Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Probation officers face firing

Judges upset over skipped drug tests

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County probation officers could be suspended or fired if an investigation finds they intentionally ignored court orders to conduct drug tests on criminals.

        Court officials spent most of Monday trying to find out why hundreds of mandatory urine tests have been missed during the past few years.

        Discipline could be severe if the investigation finds that any of the county's 100 probation officers “willfully” disregarded court orders to test offenders.

        “A willful noncompliance with a court order is a serious infraction,” said Court Administrator Mike Walton.

        He said discipline could range from suspensions to firings, depending on the severity of the infraction.

        Recent audits suggest problems with the drug tests are widespread in common pleas court, which handles the most serious drug cases. In some of those cases, drug offenders who were supposed to be tested every week were tested only a few times a year.

        Judges say results of the drug tests are important because they often determine whether an offender goes to jail or remains free on proba tion.

        They say it's up to the probation officers to follow court orders by scheduling the tests.

        “If it's an ordered procedure, it has to be done,” said Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus. “It's their job. And the probation officers should be required to do their job.”

        Some judges say the revelations about drug testing are especially troubling because they come so soon after the resignation of former Probation Chief Michael Snowden.

        Mr. Snowden quit two months ago after a dispute with some of his probation officers over changes he was making in the department.

        “It seems to me the probation department is a ship adrift,” Judge Niehaus said. “What you expect to be going on is not.”

        Mr. Snowden said he became aware of problems with drug testing last year when he attempted to discipline an officer for failing to conduct the tests. The officer, he said, complained that “I'm not any worse than anybody else.”

        “So we checked, and he was right,” Mr. Snowden said. “We found a lot of tests were not being done.”

        He said he conducted an audit that found officers were not carrying out hundreds of court orders. He said many officers did only about half of the tests they were ordered to do.

        After auditing the cases, Mr. Snowden decided it would be unfair to discipline one officer for an offense committed by many. “We called in the supervisors and told them this was not acceptable,” said Tim Shannon, an assistant chief probation officer.

        But Judge Steven Martin said a separate audit of his cases has found problems with many recent tests. The judge said only one of the nine officers he's reviewed so far has done all of the tests.

        The judge spoke Monday with some of the officers and asked why tests were not done. “I dropped the ball,” one officer responded.

        He said others have complained they do not have time to schedule the tests, which are done by county labs after a private firm collects the urine.

        Presiding Judge Robert Kraft said he may ask Mr. Walton, who is acting chief of probation, to audit every common pleas court.

        “We may very well decide we need a total check,” Judge Kraft said.

        He and other judges say the officers need to understand that drug testing is a crucial part of their job. And if they are not doing it, disciplinary action is possible.

        “This is basic stuff. Bread-and-butter-type stuff,” said Judge Patrick Dinkelacker. “If it's not being done, you've got to go up the line and take disciplinary action.”


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