City, sheriff’s officials confirm loss of J-Team 

Los Angeles County Sheriff's J-Team Deputies discuss drugs and paraphernalia on display with Duane Briggs, right, during the Parent Resources Symposium "Chasing the High" held at Santa Clarita City hall on Friday, 092322.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's J-Team Deputies discuss drugs and paraphernalia on display with Duane Briggs, right, during the Parent Resources Symposium "Chasing the High" held at Santa Clarita City hall on Friday, 092322. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station and city of Santa Clarita officials confirmed Wednesday the Juvenile Intervention Team, a respected unit that focused on a nexus of youth offenders, drug crimes and an intervention-like approach, has been “suspended.” 

Station Capt. Justin Diez said in a phone interview Wednesday the Sheriff’s Department uses the term “suspended.” The team was essentially disbanded, he said, but it could be brought back if there was an influx of deputies. 

He also added that he wasn’t expecting that to happen any time soon. 

Fewer deputies 

The problem is a staffing shortage, Diez said, adding it’s not being caused by an issue with the station’s funding from the city, the county or the Sheriff’s Department. 

The SCV Sheriff’s Station’s contract with the city, which is approximately $32 million in this year’s budget, specifies the department’s obligations for patrol coverage down to the minute.  

Staffing shortages are by no means unique to the SCV law enforcement picture, according to a January 2024 fact sheet from the Public Policy Institute of California.  

The staffing levels for police departments throughout the state declined by at least 3.5% a year for the past two years. The number of patrol officers per 100,000 population is at its lowest point since at least 1991, according to the PPIC. The institute also reports that the lowest levels were reached during the Great Recession, and most departments never recovered. 

In a certain sense, the challenges are budget-related.  

During a recent meeting with the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Diez was asked point blank about morale and acknowledged it was low.  

The department is losing deputies to municipal departments that are incentivizing deputies with more competitive offers, as well as perks like moving assistance, he said. 

They also have been drafting overtime, meaning the extra shifts are mandatory, and there’s no real end in sight for that. The station’s current staffing level is currently about 65% of its traditional level. 

There are also factors outside of the funding issue, as Diez said the Sheriff’s Academy always had some portion of its trainees for local police departments, but those classes had 90 or 100 recruits when he was in the academy, and he’s seen some classes with as few as 30 or 40.  

Sheriff Robert Luna requested more funding for deputies during his first year in office in 2023. The department also hired a PR firm to help address the problem. 

In the Sheriff’s Department, some of the problems associated with the mandated long hours were documented in a complaint from the family of a Stevenson Ranch man who was murdered close to the station where he worked in Palmdale. 

Carrie Lujan, spokeswoman for the city of Santa Clarita, which funds most of the SCV Sheriff’s Station’s local operations through a service contract with the Board of Supervisors, referred inquiries about the reduction to the SCV Sheriff’s Station. 

The city works closely with the Sheriff’s Department and was notified of the change ahead of time, which she described as a “personnel issue” in a message Wednesday. 

Diez said the J-Team wasn’t the only unit impacted by the staffing shortage. 

He said this summer would be the first time in as long as he can remember the station won’t have a summer enforcement team, which was comprised of additional patrols the station traditionally has from May to December that are funded by the county to focus on the unincorporated areas. This year, he just won’t have enough people available, he added.  

There’s also another of his special teams that’s down a unit, adding he didn’t want to advertise the station’s shortages too much to the criminal element. 

If he wanted to keep the J-Team, he said Wednesday, he would need to figure out a way to have a sergeant, a detective, two deputies and intervention specialist from overtime shifts somewhere else in the station due to his manpower shortage. 

He added that the intervention specialist is still with the station but now working directly with school resource deputies. 

J-Team background 

The J-Team was formed in 2010 by then-Sheriff’s Station Capt. Paul Becker, who took helm of the station in March of that year and was quickly introduced to the area’s rising drug problem, which was linked to growing incidents of heroin at the time. 

In April 2010, Krissy McAfee shared with the Santa Clarita City Council the death of her son, Trae Daniel Allen, who died of a heroin overdose the month before in the family’s driveway. The 24-year-old battled an addiction to opioids like OxyContin, which would later gain infamy for its pernicious and predatory marketing practices. 

The J-Team, according to Becker, began closely tracking overdose incidents, worked with the city on outreach and focused its efforts on cases involving individuals under 40. 

After two years, an opinion column written by Becker in The Signal touted the program’s success to date, indicating it had helped more than 300 addicted teenagers become enrolled in sustainable recovery programs 

In addition to investigations, the J-Team also has been a critical part of the city’s programs and campaigns against substance abuse, taking part in summits at the community center as well as more informal outreach like Java with the J-Team. 

When the J-Team started, heroin was the deadliest problem facing those battling addiction. Now fentanyl represents the leading cause of death for 18- to 45-year-olds, as the drug is cheaply manufactured and found in 7-of-10 pills purchased illicitly, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health. An L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Opioid Overdose Response Task Force is still working on a countywide basis to address the drug crisis. 

The J-Team utilized a three-pronged approach, according to interviews with past members of the team. The approach addressed education, enforcement and rehabilitation. 

One prominent J-Team supporter expressed concern over the elimination of the unit, while acknowledging some of the recent enforcement priorities from the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office have changed the team’s efficacy, particularly with juvenile offenders. 

Cary Quashen, an addiction specialist who’s spoken at the city’s presentations on substance abuse and runs Action Drug Rehabilitation, called the elimination of the team “a bad decision” in a phone conversation Wednesday. 

“People stop doing negative things when the consequences of what they’re doing, when the negative consequence outweighs the payoff,” he said. 

“Right now, no one has a consequence,” he added, referring to special directives issued by District Attorney George Gascón that have largely removed any penalties for juvenile offenders under an approach his office describes as “care not cages.” 

With Special Directive 20-09, which Gascón announced his first day of office, “Our prosecutorial approach should be biased towards keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system and when they must become involved, our system must employ the ‘lightest touch’ necessary in order to provide public safety.” It states that youth accused of misdemeanors will not be prosecuted.  

“At the least the school district still has a consequence, or an alternative,” Quashen said, referring to the William S. Hart Union High School District’s partnership with Action, which resulted in the TIDE program, a program for students in trouble that stands for Training, Intervention, Drug Education.  

Quashen said through the program he meets students as young as 11 and 12 who already have had an experience with marijuana. 

“Kids are making bad choices and there’s no consequences,” he said, “and they’re continuing to make choices that are bad for them.” 

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