never get in trouble again,” Powers says. “So whatever your philosophical perspective, you can make a prediction and be right because the population we’re dealing with is so large. Having said that, the question is: Can we handle this population with better outcomes than the state?”

Perez says the disclosure that the alleged Northridge gunman was an AB 109 offender came during her first weekend on the job. Some of the probation officers, she says, were shocked because they’ve been mostly accustomed to dealing with lower-level offenders. Not her.

“In parole, this was a regular occurrence. You literally become accustomed to it,” she said the other day from the department’s drab and dated Downey headquarters. “Whether you’ve got a parole agent watching you or a county probation officer watching you, you’re going to commit a crime if that’s your intent.”

She says she tells her probation officers that a good number of the offenders they’re now responsible for supervising were once under probation’s watch for less severe crimes. “The only difference,” she tells them, “is that they’re a little older, their rap sheets are longer and they’re more sophisticated. But it’s the same population you dealt with.”

Perez says she also wants to assure the public that her agency “is ready to take on this challenge. We’re familiar with this population in terms of their risks, their needs and what we need to do to assist them in their reintegration into the community, realizing there’s always going to be some who are either not ready or not amenable to the resources and interventions we can provide to them.”

Perez says was one of her biggest challenges is how the agency can quickly build an infrastructure to handle the new supervision demands, ranging from training and hiring scores of new probation officers to modifying computer systems to improve tracking of the county’s new charges and their progress—or the lack of it.

Also at the top of the list is the screening and training of 100 probation officers who’ll be given guns, a first for the department.

“When I was a parole agent, I carried a caseload and I carried a gun,” Perez says. “The job was to make random house calls in the evenings, during the day, on weekends. And to go into some of those communities that are sometimes dangerous, gang infested, they are just not the safest places in the world. So if there’s an expectation that probation officers are going to do this, you have to give them the tools.” So far, she says, 28 probation officers have been cleared to carry firearms.

Perez says one of her other challenges, on a personal level, will be to find time to continue her practice of  Bikram, or “hot,” yoga—27 postures practiced in a room with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Perez, a youthful 50-year-old, acknowledges that she practically vibrates with energy.

“You should have seen me before I started yoga,” she says. “It helps me refocus and keep my calm. It gives me a chance to go on autopilot and think about nothing.”

Even if it’s only for a couple of hours.

The Probation Department's new power couple: Assistant Chiefs Don Meyer and Margarita Perez.

Posted 4/4/13

Board orders audit of sheriff’s budget

January 23, 2013

Sheriff patrols have been reduced throughout the county's unincorporated areas. Photo/Navymailman via Flickr

After a testy public confrontation with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca over patrol cutbacks, the Board of Supervisors unanimously called for a “forensic audit” of his department’s $2.8 billion budget.

The Tuesday action came after several supervisors accused the sheriff of potentially jeopardizing public safety by reducing the number of patrol cars in the county’s unincorporated areas to save money on rising overtime costs.

Baca insisted that, with crime rates down substantially, there was little danger that fewer patrol cars would lead to higher public risks. He said he had no choice after being hit with multimillion dollar budget cuts for three consecutive years and unacceptable overtime costs in recent weeks.

“We have the largest county in the United States, and the safest county in the United States,” Baca said, adding: “I just believe we need to account to [the public] as to what we’re doing and what are the true facts regarding their safety.”

Although the Board of Supervisors sets the department’s budget, the sheriff has wide discretion over how it’s actually spent.

During Tuesday’s Board hearing, Baca faced the stiffest criticism from Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes the unincorporated community of East Los Angeles, among others.

“I’d like to cut your budget in other places and I’m going to try and find a way,” warned Molina, who joined with colleague Don Knabe in introducing the motion for an independent audit of the department’s budget.

Both Molina and Knabe suggested that Baca was undermining an “equity policy” ensuring that unincorporated areas get the same level of services as cities that contract with the department. Instead, Molina said, costs are being reduced in unincorporated areas to subsidize other department functions and responsibilities.

“You are stealing,” she told the sheriff, who responded: “Stealing is over the top, supervisor.”

“I want you to let me finish,” Molina interrupted.

“Not when you say something that is so outrageous that it’s not worth the dignity of your office,” the sheriff said.

Later, Molina apologized for the “stealing” characterization, and Baca thanked her for being a “stellar supporter” of the department. The sheriff also assured the board that he was already taking measures to ensure that patrol levels would not be reduced for long, including in the unincorporated area of Topanga Canyon in Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s district. The vast majority of his district is patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department.

No date was set for completion of the independent audit, which will be arranged through the county’s Auditor-Controller’s Office.   

