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Special Service Unit: Dedicated to Investigating and Apprehending Violent Offenders.

The California Department of Corrections (CDC) established the Special Service Unit, an essential part of the department's violence control program, in 1964. Commonly referred to as SSU, it has been described as a police unit within a correctional agency.

During a 1963 governor's conference on violence, a subcommittee comprising law enforcement officials representing the attorney general, police chiefs, the state sheriff's association and the courts, recommended the formulation of a unit within CDC to enhance liaison activities between the corrections and law enforcement communities.

It also has been said that a Los Angeles Police Department officer's murder at the hands of two parolees -- later made famous by Joseph Wambaugh's book, The Onion Field -- contributed to the unit's formation. During the police officer's homicide investigation, it was alleged that detectives had a difficult time obtaining information about the parolee suspects.

In late 1963, the state Legislature authorized the California Special Service Unit. Meanwhile, Charles Casey, an assistant director with CDC, learned of a similar unit within the New York Department of Corrections Parole Bureau and eventually traveled to New York to get a firsthand look.

In New York, Casey met with Russell H. Oswald, chairman of the New York State Parole Board, who recognized the need for cooperation among parole authorities and law enforcement agencies. In 1957, Oswald formed the Bureau of Special Services within the New York parole system -- likely the beginning of what now is identified as police/corrections partnerships.

While in New York, Casey also spent time with the New York Police Department, which had officers working closely with the Bureau of Special Services. Upon his return, SSU was established as an investigative force attached to the administration of CDC. The unit was originally known as the Law Enforcement Liaison and Intelligence Unit. Shortly thereafter, the name was changed to the Special Service Unit. As time passed, the unit's name changed several more times and now is officially the Law Enforcement and Investigations Unit but commonly referred to as SSU.

The original unit included six parole agents, whose title later was changed to special agent. Today, there are more than 100 parole agents and special agents. The unit's initial responsibilities included collecting intelligence about suspected gang leaders and radicals within the prison system, and assisting police in apprehending parolees or escapees suspected of violent crimes. It also provided training and surveillance needs, as well as a liasion to the prison system and to allied law enforcement agencies. The unit quickly became a valuable investigative resource for law enforcement.

As time progressed, the unit's duties and responsibilities were honed to reflect its mission to:

* Provide state-level investigative liaison services to local police agencies by solving major crimes when inmates or state parolees are the known or suspected offenders;

* Provide investigative services for CDC's prisons and correctional institutions, the Parole and Community Services Division and departmental administration;

* Coordinate the California Prison Gang Task Force, and function as the department's gang intelligence operation;

* Provide training for departmental employees and law enforcement agencies regarding prison gangs, criminal investigation and departmental operations; and

* Function as the department's Fugitive Apprehension Program.

During the past four decades, the unit operational responsibilities remained true to its mission but out of necessity, expanded to meet departmental needs. Last year, the unit had grown to approximately 50 special agents working out of five field offices from San Francisco to San Diego. Also, the department had transferred the Parolee-at-Large apprehension program to the unit, bringing more than 50 highly trained parole agents to complement the unit.

Additionally, the unit has functional supervision of approximately 30 investigators assigned to the institutions with the sole responsibility of investigating gang activity. This blend of street agents and prison investigators makes for a unique intelligence system actively involved in enforcement, prevention and information-sharing.

Selection and Training

All agents assigned to the unit have gained their experience in the prison and parole system. The instruction provided to agents has improved tremendously over time, growing from on-the-job training with local police agencies to a two-week abbreviated academy covering a multitude of topics.

The agents, who are on call hours per day, are armed with handguns, shotguns and mini-14 rifles, drive undercover state cars and are equipped with police radios, pagers and cell phones. They work long hours and although they are assigned to geographic offices, they travel all over the state on assignment.

Parole Violators and Escapees

During its nearly four decades in existence, the unit has been involved in a number of significant investigations and assignments, one being the February 1974 kidnapping of publishing heiress, Patricia Hearst. The day after Hearst's kidnapping, special agents from the unit's San Francisco office provided police with photographs of suspects who matched the overall description of one of the abductors.

Within 24 hours, the police learned that Donald DeFreeze, an escaped inmate from the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, Calif., was the leader of a small group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Thanks to photographs supplied by the unit, DeFreeze was positively identified as one of Hearst's abductors. That identification led to a lengthy, detailed investigation of SLA and its origination behind prison walls.

Such investigations became the backbone of the types of cases on which SSU worked. In fact, throughout the years, the agents have investigated the Charles Manson "family," the Hell's Angels, numerous major prison gangs, the murders of correctional officers and the smuggling of narcotics into prisons.

The agents conduct approximately 1,000 investigations annually and arrest about the same number of suspects. Because many of the suspects are violence-prone offenders, weapons seizure is common. In one recent year, the unit arrested nearly 1,000 suspects and seized almost 500 firearms.

Most of the investigations are generated by requests from allied law enforcement agencies, parole division staff, institutional staff, citizen tips, confidential informants and selective targeting of active prison gang affiliates. The investigations, which often involve hours of surveillance, lead to arrests for offenses ranging from minor technical violations to multiple murders. The agents routinely testify during parole revocation hearings and criminal court proceedings.

