Los Angeles County leaders unanimously voted to fire Probation Department Chief Adolfo Gonzales on Tuesday, pledging it would be the first step in an overhaul of one of the county’s most troubled departments.
The vote brings an abrupt end to Gonzales’ tumultuous two-year term, in which the department careened from one crisis to the next. During his time at the helm, the department was faced with a dire staffing shortage, troubling findings from a state oversight body and allegations of officer misconduct.
County supervisors’ frustrations with Gonzales appeared to peak in February after The Times published a video of officers violently restraining a 17-year-old and revealed that Gonzales overrode an internal disciplinary board’s recommendation to fire the main officer involved. After The Times’ report, a majority of the Board of Supervisors called for Gonzales’ resignation.
The resignation never arrived.
On Tuesday, board Chair Janice Hahn said that the juvenile halls were in a clear crisis and that the time had come for a change at the top.
“The state has found them unsuitable, and they are at risk of being shut down. Youth are being hurt and are not attending school,” Hahn said. “Staff are being attacked, and many are not showing up to work.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she supported sending in a “strike team” with the power to overhaul the Probation Department. She said Gonzales had lost what was left of her support during a visit to one of the juvenile halls a few weeks ago.
“Although I personally saw deficiencies and ensured they were communicated to the Department, over a week later nothing had been done,” Barger said in a statement. “This is just plain unacceptable.”
Chief Deputy Karen Fletcher, Gonzales’ second-in-command, has been named the interim chief of the department, according to spokespeople for Hahn and Barger. The Probation Oversight Commission called for both Gonzales’ and Fletcher’s resignations earlier this month.
The commission applauded the supervisors’ action in a statement, saying, “We appreciate this necessary step toward our efforts to bring stability for all stakeholders of the L.A. County Probation Department and to achieve real reform for the youth and adults impacted and served by the Department.”
The Probation Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Supervisor Lindsey Horvath called Gonzales’ removal “only step one.” Supervisor Hilda Solis said the next chief would need to address a “serious culture issue and lack of leadership within the department.”
“To that end, in the County’s next search for a new Probation Department Chief, we need someone who can take initiative and has the courage to make the necessary changes needed for our youth and adults in Probation’s supervision,” she said in a statement.
Gonzales was named the county’s top probation official in February 2021 after a five-year stint running San Diego County’s probation department. The L.A. County department was already troubled when he took over. The California Department of Justice entered into a settlement with the agency to reform its treatment of juveniles one month before Gonzales was hired. But it has been the subject of near-constant controversy during his run as chief.
In September 2021, the California Board of State and Community Corrections found the Probation Department was “unsuitable” to care for youths, the first time the oversight body made such a ruling against a juvenile institution in state history. When such rulings occur, an agency has 60 days to implement an action plan to improve conditions or the state can order juveniles to be relocated into housing beyond the Probation Department’s reach.
Fearing another negative ruling from the state board in early 2022, Gonzales and other executives emptied Central Juvenile Hall and crammed nearly every teen in the department’s custody into Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, a chaotic and poorly planned move that resulted in violence and injuries to officers and children.
Gonzales and Fletcher had repeatedly denied reports in The Times that the transfer was done to sidestep an investigation by the state board, but the L.A. County Office of Inspector General confirmed the newspaper’s reporting late last year.
For most of 2022, probation officers often refused to come to work because of fear of violence in Central and Nidorf halls, leading to major staffing shortages and frequent lockdowns of both facilities. The situation led to a significant spike in fights and injuries to staff and had major effects on the mental health of the youths the department is supposed to be helping rehabilitate, a Times investigation found last year.
The final straw for Gonzales appeared to come last month when The Times published surveillance video of officers violently restraining a 17-year-old inside Camp Kilpatrick. The footage showed officers grabbing the teen by each limb and his neck and pinning him to a bed after an argument. Once the teen appeared subdued, a supervisor named Oscar Cross bent the child’s legs toward his head and yelled, “Stop resisting,” while the boy yelled out for his mother.
The inspector general and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office have launched investigations into the footage, and the Probation Oversight Commission called for the department to fire every officer seen using force on the video.
On Feb. 27, Gonzales told a group of high-level probation officials that he would not step down and that the board would have to fire him, according to a law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly.
Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report.
James Queally, Rebecca Ellis