 Posted 1/23/13

Playing through the pain

November 20, 2012

Two probation camp residents participate in the "Unusual Suspects" program.

Rival gang members stand face-to-face, struggling to transcend their natural hostility towards one another. But it’s not a real-life showdown. They’re portraying lovers, lead actors in a play they helped write. In fact, it’s just another day in the life for The Unusual Suspects, a nonprofit group that teaches at Camp David Gonzales, a Los Angeles County juvenile detention center.

Sally Fairman, the group’s executive director, says theater arts are an ideal form of expression for the boys, who are incarcerated at the camps for serious crimes. In preparing to confront an audience, students are compelled to confront their own demons.

“Because they are going to be in front of people with their story, they have a big investment,” Fairman says. “They really have to come together if they want to succeed. Every player is important to the show and each of them feels that sense of importance to themselves and to their fellows.”

The educational program consists of two 10-week sessions, each culminating in a live performance. The first session focuses on playwriting. When it’s over, professional actors perform the play under the direction of the young writers, who offer advice on how to portray their characters. The second session centers on performance, using games and improv to teach acting skills. At the end of that session, the students themselves perform the play. The staff and teaching artists are theater pros, and they teach in a hands-on style, about one teacher to every 3 kids.

It’s not always smooth sailing. Many of the kids carry the baggage of physical and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol issues and abandonment problems from absentee parents. A good number of them have gang affiliations, like the two rivals who were playing opposite each other as lovers in true Shakespearean tradition, with one taking the role of a woman. These obstacles must be overcome for a successful play.

Getting beyond such issues is the underlying goal of the program, according to Michal Sela-Amit, a board member of the group who chairs the Families and Children Concentration at USC’s School of Social Work. The camp workshops are intended to function like group therapy sessions, although that’s not how it feels to participants. They’re too busy acting and writing.

“They’re not going to come to therapy that quickly and they’re not going to talk about those things so willingly,” Sela-Amit says of the workshops. “Drama works on so many levels—with the individual, the group, the audience—you’re having fun with a group of people.”

Sela-Amit says the program is intended to maximize a person’s full brain power. She says that traumatic experiences, such as those experienced by the young adults in the camps, settle into the brain’s more creative right side, where they inhibit learning and growth and create worries and anxieties. The exercises of writing and acting, she says, essentially push these traumas to the brain’s more logical left side, where they can be processed. Once that happens, new neural connections can form, enhancing an individual’s ability to interact with society in a more positive way.

Mike Varela, director of Camp Gonzales for the county’s Probation Department, says he can see the results as tough guys at his camp break out of the hard shells they’ve built up over the years.

“You have these hard guys with these façades, and suddenly they are laughing and having the time of their life,” he says.

This Saturday, November 10 at 1 p.m., professional actors will perform the students’ latest composition—Money, Power, & Regret—for a public audience at Camp Gonzales. (For security reasons, advance reservations are required for those who want to attend. While the official deadline for reservations has just passed, staff from the Unusual Suspects said they will try to accommodate late requests. For more information, email

The Unusual Suspects was founded in 1993 by actress Laura Leigh Hughes in response to the Los Angeles riots of the previous year. The group first came to Camp Gonzales in 2004. Over the years, the group has taught thousands of youths, now averaging about 300 per year across the region.

The organization reaches beyond detention facilities, too, to kids ages 9 to 21, who live in high-crime, impoverished and underserved areas. Fairman says the program is always evolving, and they’ve recently started engaging multi-generational groups in south L.A. and Pacoima, with positive results. Older members of the communities are getting involved after seeing their own lives reflected in the performances, she says.

Fairman wants to keep adding The Unusual Suspects’ brand of therapeutic theater to the existing mix of tools and organizations in local communities. So far, she says, communities have embraced the program and offered their own suggestions, such as incorporating visual arts, dance and cultural traditions.

“I would like to see us be a model, expand nationally,” says Executive Director Fairman, “and help more communities place arts at the center of their strategies for transformation.”

Actors Marcus Woodswelch and Hilary Ward portray characters in "The Lost Son," a play written by Camp Gonzales students in 2011.

Posted 11/8/12

The big inmate shift: one year later

October 12, 2012

Appointed last October, Probation Chief Jerry Powers promptly became responsible for realignment's rollout.

Don’t expect a lot of folks in Los Angeles government to be toasting Sacramento in celebration of this month’s one-year anniversary of the most dramatic remake ever of California’s criminal justice system. Called “realignment,” it triggered a massive overnight transfer from the state to its counties of responsibility for supervising certain ex-prisoners and jailing a new, more serious class of offender.

