Top Story: Public Safety
May 22, 2013
Los Angeles County’s jail system has, in the words of Sheriff Lee Baca, become the nation’s largest de facto mental hospital. Thousands of inmates who need intensive treatment are posing huge medical, logistical and financial challenges inside and outside the lockup. The buildings that house nearly 19,000 inmates simply weren’t designed to cope with the realities of today’s inmate population in Los Angeles.
And no one is more aware of the problems looming on the edge of downtown than Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who was recently hired as part of the sweeping reforms a blue-ribbon commission recommended to curb deputy brutality against inmates.
“It’s one of my top initiatives,” McDonald said of finding a way to house and treat mentally ill offenders. “It’s a complex social and criminal justice issue. If they’re going to be jailed, then it’s in the best interest of the county to design a jail that best meets their therapeutic needs.”
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed with that assessment, taking the first steps in what could lead to the construction of an Integrated Inmate Treatment Center, which would house all mentally ill inmates, including those with co-occurring substance abuse disorders, for specialized treatment.
“I am open as a policymaker and as a taxpayer to doing something that costs money if it stands a chance of actually producing results and…not just warehousing people,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who authored the motion calling for an analysis of a stand-alone facility.
Yaroslavsky said it makes no sense to raze the archaic Men’s Central Jail downtown and build a proposed $1 billion replacement that essentially would serve the same function. “I just think that’s a colossal waste of money,” Yaroslavsky said. But construction of a separate facility to create badly needed mental health beds and treatment space would be “a game changer,” the supervisor said.
The board directed Vanir Construction Management, a county consultant already studying plans to replace Men’s Central Jail, to undertake a separate analysis of the mental health facility concept in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Department and the county’s health agencies.
Currently, according to McDonald, 2,500 inmates require mental health services. The number of intensive mental health treatment beds, she said, represents a quarter of what’s needed. What’s more, she said there’s a severe shortage of group treatment spaces to explore such issues with inmates as anger management, medication compliance and hygiene—“places to talk about their ability to be successful.”
Yaroslavsky and McDonald said the broader public would benefit, too. Studies show that recidivism drops among mentally ill/dually diagnosed inmates who receive intensive treatment. A separate facility would also open up more beds for the general inmate population; mentally ill inmates now are often placed alone in two-bunk cells, McDonald said.
What’s more, with the federal justice department monitoring the county’s management of mentally ill inmates—and the ever-present potential for lawsuits—the construction of a new facility would further demonstrate the county’s commitment to improving conditions for this growing and difficult population.
Earlier this year, a Sheriff’s Department study found that jailers were more likely to use force against mentally ill patients, who can be more disruptive and less compliant, requiring staff with more specialized training to avoid conflicts.
“Mentally ill inmates have a much more difficult time adjusting to a jail environment,” McDonald said. “They sometimes get paranoid and attack the staff or each other.”
By all accounts, the completion of a new downtown facility could be years away. So for now, McDonald said, she’s trying to come up with a “temporary solution” by reconfiguring existing space to free up more mental health beds and treatment areas.
“We’ve got to do something here,” she said. “Our mentally ill offenders need more out-of-cell treatment time and we need additional bed capacity.”
May 15, 2013
Los Angeles County’s legendary Hall of Justice has had its share of dangerous inhabitants over the years. Now you can add one more to the list: lead-based paint.
The 1920s-era red oxide paint, containing as much as 39% lead, was found when construction workers last summer uncovered painted steel beams that had previously been encased in concrete. Testing on the steel and surrounding concrete revealed higher-than-anticipated lead concentrations in both.
This week, the Board of Supervisors approved an ambitious, $6.45 million abatement effort that will require lead removal in more than 15,000 locations throughout the hall, which, since opening in 1925, has played host to some of Los Angeles’ most notorious figures, including Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and Bugsy Siegel.
The unexpected discovery of the lead-painted structural steel came as workers were preparing to begin seismic reinforcement work on the imposing downtown structure, which has been closed since the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
“Absolutely, it’s a surprise,” said Greg Zinberg, project executive with Clark Construction, the contractor for the renovation. “We’ve had to re-strategize about how we’re approaching the project…We’re talking about thousands of hours of work.”
Areas within the building are being cordoned off to contain lead dust and workers must wear protective gear, including respirators and special suits, as they go about their tasks. A literal top-to-bottom scrubbing will be required to decontaminate the structure.
