New justice head named amid strife
A 15-year-old boy's alleged sexual assault of a staffer at the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center has added to concerns and poor morale at the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice (DCJ).
Staffers at the department were already on edge after learning that county management had waited weeks before alerting them that a 16-year-old boy had threatened to "shoot up" staff at the center in February.
Now, who will take on the challenge of angry staffers and complaints of a toxic work environment at a department in chaos?
A brand-new director, Truls Neal, who was named to the job last week by the Board of Commissioners.
"It feels challenging," Neal said Friday. "I'm very proud to do it at the same time."
Neal has worked in corrections for more than 25 years, including as a counselor and as a parole and probation officer.
Neal's task now: to calm the roiled waters that some employees believe contributed to the sudden departure of longtime Director Scott Taylor, who had become a lightning rod for complaints.
DCJ, which has 650 full and part-time employees, operates the juvenile jail, a number of programs for felons to help them transition back into society, and also employs probation officers for adult and juvenile offenders.
But the department has long been plagued with employees' internal complaints of racial discrimination. And those complaints grew louder with the news in 2016 that an exhaustive study by the Macarthur Foundation had discovered significant racial disparities in how adult probation violations are administered.
Last October, a study obtained by the Portland Tribune found racial disparities in the department's handling of juvenile offenders that Taylor called "alarming."
Neal, an African-American born in Norway, says he hopes to be more collaborative, including with the employees' union, than DCJ leadership has been viewed in the past — a reference to Taylor's reputed top-down, authoritarian style.
"I think my strength is more relational and collaborative with folks. Not as the leader but as a leader in a group of folks trying to make a difference," he said.
And he said it's not surprising that at a time when the country is polarized, his staff is as well.
"We don't lie in a bubble in Multnomah County," he said. "We are affected by what's happening nationally. And people bump into each other that's just the nature of life."
He said he and his new deputy director, Erika Preuitt, intend to make a priority of addressing complaints of racial disparities both internally and in how it administers justice to offenders.
Neal, however, rejected staff complaints that the department did not appropriately warn employees about the threat to "shoot up" the department, creating turmoil that was reported on by Willamette Week last month. The union representing employees, Local 88 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, circulated a petition demanding more timely information.
"The facts show that we followed protocol that the Sheriff's Office would have followed, that most school districts would have followed," he said. He said management will continue to consider ways to communicate better, saying, "What does any particular agency do when they are faced with a threat and at what point do you notify staff without putting them in situations where the information is not helpful ... they can't do anything with it."
Still, Neal has to deal with the perception that he was close to Taylor, who he has consistently praised since taking the job.
And for all Neal's talk of candor and openness, he also comes into an environment where DCJ management has gone out of its way to keep news from getting out to the public.
Following the recent alleged sexual assault of a staffer, which took place early in the morning of April 17, 13 of the staff who were on duty were issued a restriction forbidding them from talking about it with others.
County officials also declined to comment on whether the staffer was exposed to a dangerous situation with the 15-year-old, a large youth who was in custody for a prior sexual assault.
Officials call the secrecy standard procedure when an incident has taken place, to avoid compromising an ongoing investigation and "out of respect for victims who may not want their information shared publicly."
But the order comes on the heels of an emailed "reminder" sent earlier this month by Kathryn Sofich, a DCJ communications manager. It instructed staff to not talk to reporters, or even refer them to other sources who could be helpful — and to immediately inform their superiors if contacted.
Ironically, it was sent out even as employees were complaining internally of a toxic work environment. A recent survey found that line employees feel like management does not value them or their work.
The union is gearing up for the next contract and is expected to make morale at DCJ a priority. Union officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Neal said assaults like last week's, while unusual, will happen just based on the way the department has focused its efforts on dealing with violent offenders.
"So they are not the easiest folks to deal with," he said. "Like any situation where you have high-risk folks, you're going to have situations where things can happen. We want to minimize that as much as possible, of course."
Neal said he's not there to tell staff their perceptions of chaos , discrimination or mismanagement are wrong. He's there to deal with those perceptions and make things better.
"I'm a complete supporter of the union," he said. "I think they have a role to play and I think it's an important role."