The changes were pushed by the governor and legislature despite strong resistance from local authorities, who argued that the plan was being rushed to relieve the state of its prison crowding and budget problems at the expense of public safety and the dwindling resources of local governments.

Now, data collected by Los Angeles County suggests that the impact here is even more challenging than anyone envisioned, prompting a scramble for new solutions and dollars.

County officials say, for example, that they received more “high risk” former state inmates to supervise than they’d initially predicted, and many arrived with mental illnesses that were far more serious than expected. Those individuals have been placed in costly lock-down psychiatric facilities, leap-frogging other patients who’ve been bumped to waiting lists and, as a result, are consuming precious beds in public hospitals.

Meanwhile, more than 30% of the 11,000 former state inmates whose supervision has been transferred to the county’s Probation Department were rearrested during the past year for allegedly committing crimes ranging from vehicle code violations to serious felonies, including 16 murders, 23 attempted murders and 205 robberies. County officials emphasize, however, that these same alleged offenses could just as easily have occurred had state parole officers remained responsible for post-release supervision.

And it doesn’t end there. County probation Chief Jerry Powers says another provision of the realignment law, AB 109, carries the potential of even more problems, placing new strains on the county’s already bursting jail system and raising more questions about risks to the public.

Under AB 109, the county is now responsible for jailing criminals convicted of non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual crimes—offenders, who, in the past, would have been sentenced to state prison and placed on parole after their release. But under the realignment law, there’s no requirement—or funding source—for them to have any supervision, or “tail,” at all after their release from county jail.

“Frankly,” Powers told the Board of Supervisors this week, “that scares me more than this population that is coming from the state prison system [for county supervision.]”

The news, however, is not all grim.

With a new class of inmate in the jail, the stakes for public safety have risen.

Reaver Bingham, the point man for realignment in the county’s Probation Department, says his agency has, among other things, begun to beef up supervision ratios because of the unexpected number of ex-state inmates who are considered to be higher risks to commit new crimes. “If they mess up,” he says, “we’re right there to address the violation.”

He also said that 90% of the former state prisoners who’ve been ordered since last October to report to the county had done so, allowing authorities to create customized supervision and treatment plans for them. Of those who failed to show, Bingham says, warrants were issued and most of the missing individuals were contacted or picked up within 30 days. As of this week, he says, there are 917 active warrants, not counting the 529 warrants issued for individuals who’ve now been deported. Bingham acknowledged that some of the county’s new charges have been arrested for new crimes—some of them serious—but he says most are property- and drug-related offenses. More than 600 cases, for example, were for methamphetamine possession, while nearly 400 involved arrests for burglary, according to Sheriff’s Department records.

Bingham says the recidivism among the group is not surprising. Although these ex-inmates were transferred from the state after completing sentences for non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses, they often have earlier, more egregious convictions. “I think it’s safe to say that over 50% have serious and violent crimes in their past,” says Bingham, a 30-year veteran of the probation department.

Like his boss, Powers, Bingham says he’s also concerned about the lack of post-release supervision for inmates who, for the first time, will be serving sentences in county jail rather than in state institutions. So far, the average jail stay for these individuals is 12 months, excluding time already spent in custody and automatic reductions in sentences.

“When they’re out, they’re done,” Bingham says. In the past, when this same class of inmate was released from state prison, they’d receive years of parole supervision, giving California authorities leverage to try to avert bad behavior and reduce recidivism. “Without supervision, we have no opportunity to determine whether these people have benefited from programs they’ve received during incarceration with us,” Bingham says. “We have no idea whether the rehabilitation took to them.”

Law enforcement authorities throughout California have been pushing for legislation that, at a minimum, would attach a “search and seizure” requirement to the release of inmates from county facilities, just as the state has been doing for the same class of prisoner. This would give authorities the right to search a person and his property. Any violations could lead to the filing of new charges.

“At least that way, the system is still in their life,” says Mark Delgado, executive director of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which has played a key role in the realignment process here.

From the start, one of the most difficult populations to address in realignment has been those inmates with mental health needs. Initially—until the intervention of the governor’s office—county officials couldn’t even get complete medical histories of these individuals from the state to create treatment programs.

Dr. Marvin Southard, director of the county’s Department of Mental Health, says some of these ex-inmates have “garden variety mental illnesses,” for which about half are engaged in treatment. “The challenge has been that there’s a second minority group with very severe mental illnesses.”

These people, Southard says, have been immediately placed in secure, privately-owned psychiatric facilities with which the county has contracts. “Any one of those cases could have been problematic for individual and public safety,” Southard says.