Even so, the project remains on schedule to finish up next year, with county departments, including the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office, still on track to move in by early 2015. The lead abatement work itself is expected to wrap up by this October.
The funding for the lead removal comes from $16.9 million set aside in the project budget to cover unanticipated changes that crop up during the construction process. The overall budget for the project, which is being financed by long-term bonds, is $231.7 million.
This is not the building’s first brush with lead problems. When open fire escapes on two sides of the building were set to be cleaned out as part of the renovation project, workers found 4½-foot-high heaps of pigeon droppings on just about every floor, said James Kearns, the Public Works division head whose team is overseeing the project. Testing on the pigeon guano found lead as well as the more expected pathogens, resulting in an earlier $36,415 abatement effort.
The pigeons haven’t spared the surface of the building, either. Behind scaffolding, cleaning is now underway to restore the hall’s dingy grey exterior to its original white—the same color as nearby Los Angeles City Hall. But getting it done meant encountering decades-old droppings amid the colonnade of Romanesque columns along the building’s upper floors—“an interesting discovery,” as project executive Zinberg puts it.
As for the lead abatement, the latest twist in long-running efforts to bring the Hall of Justice back to life, workers are taking it all in stride. “Right now, we’re moving along and getting through it,” said Kearns, of Public Works. “It’s not an easy job but it’s all under control.”
For a look inside the building during an earlier phase in the construction process, click here.
May 2, 2013
It was late in the day when several twentysomething hikers happened upon veteran Los Angeles County rescuer Richard De Leon. Next to him was another young man, whose broken body had just been retrieved from the rocky floor of Eaton Canyon.
“Where you coming from?” De Leon asked the group, knowing all too well the answer.
“The second falls,” they confirmed. “But we’re fine.”
De Leon motioned to the man now being photographed by coroner’s officials. “So was he about an hour ago.”
The hikers assured De Leon they weren’t like that guy. “We know what we’re doing,” they insisted.
“So did he,” the rescuer said, hoping to drive home his point but knowing that he might as well have been lecturing the rocks.
Every day in the mountains above Pasadena, this sense of youthful invincibility collides with a stretch of treacherous terrain that leads to a waterfall tucked into Eaton Canyon. Unlike an easy hike that starts at the county-operated nature center and ends at a lower waterfall, there’s no trail to speak of to reach the upper falls—just an obstacle course of crumbling rock, tree limbs and narrow ridgeline paths with sheer cliffs on both sides.
In just the past two years, five people have fallen to their deaths there, the most at any single site in the county’s sprawling recreational landscape. The most recent, in March, was a 17-year-old Alhambra girl, who was a standout in academics and athletics. Already accepted to Cornell and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, high school senior Esther Suen sustained fatal head injuries after she plunged 200 feet. A teenage companion also fell, but he survived.
Although the problem is not new, De Leon, who is team captain of the Sheriff’s Department’s search and rescue team in Altadena, says the frequency of people being stranded and injured is on the rise because of social media postings that draw inexperienced hikers to the place and the destruction of other Angeles National Forest trails from the massive Station Fire a few years back.
“By the second or third rescue of the day,” De Leon says, he gets frustrated with the risk takers. “I start thinking, ‘Will you people just stop!’ ”
How to get them to do that, however, has turned into a test of competing strategies and wills among the government agencies that share responsibility for the area, including L.A. County and the U.S. Forest Service, which is responsible for the wilderness land that hikers use to reach the second waterfall.
In 2011, a series of multi-jurisdictional meetings were convened that included representatives from Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich’s office, the county’s parks and sheriff’s departments and the Pasadena fire department. From that effort came an online public service announcement featuring four uniformed sheriff and fire officials, who stressed that getting to the second waterfall “isn’t worth losing your life.”
But many at the table had wanted more. Some in the law enforcement contingent wanted to start charging reckless hikers for the substantial costs of rescues. Others suggested fencing off access points. At a minimum, though, most everyone agreed that the forest service should post a strongly worded warning sign where hikers, who’d easily reached the first waterfall, begin the mile-long trek to the second one. That is, most everyone except the forest service.
Ranger Mike McIntyre, who oversees the area, told the group that forest service lawyers wanted no warning signs placed on the agency’s land, in a spot where there’s not even a trail. Doing so, he said, could open the forest service to legal liability; attorneys representing injured hikers might argue that, if agency officials knew there was a risk of injury, then they had an obligation to make the area safer.
