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Alameda Probation Chief Gets Fourth Review
By Kelly Flaherty
The Recorder, August 17, 1998

Her employees have testified that when Sylvia Johnson took the helm as the chief probation officer for Alameda County in 1993, she told them she planned to "kickass and awaken a dysfunctional department."

Five years later, a grand jury report says Johnson's reform efforts not only failed, but have created more serious problems.

"Chief Johnson's management practices have resulted in extreme divisiveness and polarization in the department," the report says. "Some witnesses spoke of a "reign of terror' and a work environment 'under siege.'"

Employees say Johnson manages by intimidation, and complain that she yells, uses foul language and reassigns or demotes those who question her decisions. The president of the Alameda County probation officers union, Norman Santos, says that more than 180 employees have transferred out of or quit the approximately 700 - employee probation department since Johnson arrived.

"The probation supervisors actually, physically run when she calls them - they act like abused, frightened children," said one former probation officer who requested anonymity.

Some attorneys and probation officers see the turnover as affecting the quality of the department's work. Johnson's policies came under fire in February when 12 juveniles walked away from a detention camp, and some critics complain that the probation reports are shoddy and biased toward the prosecution.

The grand jury report concludes that the "intimidation and bullying of staff, widely testified to, must cease" and calls on the county's presiding judges to conduct their own review. Court officials say they will ask the Alameda County Board of Supervisors for funding to pay for the review within the next 90 days.

It would be the fourth county - Instigated review of Johnson's department during her five - year tenure. In one instance the county convened a "healing focus group" to study and make recommendations for the department.

Nevertheless, a succession of juvenile court presiding judges - who hold the power to hire and fire probation chiefs - have stuck with Johnson.

"It is one of the great, unbelievable stories of Alameda County," says county supervisor Gail Steele, who has called for Johnson's removal.

"I don't know how anybody could survive this, but she does."

Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story.

In an April 21 interview with the Oakland Tribune, Johnson blamed some of the friction on what she called a racist, old boys' network within the department, and on union activists associated with Supervisor Steele.

"It's the same core group of people and the same Issue," she told the Tribune. "It started when I first arrived and no matter what I do, the accusations don't change," and never have been specific, she said.

Many who have supported Johnson in the past were unavailable or did not respond to requests for comment. Supervisor Mary King is on vacation and Assemblywoman Dion Aroner and Supervisor Keith Carson, both of whom have defended Johnson in the past, did not return repeated phone calls.


Johnson was hired by Wilmont Sweeney, then the juvenile court presiding judge, in 1993. She is the first woman to head the county probation department, and one of a select number of African - American department heads in a county with a substantial black population.

She told the Tribune that her administration has reduced probation officer caseloads by obtaining valuable grants and has improved conditions at juvenile hall.

She obtained a $5.4 million grant early on in her tenure that established a rehabilitation program for girls who have been convicted of violent offenses. Other programs started under Johnson's leadership include electronic monitoring of probationers, expansion of juvenile camp programs and the Community Day School.

Even Johnson's detractors concede that she can be a persuasive advocate for the department. She is also a fierce champion of youthful offenders who she believes deserve a second chance.

"She can tell a story to outside people and she has good ideas - I would not take that away from her - but those who support her don't work on a day - to - day basis in that department," says Steele.

Some of the discontent within the department may be the result of the county's large caseload. According to a former Alameda County probation employee who now works for Contra Costa County, "some people have 160 cases - here we have 60."


Within a year of Johnson's hiring, a rash of complaints and departures spurred Judge Sweeney to request a review by the Washington, D.C. - based National Institute of Corrections.

The institute, begun in response to the Attica prison riots, Is run by the Department of Justice and provides consulting services and technical assistance to state and local governments.

The NIC's 1994 report cited a "climate of fear bordering on paranoia which exists currently within the department" and called for "immediate, planned and deliberate interventions,"

It attributed much of the turmoil to Johnson's reform efforts, which included a number of job transfers, and noted in her defense that some probation officers felt Johnson had rooted out some chronic problems within the department.

But the report also says that Johnson had failed to communicate a "vision" for her reforms to her staff, who felt most of her policies were punitive, rather than constructive.

The NIC report also acknowledged that racism may have played a part in Johnson's conflicts with staff, but concluded that the probation chiefs management style was the immediate concern.