But, according to Southard, there’s been a price to pay—both in dollars and in the operation of the mental health system. These AB 109 clients, he says, “have jumped the line,” creating a backlog among patients in serious need of those same beds. “This has put more pressure on the psych wards at the county hospitals. It backs up the system.”

Still, Southard, Delgado, Bingham and others say there has been a bright spot in all of this: realignment has forced an unprecedented level of cooperation among agencies throughout the county.

Just last week, for example, the Department of Mental Health, the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Public Health teamed up to begin providing the new AB109 inmates in county jail with a promising anti-addiction drug called Vivitrol.  

“We’re working together more synergistically now than we ever have,” says Bingham, who credits his staff with helping make interagency strides.

“Whether you agree with realignment or not,” adds Delgado, “everyone has pulled together, committed resources and been fully invested in doing whatever they can to make this thing work.”

Posted 10/12/12


Sheriff agrees to broad jail reforms

October 3, 2012

Breaking a nearly week-long silence, Sheriff Lee Baca says he applauds the commission's efforts. Photo/AP

Chastened and conciliatory, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Wednesday that he fully agrees with—and will begin implementing—dozens of recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel that accused him and his top command of failures in leadership that fostered a culture of brutality among jail deputies.

“I couldn’t have written them better myself,” Baca said of the more than 60 recommendations issued last week by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which concluded a year-long investigation with a blistering report on management breakdowns inside the nation’s largest jail system.

But, in response to a question during a packed news conference, the elected sheriff brushed aside talk of a possible resignation. “I’m not a person who thinks about quitting on anything,” he said.

Baca convened the massive media gathering in the chapel of the Men’s Central Jail, an aging facility on the edge of downtown Los Angeles, where the vast majority of brutality allegations against deputies have been leveled over the years by inmates and civilian monitors, including the ACLU.  As Baca spoke from the pulpit under a large cross, more than 20 members of his jail command staff sat solemnly behind him, some on risers. In the pews—behind a bank of TV cameras—were rows of inmates, dressed in L.A. County’s jailhouse blues.

It was an usually theatrical setting for the sheriff’s first response to the 194-page report by the jail commission, which was appointed by the Board of Supervisors and included former judges, a police chief and a longtime South Los Angeles pastor. And he went to great lengths not to criticize any aspect of the commission’s effort, which he said he supported from the outset. “I’m paid to take criticism,” said the sheriff, dressed in uniform. “Even when it’s unfair.”

In fact, as he has in the past, Baca was quick to accept blame for use of force issues that had been intensifying for several years. Those problems became especially acute under the leadership of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, according to the commission. The panelists concluded that Tanaka had “exacerbated” the problems by, among other things, publicly belittling internal affairs investigators and unilaterally killing a plan to break-up deputy cliques by rotating them into new jail assignments.

“They needed me to set a higher standard for performance,” Baca said of Tanaka and other key members of his command staff, whom the sheriff said had failed to alert him to the brewing problems inside the crowded county lockup.

The commission was highly critical of Baca for not holding Tanaka and others accountable for their conduct, saying his failure to act has sent a troublesome message to the rank and file. Repeatedly pressed on that point by reporters on Thursday, the sheriff sharpened his tone. “I’m not a person who acts impulsively or in my own self interest when it comes to someone else’s career. We will either have the facts or we won’t have the facts.”

Baca, who said he is reviewing Tanaka’s conduct, added: “I don’t lead with my ego. I lead with my intellect.”

The sheriff said Tanaka, a certified public accountant who was not at Wednesday’s event, would remain with the department, overseeing administrative services and the agency’s budget, a far smaller portfolio than he once held.

Among the commission recommendations (read the panel’s executive summary here), Baca said he supports two that, in concept, would vastly enhance oversight of the jail operation.

One would create an independent Office of Inspector General reporting to the Board of Supervisors. The new agency would essentially consolidate and broaden the review responsibilities of three existing civilian bodies—the Special Counsel, Office of Independent Review and the Office of the Ombudsman. The idea for an inspector general is modeled after a watchdog agency that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department. Exactly how such a body would be created and function for the Sheriff’s Department will likely be a matter of considerable public debate.

The second recommended reform would be the creation of a new assistant sheriff position, staffed by an experienced corrections leader from outside the department. This person would report directly to Baca, who said he supports the idea and already is seeking candidates.

The commission also called for tougher discipline for excessive force and dishonesty, a simplification of the disciplinary system and creation of a new investigations division that would report directly to the sheriff.

Baca said he welcomes these recommendations as a way to make “a stronger and safer jail,” a place where deputies respect the humanity of inmates, who, for their part, can learn life skills and end the cycle of recidivism. “I do have some deputies who have done some terrible things,” he said.