Now, in the wake of Suen’s death, the group is headed back to the table, this time with an even greater urgency to push the forest service to act, especially with the busy summer season approaching—or, as the Los Angeles Daily News put it in a recent editorial calling for better signage and more patrols at Eaton, the “dying season.”
Said Sussy Nemer, a senior deputy to Antonovich, whose district includes Eaton Canyon: “We’d like to see all the county agencies and the City of Pasadena work with the forest service to increase the signage near the second waterfall and put in place some kind of physical barrier to prevent hikers from even getting up there.”
Nemer said her office also hopes to recruit the area’s new state and federal elected representatives, “who could serve as allies in our cause.”
Russ Guiney, the director of the Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said he’s under no illusion that more warning signs or even a fence would end the risky adventurism that’s luring the mostly younger crowds to dangerous heights. But like the county’s warnings signs in the lower canyon, he said, it might stop some in their tracks, which would represent a significant contribution to life and limb.
“I think if I was the forest service, I would want to do more,” Guiney said. “I’d think we had a moral obligation. Certainly, we in the county feel that we have a moral obligation….What people deserve and expect is a fair warning.”
Guiney also said that his office would continue to monitor—and counter—such social media sites as YouTube and Yelp, where people have romanticized the second waterfall and downplayed the dangers.
Forest service ranger McIntyre said in an interview that, at the moment, he doesn’t foresee a shift in strategy from his agency. “We’re doing what our lawyers are telling us to do,” he said.
People mistakenly come to Eaton Canyon thinking it’s an urban park, along the lines of Griffith Park, he said. “But the forest is a wildlands area,” he said. “I’m not saying the forest is dangerous but it comes with inherent risks. We need to make people better prepared, and they need to know their limits.”
Michael Leum, who oversees all of the Sheriff’s Department’s search and rescue teams, says to count him among those who’d like to see the forest service take a more active role in Eaton’s safety issues and not treat them “like Kryptonite.” Since the forest service says it has no trails beyond the first waterfall, Leum said, “they believe there is no need for maintenance or signage, regardless of the fact that hundreds of people go up there.”
Leum said that if he had his way, he’d want the agency to “install safe ingress and egress into the area.”
The status quo, he said, only guarantees this: “People are going to get hurt and killed in that canyon.”
April 11, 2013
What began 15 years ago simply as a promising job for a struggling single mom of three youngsters, has become a calling. “I am a voice for the animals,” says Eva Montes.
Those animals have come in all sizes and shapes, from furry to feathered, but they’ve suffered a common fate: they’ve been treated badly by people—sometimes through ignorance, sometimes with malice. And it’s not just about the animals.
“Most serial killers started with abusing animals,” Montes says, “and we have to put a stop to that early.”
Montes belongs to a select squad inside Los Angeles County’s Department of Animal Care & Control that investigates the agency’s most complex cases of animal neglect and cruelty. Called the Major Case Unit, its seven members tackle everything from highly organized pit bull and cockfighting rings to cat hoarders to single cases of heartbreaking—and criminal—abuse.
On Tuesday, she was among more than a dozen uniformed colleagues picked to represent the department before the Board of Supervisors as part of “Animal Control Officers Appreciation Week in Los Angeles County.” While the agency is best known for its shelter system and efforts to find adoptive homes for animals, the largely unsung detective work of its Major Case Unit, or MCU, is central to the agency’s mandate.
“By our very mission, we’re charged with protecting the public and protecting animals,” says Deputy Director Aaron Reyes, who oversees the unit. “One of the best ways we can do that is to investigate crimes of cruelty, abuse, neglect and illegal animal fighting.”
Reyes says the MCU was created more than a decade ago when it became clear that the massive volume of calls handled by animal control officers was preventing them from undertaking sustained and difficult investigations. Until last year, the MCU had been based in the original “pound master’s house” at the department’s first-ever facility, which opened in Downey in 1946. But Reyes says he thought it was crucial to get the team’s members “onto the front lines” and base them in various shelters, where they could initiate investigations more quickly and share their expertise and insights with other officers.
The idea to scatter the team was not met with enthusiasm.
“We were against it,” recalls Montes, who’s been in the unit for nearly three years. “We hung out together. We were family. But it’s worked out better.” Since being assigned to the Carson Animal Care Center, Montes says, she’s found potential abuse cases “that were slipping through the cracks” because some officers were not creative enough in their investigations or sufficiently trained to spot signs of less obvious abuse or neglect when people were bringing dogs to the shelter.