Although the report fell short of calling for her ouster, it did say that" Chief Johnson Is perceived as overbearing, needing to instill and use fear as a motivator for change, and needing to extract unqualified loyalty from staff for the changes she wishes to make, absent any input."

Former and current probation officers interviewed for this article say nothing has since changed.

"The supervisors under Johnson are afraid, they cannot make any decisions without checking with the division directors," says a former probation officer now in Contra Costa who asked to remain anonymous.

Employees and attorneys who work with the probation department say the discord has affected the quality of work.

Alameda County Deputy Public Defender Kimberly Kupferer says she has noticed a decline in the quality of probation reports under Johnson's leadership. She says the reports sometimes misstate information as basic as the defendant's name, ethnicity and family background.

Jason Alexander Cortlund, a former supervisor for the reports who left for Contra Costa County last year, said he helped draw up guidelines to improve the quality and consistency of reports in Alameda, but the policy was never implemented.

There was a manual approved by all staff including managers. Why it wasn't implemented I have no idea," says Cortlund, who left after 27 years with Alameda County due to the "toxic environment" of Johnson's department.

"When you don't have people with experience and good judgment making decisions, the structure and the process suffers,' he says.

Earlier this year, Johnson's policies came under fire when 12 inmates walked away from Camp Sweeney, a juvenile detention camp in central Alameda County.

One of Johnson's first responses was to distribute 117 headset radios to the youths at camp who did not run away, to discourage them from leaving the unfenced center. Some probation officers call the incident typical of Johnson's tendency to undermine the power of staff, who work with the kids on a daily basis.

John Hazen, the division director at Camp Sweeney, points out that the department has added staff and tightened screening procedures to avoid housing juveniles convicted of serious or violent crimes.


In addition to the NIC report, U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins evaluated Johnson's performance in 1996. Jenkins, then the juvenile court PJ, ranked her as "competent and meets expectations," but found Johnson "needs improvement" in "recognizing the needs and desires of others, treating others with regard, courtesy and respect," and "encouraging employee participation in decisions affecting them," according to the grand jury report.

But employees complained to the grand jury earlier this year, and an investigation was launched this spring.

The June grand jury report points out several incidents of employees clashing with Johnson: Both of the deputy chiefs hired by the department during her five - year tenure told the jury they left because they were unable to work with her.

The report also notes that at least 11 probation officers have left the Alameda County department within the past year to work for Contra Costa County.

One veteran officer, Michael Brunelle, left last year after Johnson transferred him out of his longtime position as a court officer. Johnson told him she wanted him to help develop a domestic violence program for the department, but the transfer would have meant a 5 percent reduction in pay, according to Brunelle.

He says he thinks Johnson simply resented the relationships he had developed with county judges because she felt it undermined her authority.

"She's a very bright woman but also very sensitive to anyone she sees as a challenge to her," says Brunelle, who left after 28 years with the department and, like Cortlund, collects retirement benefits in addition to his pay from Contra Costa.

The county responded to the complaints against Johnson in the 1994 NIC report by creating a "Healing Focus Group," a panel of representatives appointed by the superior court, the board of supervisors and the county administrator's office.

The 11 - person group, including counselors, probation officers, directors and staff, spent eight months coming up with a long list of recommendations that addressed seven problem areas in Johnson's department.

But despite those efforts, the recent grand jury report indicates the same problems remain.

The current juvenile court PJ, Robert Kurtz, says the court plans to hire a private management consultant to conduct an independent review of the probation department. He said any action should wait until the emotions generated by the grand jury report have had a chance to cool down.

"Right now we are in a political phase - you cannot make an administrative decision on who shouts the loudest," said Kurtz.

Because Supervisor Steele backed a successful 1994 ballot measure that changed the hiring and supervision process for the chief probation officer, the next chief will answer to a panel of county officials.

But the old system, which vests control in the juvenile court PJ, will continue through the end of Johnson's tenure.

Meanwhile, probation officers anticipate further brain drain as the county continues with the review process. "I expect we will lose another 30 probation officers by March," says the union's Santos.

"We have good, talented people coming into the department - the real issue is people leaving prematurely," he says. "Each is taking with them a library of information."

The possibility of divisive race politics, and Johnson's reputation as a fighter, means most court administrators are wary of taking on the problem.

Or as one high - level observer who has worked with Johnson in the past put it, "No one wants to touch this with a 10 - foot pole."

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