It is a thankless and often perilous job, one that Arnold Garcia performed without a gun, baton, chemical spray or personal alarm.
For nearly two decades he worked the graveyard shift at the Dorothy E. Kirby Center, supervising locked cottages housing some of Los Angeles County’s most youthful and troubled offenders. Like all of the Probation Department’s 3,000 employees, he had only two weapons: muscle and guile.
Something has changed about teenagers who run afoul of the law. They are less respectful, more menacing – often hardened veterans of bloody gang wars. One of them, bent on escape, allegedly clubbed Garcia to death on April 4, 1994, with a metal leg from a desk.
Garcia, the first Probation Department employee killed in the line of duty since the agency was formed in 1903, is survived by his wife Alma and 11 children.
His family remembered him as a devoted husband and father who dedicated himself to his delinquent wards as if they were his own blood. But, to many of his coworkers at the county’s three juvenile halls and 20 probation camps, he also was a symbol of their increasingly hazardous mission.
“By wits, cunning, personality and, occasionally, force, we have been able to keep a lid on things,” said Mary Ridgeway, a veteran Eastside probation officer. “But if a major incident breaks out, our people have nothing except themselves.”
“When he left for work, he would say: “I’ve got to go take care of my kids,” said Garcia’s son Arnold III. “He tried to make them feel he was their father.”
About 1 a.m. on April 4, a teenager knocked on a bedroom door from inside. He asked to be let out to use the bathroom. As soon as Garcia unlocked the door, he was struck in the head with a desk leg. The alleged assailant then fled with another teenager, but the two boys, ages 16 and 17, were captured a short time later.
California Youth Authority officers are given chemical spray and, in some cases, batons. Under Probation Department guidelines, officers are pretty much on their own. “We believe our brain is our best weapon,” said Craig Levy, media relations officer.
“We don’t control the place any more,” said a guard who once had to break up a fight by spraying a group of youths with a fire extinguisher. “I hate to say it, but these kids could get away with almost anything.”
Although agency guidelines recommend one guard for every 10 juveniles in custody, Kirby Center employees said Garcia was alone watching over a 20-bed cottage. “We call them minors, but they’re as dangerous and volatile as some of the inmates in maximum security prisons,” said Richard Shumsky, president of Local 685 of the probation officers’ union.
Chief Probation Officer Barry J. Nidorf presented Garcia’s widow with the American flag that had covered the casket. “Garcia was a peace officer,” Nidorf told mourners, “one of a relative handful of citizens whose mission is to foster and maintain and assure a community in which other citizens can live at peace.”
“Arnold Garcia was not a highly visible figure, as are many officers in our department who service courts and supervise probationers. Nor did he patrol our streets in uniform, as Police officers and sheriffs do. He was an almost ‘private’ – but no less important – peace officer. He did his duty with selfless dedication for 17 years until, on April 4, the peace he sought to assure for others was shattered so violently and senselessly for him.”
The Arnold Garcia Memorial Fund was established to assist the family. Donations can be sent to Mary Dederick, Director, Dorothy Kirby Center, 1500 S. McConnel Ave., Los Angeles, CA.