Since last July, Montes says she has, for the first time, initiated a number of investigations of people who’ve brought dogs to the facility, including a woman who recently turned in a pit bull that looked like it had been used for fighting. A warrant for her arrest was recently issued. Last November, Montes was instrumental in a joint investigation with the SPCA Los Angeles that led to a long list of cruelty charges filed by the district attorney’s office against the owner of a Gardena guard dog business.
Being assigned fulltime to the Carson shelter, which serves some of southern Los Angeles County’s most impoverished neighborhoods, has been a culture shock for Montes. Before her promotion to the MCU, she spent nine years in the county’s Agoura Animal Care Center, high in the mountains above Malibu. She calls it “the Club Med of shelters.” The dogs, she says, are mostly of the “frou-frou” variety, and volunteerism is robust, something for which she’ll always be grateful on a very personal level. During Montes’ tenure there, her 14-year-old daughter died from a form of bone cancer. Volunteers built a misting system to keep the animals cooler during the summer months and dedicated it with a plaque in honor of Montes’ daughter, Jessica.
“She really respected my job,” Montes says of her girl. “If she could only see me now.”
In contrast to the Agoura shelter, Montes’ current assignment has exposed her to some of the meanest dogs and toughest owners in the department’s jurisdiction, a swath of southern Los Angeles County where “gang members represent themselves with their dogs.” Sometimes, she says, packs of “dominant breed” dogs such as Rottweilers and pit bulls roam the streets. “It’s scary,” she says. “I worry about getting bit and never being able to work again.”
Montes says she’s received cooperation during her neighborhood investigations but has been told by some male officers that they’ve encountered resistance when responding to complaints, being warned: “Get off my property or I’ll shoot you.”
One of Montes’ colleagues in the Major Case Unit is Armando Ferrufino, who, like her, also works in the southern part of the county. An expert on cockfighting, he’s assigned to the Downey Animal Care Center. And like Montes, he also feels as though he’s a voice for the animals.
He tells the story of a man who, for months, allowed his Rottweiler, Duke, to deteriorate into a mass of tumors and sores, refusing to seek medical help despite the animal’s obvious suffering. Acting on a tip, animal control officers rescued Duke, but he was too far gone to save.
“I felt like the spirit of the animal was telling me to do the right thing, to investigate and get the whole truth,” Ferrufino says. “And I did.” The owner was charged with a felony and sentenced to three months in county jail.
Ferrufino, who joined the MCU in 2009, says one of the most sensitive assignments involves animal hoarders, mostly lonely elderly people whose homes are filled with scores of cats, a good number of them ailing. “In their mind,” Ferrufino says, “they believe they are doing the right thing—showing them love—but it gets to the point where they can’t take care of them.”
If the neglect is severe, he says, then charges are pursued. Authorities also provide referrals for counseling. What’s more, the county has a program to help clean homes after animals have been removed during often tearful negotiations with owners. “It’s an illness,” Ferrufino says. “They’re not aware they’re doing something wrong.”
As difficult and wrenching as the work can be, Ferrufino says, he’s found his calling, too.
“Every day I come to work, I’m happy,” he says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next, from hoarders to horses to cockfights.”
Montes agrees. “Some people like to stay in the shelter environment. But I saw other officers out there getting justice and I said: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ “
April 4, 2013
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.”
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.
March 28, 2013
There’s more to a firefighter’s job than adrenalin and firehouse spaghetti, even if the rest of us don’t see it every day.
There are medical emergencies. There are mandated training sessions on everything from marine firefighting to ladder climbing. There are state and federal safety requirements and on-the-job college courses. Not to mention the need to stay in peak firefighting shape.
Now, the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Training Services Section is pulling back the curtain with Turnout, a lively, video-centric website aimed at educating both firefighters and the communities they serve.
“We have close to 4,000 firefighters and other emergency response personnel all over the county, and we needed to connect them,” says Battalion Chief Derek Alkonis, who directs training for the department and who launched the site last week. “But this is also a way of showing the public what we’re doing around the county. This gives them an insider’s view.”
Written and produced by members of the department, Turnout—named for the tough, yellow gear that firefighters don for battle—offers crisp videos and links on topics from fire readiness to department history.
