Chief John Keene | Special to California Black Media Partners
It seems media coverage of Black History Month this year is getting lost in the merry-go-round of breaking news stories– from shifting COVID guidelines and skyrocketing food and gas prices to shocking crime stories and growing concerns about our military getting involved in Ukraine. Add to that the constant distractions of TikTok, Facebook Reels and other social media platforms all competing for our attention.
But whether or not the media gives Black History Month the attention it deserves, most African Americans realize how important it is to commemorate our history – and its important contribution to American history. So, we pause to honor our past, celebrate our forebears and pat ourselves on the back for the many contributions we have made to this country.
And we invite all Americans to celebrate Black History Month, too. It is all around us. There’s Black history to learn about in your neighborhoods, at your jobs, in your city and in your churches. Knowing about the struggles and contributions of Black Americans can enrich our understanding of each other and the hard-won freedoms Americans of all backgrounds often take for granted.
As the Chief Probation Officer for San Mateo County, and as the current President of the Chief Probation Officers of California, I have a very important responsibility in the positions that I hold to sustain a legacy built by many before me who have paved the way.
In probation, as in society, it is vital that all cultures are recognized, and Black history is no different. It is important for our deputies and staff to know that the path to get here was paved by the trials and tribulations of the people before us. Most African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s were limited to opportunities within correctional facilities, and did not have the opportunities to start off as deputy probation officers or elevate to that rank. Shockingly, the first Black deputy probation officers and staff were not widely known to be employed around the country until the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, over 20% of deputy probation officers in California are African American. That diversity extends to gender (51% are women), and other races as well (72% of deputy probation officers are non-white). Probation today is even further diversified by educational backgrounds (the majority of officers have four-year degrees), and many probation departments employ former justice system-involved individuals. Importantly, Probation’s diversity also extends to our leadership with just over 10% of probation chiefs in California being African American.
On the shoulders of African American pathbreakers, we take our seats as leaders of our profession with honor and humility. For me, the weight of leading the association of the leaders of our profession is a reflection of the important role of Black History in probation that has led to the diversity and inclusion we see now.
The weight and responsibility of this history, I carry proudly.
With that diversity comes cultural competency and lived experiences. That understanding and sensibility equips probation to be an indispensable aspect of the criminal justice system. It is the connection between punishment and rehabilitation, breaking down barriers to help justice-involved people turn their lives around and leave the system permanently – creating long-term, sustainable safety in our communities. It is also what attracts even greater diversity to our ranks: this desire to help people succeed.
As a former police officer, attorney, deputy probation officer and now Chief, my experience has helped me tremendously in feeling a sense of empathy for the life experiences of the people we serve. It has helped me understand the challenges of young people I talk to with who have had tough upbringings. As African Americans, working through barriers is something that we know first-hand and reducing barriers is a central component to rehabilitation.
Often, we must even go beyond that to see the difference between rehabilitation and habilitation, or helping someone who has only known a difficult life to gain the tools to create a new one that sets them on a healthier path. To help them succeed, we as probation officers often become much more – serving as teachers, mentors and role models.
Sometimes the people we serve think the challenges they face are unique to them, but we can often relate because we too have lived many of those experiences or we have encountered them within our own backgrounds. It breaks the ice, builds points of connection, reduces barriers, and opens a moment for them to pause and listen and let their guard down to learn and grow.
Now, in my new role as President of the Chief Probation Officers of California, I do this work on a broader scale, often working through policy conversations and larger fiscal decisions and assessing their implications.
My work in these positions continues to be informed by my own unique background, experiences, and cultural understandings. Black History Month gives us the space and time to reflect on how we got here, but also where we would like to go. It is my privilege to be in a position now to help shape that future for my own children and their children.
Chief John Keene was appointed Chief Probation Officer of San Mateo County in June of 2013. Chief Keene brings more than 20 years of law enforcement experience to his role. Prior to his appointment as Chief, he served as Deputy Chief Probation Officer in Alameda County.