Still, Baca stressed that since last October when the ACLU presented him with numerous accusations of excessive force in the jail, he aggressively instituted a series of measures that have reduced “significant force” in the jails by 53 percent—“a historic low,” he said. He said he also has initiated tough new policies while increasing supervision, video surveillance and training. Baca said he and his management team have “responded massively.” (A video of Baca’s hour-long news conference can be seen here.)

In its report, the jail commission acknowledged the significant improvements Baca had brought to the custody operation after he belatedly became engaged with the issues. But commission member Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and ex-head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said those measures do not go far enough and that the department needs sweeping cultural and structural changes.

“The modest steps taken by the sheriff are not permanent, institutional reforms,” Bonner said during last week’s commission meeting. “They are Band-Aids—meant to staunch the bleeding.”

Posted 10/3/12

Stopping a danger in the sand

April 4, 2012

Rescuers work feverishly to uncover a teen in Newport Beach who was buried for 30 minutes but survived.

The county’s new beach ordinance may have launched more than its share of wisecracks about allegedly outlaw Frisbees, but lifeguards say that at least one of the less-discussed changes could save lives—and that’s no joke.

The new law, which won final approval from the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, bans the digging of holes deeper than 18 inches to avert dangers not widely known to beachgoers, said Los Angeles County Lifeguard Section Chief Mickey Gallagher.

“In my 40-year career, people have been badly injured and even killed as a result of sand tunneling,” he said. “This is about a safety hazard. It isn’t about little kids with plastic shovels digging a little hole in the sand.”

Last August, for instance, a teenager was buried alive for more than 30 minutes in Newport Beach. The then-17-year-old boy was building a tunnel when the sand collapsed around him. He survived, several feet below ground, only because he had managed to wiggle his head a little as the sand poured in around him, creating a slight air pocket that kept him alive long enough for emergency crews and bystanders to get to him.

Two months before that, in June 2011, a Northern California teenager on a beach outing with a church group was permanently disabled after being buried for more than 10 minutes when a sand tunnel collapsed on him.

In the same week, according to Los Angeles County lifeguard records, a 10-year-old boy in Manhattan Beach was rescued from a similar situation—only the top of the boy’s head was showing when the lifeguard found him. He’d been lying on his back in a hole, tunneling laterally, and had ignored a prior warning to stop digging because it was dangerous.

Nine months earlier, on Labor Day weekend, a 3-year-old toddler was taken by air ambulance from Zuma Beach to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center after she crawled into a sand hole that had collapsed on her, county lifeguard records show.

And two months before that, on July 25, 2010, an 11-year-old boy burrowing in Manhattan Beach was buried for five minutes as more than a dozen beachgoers, emergency workers and lifeguards tried frantically to extricate him. Lifeguards later said that the only reason they even located him was that his cousin had run, screaming, for help and one of his rescuers had glimpsed a patch of his blue swim trunks as they dug blindly under the sand’s surface. By the time he was pulled free, his lips were blue and he had stopped breathing; he vomited sand after a physician who happened to be at the scene administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“Sand is really unstable, even when it’s hard-packed,” said Gallagher. “Every year, someone will try to dig a deep hole, or tunnel in from a steep berm after a high tide and get into trouble. Some people actually come down to the beach with big shovels, like you use in construction.

“People think they can make a tunnel or a cave, and to the untrained eye, the sand may seem fine because it’s wet. But without support, those tunnels will collapse, and sand is extremely heavy. And once someone is buried, it’s extremely hard to find them. And there’s no oxygen down there.”

The revisions to the beach ordinance make a number of other clarifications to the existing rules for recreation at the beach. Among other things, they make clear for the first time that Frisbees and footballs are allowed on the beach, albeit with certain restrictions. (Basically, you can do it anytime except when it endangers someone or a lifeguard deems it unsafe.)

Inaccurate press reports initially drew criticism of the changes, including the ban on digging, which was derided as meddlesome fun-killing. But Beaches & Harbors Director Santos Kreimann says lifeguards requested the digging restrictions so they could have legal backup in preventing a problem they’ve informally been guarding against for generations.

Beyond dangers to the diggers, Kreimann said, holes in the sand also create a hazard for emergency workers, who are jolted by them when they transport people with neck and back injuries.

“The bottom line is: Have a good time and play in the sand if you want to,” Kreimann said. “But don’t dig more than knee-deep, and if you make a hole, fill it back up.”

All that's left: the hole in Newport Beach where sand swallowed a 17-year-old boy. Photo/Los Angeles Times

Posted 4/3/12

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