Here is Firefighter Specialist Jim Golondzinier with a primer on how to tell from the color of a fire’s smoke whether toxic plastic is burning. Here is “Sim Man”, the high-tech mannequin used to train paramedics. Here is Battalion Chief Dennis Breshears offering tips for interval training, firefighter style.
Chief Deputy of Emergency Operations Mike Metro says the site arose from a desire to better engage younger and more tech-savvy firefighters, who weren’t connecting with the department’s existing ink-on-paper, in-house publications.
“You can put out executive action memos all day long, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to grab today’s firefighter,” Metro says.
A snazzy New York City Fire Department training publication provided some inspiration, he says, but the idea for Turnout really began to gel in December after a $150,000 Productivity Investment Fund grant from the county Quality and Productivity Commission allowed the department to buy high-definition videography equipment and begin filming web videos as part of an online in-service training initiative.
“We were already out there filming instructional pieces, so we figured, how hard would it be to shoot a little extra?” says Alkonis. “A lot of things compete for firefighters’ attention, on and off-duty, and we thought this might help us connect to them around the county.
“Also, part of our strategic plan is to communicate our value to the public. So why not show how we prep our first responders? And what’s the best way to do that? Well, how about a web page?”
Alkonis and Metro describe the videos on Turnout as “commercials” that engage firefighters and remind them of upcoming training sessions and other items of interest.
“Say we’re doing training on the dangers of stockpiled ammunition in people’s homes,” says Metro. “Well, we can put a video on Turnout and then say, go to [the department’s in-service training site] and check that out.”
But the site also helps firefighters maintain ties in a large and far-flung department, he says, and could operate not only as an education tool, but also as a forum, a suggestion box, a tip sheet and—if firefighters are so inclined—a hobby.
“We have some tremendous talent,” Alkonis says. “None of this was done by contractors—it was all done by fire department people who wanted to do something extra. The designer of the site was a graphic artist when he came on to the fire department. The web master works for our information management division. The individual who does all the film work is a film school grad who has won some awards for it. The managing editor is a screenwriter and worked in Hollywood in production.
“Living in L.A., we have access to some really talented people, and it was that collective talent that led us to try to do something unique.”
On the public front, meanwhile, Metro and Alkonis see the site as one more tool in an ongoing effort to broaden community engagement.
“We’re looking at Facebook pages in our geographic field divisions,” says Metro. “Our community service representatives are looking to engage more.”
The department, he says, is even considering a push into crowdsourcing, with a CPR training initiative and a mobile app that would let the department call upon legions of potential lifesavers who might help keep a victim alive during a wait for paramedics.
“Typically people think of the fire department and have a stereotype, but if they knew more about who we are and what we do, they’d be surprised,” says Alkonis. “We hope to get more personal as we go on with our stories, so the public gets to know our firefighters, and maybe even can track them, like on a reality series.”
Meanwhile, he suggests county residents keep their eyes peeled.
“Right now, we have probably ten videos posted, another 20 in the can and probably ten more that we’re working on.”
February 22, 2013
Terri McDonald is taking a break in one of her favorite places, the warden’s office at Folsom State Prison. She’s sentimental about the whole place, with its thick granite walls and colorful history as one of America’s oldest operating prisons. Years back, she worked there as a captain. More recently, she’s been overseeing it—along with 32 other California lockdowns—as operations chief for the state’s penal system, the largest in the nation.
On this day, during an interview with a caller from Los Angeles, she sounds more like a social scientist than a prison boss. “They are their own communities,” she says of the state institutions, “each with its own ebb and flow, each with its own subculture.”
Behind the walls, she says, you’ll find “the most complicated people in California,” men and women “too problematic to be in society,” thrown together with an undercurrent of “gang allegiances and sociopathic influences.” Some inmates might be only 18 years old, she says, others 90. Some may have developmental disabilities, others Ph.D.’s.
“It’s just fascinating,” McDonald says enthusiastically. “I can’t wait to see how L.A. works.”
Come March, she’ll get that opportunity when she assumes her newest—and, arguably, her highest profile—position during a quarter-century career in corrections; McDonald has been selected as assistant sheriff for the custody division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department—a post created as one of the top priorities of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. McDonald, 49, also will hold the distinction of being the highest-ranking woman in the department’s history.
“It’ll be a challenge,” she says of the new job, “but certainly not overwhelming.”
McDonald’s selection by Sheriff Lee Baca represents a significant departure for the department, which historically has promoted from within. The blue-ribbon jail panel stressed the importance of naming an outsider to the new custody position, someone with a record of success in managing a large corrections facility or department. In its final report in September, the panel noted that the previous three assistant sheriffs responsible for custody operations had come from the department’s patrol side “and none had any recent experience in the jails.”