SSU recently initiated Operation Manhunt, an effort dedicated to investigating all outstanding departmental escapes. The agents have focused their attention on the most violent of the 200 outstanding escapes from institutions and camps. Those "cold" case investigations have led to the arrest of several inmates who had been on the loose for more than 20 years. In addition, the unit is in the process of posting photographs and escape information about its 10 most wanted fugitives on the department Web site.

Several years ago, the department established the Parolee-at-Large program, which is designed to focus on the apprehension of parole absconders. The Fugitive Apprehension teams have been very successful. The fugitive program was transferred to SSU last year. The 50-person teams, which are assigned to offices throughout California and average about 500 arrests per month, target paroled absconders who either are wanted for violent offenses or have histories of assaultive behavior.

Gang Intelligence and Enforcement

SSU has multiple responsibilities related to the department's gang management program. In addition to performing enforcement functions involving investigations, surveillance and the arrest of active gang members, the unit manages the intelligence gathering, analyzing and dissemination of information critical to public safety and institutional security. The department estimates that about one-third of its inmates and parolees are in some way involved with gangs.

The agents and institutional gang investigators conduct investigations that include validations and debriefings of gang members. The validations and debriefings are critical to the classification and housing responsibilities of CDC's Institutions Division. SSU also has court-mandated oversight responsibility for the quality review of validations and debriefings, which number about 1,000 annually.

In addition, SSU also provides gang-related information to CDC's Selections and Standards Unit when conducting background investigations of prospective correctional officer cadets. Similarly, the agents provide the latest gang information to institutional staff when contemplating double-ceiling gang affiliates.

SSU also coordinates the California Gang Task Force, which includes more than 150 local, state and federal agencies and about 400 investigators. The task force meets 11 times per year and distributes an intelligence summary at each meeting. The task force is designed to provide a forum for working line-level or street-level investigators to meet and exchange the most current information about gangs in their areas. Agencies use the information to identify and locate wanted suspects and spot trends in gang activity that may affect their jurisdictions.

The task force, which originated in 1972 in Los Angeles, is one of the longest-running informational task forces in the country. The Drug Enforcement Administration was the original coordinator while it was actively investigating the drug activities of California's Mexican Mafia. In 1983, the coordination duties were transferred to SSU. The unit is actively participating in several multiagency investigations of the major prison gangs operating in its prisons and in California communities.


SSU agents provide hundreds of hours of training to departmental staff and outside agencies. The unit operates an 84-hour basic investigators course and a 40-hour advanced investigator class for departmental staff. Agents routinely provide ongoing training to other law enforcement agencies with topics ranging from prison gangs to how to use prison resources during criminal investigations. Agents also, provide training to other state correctional agencies and participate in the National Major Gang Task Force, which shares intelligence and training with more than 40 state correctional departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Other Duties

In 1998, SSU assumed responsibility for conducting administrative investigations of officer-involved shootings. That first year, the unit conducted 35 shooting investigations, including institutional warning shots and accidental discharges. Through training and experience, the unit has learned to assign a lead agent and several assisting agents enabling them to conduct thorough investigations within a reasonable time frame. During some of the more complex shootings, the unit has assigned as many as eight agents. At the conclusion of a shooting investigation, the lead agent is required to conduct a presentation to the department's Deadly Force Review Board.

During the past few years, SSU also has assumed responsibility for providing protective services to staff and their families when their lives have been threatened either by parolees or prison gangs. With. the assistance of other departmental investigators, agents provide 24-hour protection to the people who have been threatened, while a second team attempts to locate and arrest the suspects responsible for the threats. Such cases are labor-intensive, usually requiring extended overtime pay and travel.

In 1998, SSU logged 28 incidents in which staff, public officials or citizens were threatened by inmates or parolees. Each threat requires a review or investigation to determine the potential for harm to the threatened person. Likewise, in addition to protective services and threat assessments, agents have provided security for departmental staff during citizen demonstrations, executions, public hearings and state personnel board hearings.

Moreover, courtroom security and transportation of high-risk inmates are areas of responsibility that have increased during the past few years. The increase is due to the number of violent gang-related incidents leading to the secure movement of inmate witnesses and suspects. These assignments usually originate with a request from the sheriff, district attorney or prison warden. Once again, these types of cases involve long hours, travel and overtime.

Also, SSU has polygraph examiners who respond statewide to requests by wardens and police chiefs from small departments that do not have their own examiners. The number of polygraph examinations varies annually, depending on the number of requests.

Agents spend considerable time assisting other agencies with requests to facilitate investigations, including, but not limited to, DNA testing, protection and transfer of informants, expert testimony, electronic eavesdropping and out-of-state placement of critical, hard-to-protect inmate informants. Further, on at least one occasion, the unit assigned two special investigators to another state correctional agency to conduct an undercover investigation of staff misconduct.

SSU has been in existence for nearly four decades and continues to expand and respond to challenges presented by the largest prison and parole system in the country. The unit has a history and tradition of continuously performing well and remains a vital tool when faced with critical incidents and violent offenders.

Brian Parry is assistant director of the California Department of Corrections' Law Enforcement and Investigations Unit.
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Author:Parry, Brian
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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