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March 3, 2010 > County to arm select deputy probation officers

County to arm select deputy probation officers

Submitted By Gwendolyn Mitchell and Marina Hinestrosa

On February 23, 2010, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously authorized a select group of deputy probation officers, who visit and monitor high-risk adults, to carry firearms while on duty. The decision permits 20 of 300 deputy officers at the Probation Department to be armed. Probation officers supervising juveniles will be unarmed. State law allows deputy probation officers to carry firearms on duty but Santa Clara County is the last, largest urban county in California with unarmed deputy probation officers.

"Today, we must strike a balance between community safety and employee safety," said Supervisor George Shirakawa, Chair of the Santa Clara County Board's Public Safety and Justice Committee. "For probation officers to deliver effective community supervision to the highest-risk adults, they should be afforded the reassurance they can walk into a dangerous situation and do their job safely."

The decision responds to an increased number of serious felons granted probation and the significant number of probationers entrenched in violent gang lifestyles, which pose an increased risk to the staff supervising this demographic in the community. Only deputy probation officers assigned to the Intensive Supervision and Alternative Programs Unit, the Gang Unit and the Task Force positions will be armed. Offenders supervised by those units have committed serious crimes, including violent assaults, weapon possession, high level narcotic manufacturing and sales, egregious sexual assault and child predator offenses.

"This is a difficult issue for me," said Supervisor Dave Cortese, echoing the sentiment of several of his colleagues. "On the one hand, we're trying to promote harmonious neighborhoods. On the other hand, our probation officers, who vow to uphold an extensive Code of Conduct and Code of Ethics, have told us they need to be armed to be effective. They are on the streets everyday and I trust that they know best."

Deputy probation officers play a crucial role in the criminal justice process. They investigate and supervise offenders on probation and county parole, assist in the rehabilitation and reintegration of probationers into society, enforce court orders and protect the public. To facilitate community safety and offenders accountability, deputy probation officers conduct unannounced home/field visits, administer drug tests, execute searches and seizures, accompany police in the field on gang task force operations and probation/parole sweeps and make arrests for violations of probation. Although sometimes they are assisted by law enforcement agencies, the high volume of contacts and work load makes it unrealistic for deputy probation officers to rely on frequent police assistance.

"When our deputy probation officers are at risk, our communities are also at risk," said Supervisor Don Gage, Vice Chair of the Board's Public Safety and Justice Committee. "We must make every effort to ensure we're mitigating risks to our general population."

In many cases, offenders are entrenched in criminal street gangs and have a history of prior habitual drug abuse. In violation of the terms of their probation, they often associate with other offenders, who are either on probation or state parolees. There are cases where the offenders' families are engaged in the same or similar lifestyles as the probationer.

"Our primary mission continues to be rehabilitation of offenders but our responsibility to investigate and monitor compliance is an integral part of it," said Sheila Mitchell, Chief Probation Officer for Santa Clara County. "We need to enhance the personal safety of officers who are regularly exposed to significant dangers while performing their duties."

Board President Ken Yeager discussed the importance of ensuring probation officers be trained not only in the use of firearms but also in strategies to avoid escalating violence in dangerous situations.

"The message we want to send to the community is that our action is intended to protect our employees," said Supervisor Liz Kniss who asked that the program be evaluated after a year. "It is not our intention to increase the number of blazing guns. Our hope is that the arming of our probation officers will increase compliance and serve as deterrence."

The Board will review the Probation Department's quarterly reports on the experiences and effect of the new policy and has directed staff to conduct an evaluation of the program after one year.

Under Section 830.5 of the California Penal Code, deputy probation officers are classified as peace officers and are permitted to carry and utilize firearms while on duty, if authorized by the Chief Probation Officer. All peace officers are required to satisfactorily complete training in the laws of arrest and weaponless defense. Peace officers permitted to carry firearms, shall qualify the firearm at least quarterly.

Under California law, the authority of a probation officer extends to:
The conditions of probation of any person within the State of California on probation.
The escape of any inmate or ward from a state or local institution.
The transportation of persons on probation.
Violations of any penal provision of law which are discovered in the course of and arising in connection with his/her employment.
The rendering of mutual aid to any other law enforcement agency.

The Intensive Supervision and Alternative Programs Unit also monitors and supervises all offenders on the Global Positioning System (GPS), the electronic Monitoring Program (EMP) and County parole. Each program requires a high level of supervision in the community.

The Department also has two deputy probation officers assigned to specialized police narcotics task force teams, the Santa Clara County Special Enforcement Team (SCCSET) and the Narcotic Covert Investigations (NCI) team. These deputy probation officers work with a team of armed officers in conducting investigations into large-scale drug manufacturing and sales operations, routinely conducting surveillance, searches and executing arrests.

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