The panel, whose members were appointed by the Board of Supervisors, also recommended that the new position report directly to Baca to enhance accountability and “remove the filtering process that accounts, in part, for the Sheriff not knowing of ‘bad news,’ while at the same time reducing [Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s] influence over Custody operations.” The jail commission blamed Tanaka for undermining efforts aimed at reducing brutality among some deputies assigned to the county jail system, which is managed by the Sheriff’s Department.
In the wake of the findings, Baca acknowledged management failures of his own and agreed to implement the panel’s 60 recommendations, including conducting a nationwide search for the job McDonald cinched.
“My expectation for her is to tell me the good, the bad and the ugly and to proactively head off problems, solving them before they get out of control,” Baca says. “This was a gap that needed to be closed.”
Baca emphasized, as did the commission, that he has made substantial progress already in reducing the use of unnecessary force in the jail and expects McDonald to build on those reforms and others, including the expansion of inmate educational programs.
The commission’s general counsel, Richard Drooyan, says McDonald “certainly has the experience and background” to tackle the problems uncovered during the panel’s nearly year-long investigation. “I think it helped bringing in someone from the outside to restore credibility to the process,” says Drooyan, who is now monitoring the department’s implementation of the commission’s reforms.
McDonald, who grew up in the small Stanislaus County town of Oakdale, went to work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation at the age of 25, specializing in inmate mental health issues. Since 2011, she’s been functioning as undersecretary of operations, overseeing adult institutions, parole operations, juvenile justice and rehabilitative programs. Among other things, she says that, because of massive overcrowding, she was responsible for moving 10,000 inmates to five other states, giving her a national perspective on prison models.
During the past year, her state job also has brought her into direct contact—and sometimes conflict—with Los Angeles County. She’s been the California prison system’s point person for “realignment,” the highly controversial shift of certain oversight and incarceration responsibilities from the state to its counties. It’s been her job to coordinate this unprecedented remaking of the state criminal justice system with local probation officials, sheriff’s departments and mental health experts.
Now, she’ll be on the hook for managing the fallout in L.A. County’s jails, where thousands of inmates are being sentenced for crimes that used to land them in state custody—and for terms longer than those previously imposed on county jail defendants. “In my new role,” she says, “I’ll have the opportunity to see the impact and work on solutions.”
As for the scandal of excessive force in the county’s jail that led to her landing the $223,087-a-year job, McDonald says she’s up for the task. She notes, among other things, that she was a “master trainer” for the state’s use of force policy and was instrumental in revamping the training academy’s ethics curriculum.
“I understand the realities of working in correctional environments and how to make fundamental changes,” she says. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve been battered and been in riots. I’ve used force. I think folks have to realize that force is a reality of jails and prisons.” But, she says: “The force used must be the minimum amount to resolve the problem and not used as punishment.”
January 23, 2013
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.
November 20, 2012
Last week, a memorial was relocated in the San Fernando Valley, a bit of granite that was moved for improvements at El Cariso Community Regional Park. The marker is modest, standing in sharp contrast to the tragedy it commemorates: Forty-six years ago this month, 31 young men were dispatched to a wildfire near Sylmar, and only 19 of them survived.
Rich Leak was 19 that summer, the gung-ho son of a Camp Pendleton fire captain. “All my life,” he recalls “I had wanted to be a fireman.” After attending a summer firefighting program at the U.S. Marine base, he had joined an elite ground crew of “hotshots” based near Lake Elsinore, so called because they were dispatched to the hottest parts of forest blazes. By 1966, his second year with the El Cariso Hotshots, he was a crew foreman, traveling the West to cut fire lines and clear brush around raging wildfires and “loving the excitement and the adrenalin rush.”
The Nov. 1, 1966, call came on a hot day at the end of a long fire season: A faulty power line had sparked a brushfire near Pacoima Dam. Whipped by Santa Ana winds, the blaze had charred some 2,000 acres around Loop Canyon. But it appeared to be dying by the time Leak and his fellow hotshots got what they regarded as an easy assignment—to scrape a fire line along a ravine near the smoldering fire.
