Friday, December 15, 2000

Fifteen probation officers punished

Action taken over drug tests

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fifteen Hamilton County probation officers will be reprimanded or suspended for failing to conduct court-ordered drug tests on criminals.

        Probation officials announced the disciplinary action Thursday after a two-month review of officer performance.

        The review confirmed that probation officers missed hundreds of drug tests during the past two years, potentially allowing criminals on probation to use drugs without detection.

        Disciplinary hearings began in October after the Enquirer reported that two internal audits of the probation department had found extensive problems with the drug testing program.

        Because of those problems, eight probation officers and supervisors will be suspended without pay for up to three days. Seven others will receive letters of reprimand.

        “The one thing you never do is disregard a judge's order,” said Court Administrator Mike Walton, the acting chief probation officer. “That will not occur in the future.”

        The court-ordered urine tests are important because judges often rely on the results to decide whether offenders should go to jail or remain free on probation.

        Mr. Walton said he is confident the drug tests will no longer be a problem. He said a new testing system launched in October greatly reduces the officers' role in making sure the tests are done.

        Under the new system, each offender is tested on a similar schedule by a private firm hired by the county. The number of tests conducted each month has jumped to nearly 4,500, an increase of 3,500 since last year.

        The recent performance reviews covered 45 officers in Common Pleas Court, which handles the most serious offenders. Mr. Walton said two officers will receive three-day suspensions, two will get two-day suspensions and four will be suspended for one day.

        He said many officers missed at least some drug tests, but the most serious penalties were imposed on those who consistently missed large numbers of tests.

        “A disturbing feature of this has been that not only were officers not doing the urine tests, but the supervisors didn't catch it,” Mr. Walton said.

        Mr. Walton said about 30 officers will receive letters of commendation, congratulating them for conducting most of the tests assigned to them.

        The county's judges, who oversee the probation department, are optimistic the testing problem is solved.

        “I'm not happy we had to do this,” said Judge Robert Kraft, the presiding judge in Common Pleas Court. “Hopefully probation officers will be able to move on without this hanging over their heads every day.”

        The names of disciplined officers will not be released until official reports are filed in the next week or so. Probation officers who have spoken about the issue either declined comment or could not be reached Thursday.

        Judge Steven Martin, who conducted one of the audits of the department, said he has noticed significant improvement since September.

        “I believe, at least for the time being, the message has been received by the people working in probation,” Judge Martin said. “They just can't ignore court orders.”

        Judge Kraft said the completion of the performance reviews should allow the probation department to move on to the next important step: finding a new chief probation officer.

        The former chief, Michael Snowden, resigned after an ugly dispute this summer with probation officers and some judges over changes he was making in the department.

        Judges currently are reviewing about 30 applications for the top job. Judge Kraft said he hopes to select a new chief by the end of January.


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