“There wasn’t a lot of brush, and the fire was starting to lay down, so the line we were cutting didn’t have to be that big,” Leak remembers. The young men worked without gloves, their hands thick and calloused, their shirtsleeves rolled up. Their orange fire shirts had been washed so many times that they had long since lost their fire retardant coating. No one carried a radio or stood lookout. No one bothered to haul in a portable fire shelter.
And no one understood the dangers of the terrain, Leak says. Now firefighters know that a steep crease in a slope can act as a draft for combustible gasses. But on that day, no one knew that the 31 guys in orange hardhats were entering a death trap. They were nearly done with their work when, at 3:35 p.m., the wind abruptly shifted. A spot fire ignited on the hillside below them. As Leak looked up, the air around him suddenly went wavy.
Down the line an order came: Get out—now! But within seconds, a mighty rush of super-hot gas swept up the 2,200-foot ravine and exploded.
“It was like when you pour lighter fluid on a charcoal barbeque and put a match to it,” Leak remembers. “There was this big wooooof! And then all I could see was just a wall of orange flame. I had to look straight up to see blue sky.”
Leak held his breath so his lungs wouldn’t sear in the 2,500-degree heat, falling to his knees as the shock wave hit him. “Guys were yelling and screaming and praying and calling for their mothers,” he remembers. “I was talking to my Savior, that’s for sure.”
The Loop Fire would change safety protocols for fighting fires in narrow canyons, encouraging lookouts and radios and the development of much-improved fire gear, but not before it claimed the lives of 12 hotshots, most in their late teens and early 20s. Ten more were critically burned and scarred for life by the disaster. The fireball lasted no longer than 60 seconds, but in that time Leak suffered full-circumference burns from his elbows to his wrists, and lost four of his fingers.
After the smoke cleared, he recalls, “I was in shock, running around from one guy to the next, trying to put out the fire with my bare hands. At one point, I looked down at my arms and saw skin hanging down. All I thought was, ‘Wow, I guess I got burned pretty good.’”
It took three years and more than 30 surgeries for doctors to repair Leak’s wounds, using skin grafts from his stomach to repair his damaged hands. He has had to relearn how to type and eat with utensils. He struggles to pick up coins and he has to use both hands to screw a hose onto a faucet. He has no fingerprints.
“For a long time, I was very self-conscious,” he remembers. He went back to school at Palomar College near his hometown of Vista, earning an associate degree in business, thinking he might become a CPA. Then he heard the Vista Fire Department was hiring dispatchers. “It’s hard to describe unless you’re a firefighter,” he says. “It never goes away for me.”
He spent 30 years with the Vista Fire Department, working his way up to fire investigator before retiring to Hesperia 12 years ago. He married a friend’s neighbor and helped raise her two children. “To her, it was what was in my heart that mattered,” he says. “She told me she didn’t even notice I was burned at first.”
Then in 1996, the U.S. Forest Service sent him a notification: A memorial commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Loop Fire was going to be installed in El Cariso Park. Not all the survivors could make it, but some did. Sadly, they recalled the fallen.
“I still remember ‘em,” Leak says. “Raymond Chee, my crew boss, a Navajo I think from New Mexico—very quiet guy, used a brush hook. He was the best hook I’ve ever seen. The White brothers, Michael and Stephen, 22 and 18. They were from San Diego. Their dad was a captain in the Navy. It was devastating for their family.
“John Figlo, he was 18, kind of a quiet guy. Strong. James Moreland. He was in his twenties. Frederick Danner, a tall guy and a really good worker. He died in the hospital. Kenneth Barnhill, nice guy. I knew his brother. Carl Shilcutt, he was 26, one of the older guys on the crew.” He continues down the list: Daniel Moore, Joel Hill, William Waller. John Verdugo, a 19-year-old kid whose body was the first one he saw when he opened his eyes.
Leak kept in touch with the other survivors. He and another ex-hotshot, Ed Cosgrove, began giving talks together to fire academy classes. There were reunions—that’s how he found out that the 1996 marker was in serious need of repair. A drunk driver had hit it and cracked the granite. Skateboarders had worn down the lettering; taggers had marred it with graffiti.
So Leak spearheaded a move for a new one, only to learn that it was going to be moved anyway to make way for park improvements. Last week, a new marker was re-dedicated near a park office building. “It’s near a walkway,” he says. “Granite, just like the original.”
“There are times when I think, ‘What if I’d perished?’” says Leak, now 65. “But you can’t let things haunt you. You have to get over your injuries and go for it. I’m thankful to be here, living my life.”