Special Service Unit agents in their tactical gear. SSU agents are often undercover in “street clothes,” but gear up for training or tactical operations. Photo by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer.

Special Service Unit agents in their tactical gear. SSU agents are often undercover in “street clothes,” but gear up for training or tactical operations. Photo by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer.

Highly trained CDCR agents assist local, state, federal investigations

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer

On duty at Deuel Vocational Institution in the 1980s, a young Correctional Officer named Charles Dangerfield noticed a group of agents entering the prison, and the air of respect and authority surrounding them. Intrigued, Dangerfield started asking his co-workers about the unit, and the answer sent him down a career path with one of the nation’s most elite law enforcement units.

Those agents were from the Special Service Unit, an arm of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that for 50 years has been working in a vital capacity to support not only corrections staff, but also local, state and federal law enforcement in keeping communities safe.

Fairly new to CDCR at the time, Dangerfield said once he saw the agents at work, he knew he was going to have to work hard to promote.

“It intrigued me so much – it changed how I thought,” he shared. “I thought, one of these days I’m going to try to be one of those guys.”

Dangerfield went on to realize his dream, working for SSU for many years before retiring in 2015 as chief of the Office of Correctional Safety, which oversees the unit.

According to its official description, SSU “conducts the major criminal investigations and prosecutions, criminal apprehension efforts of prison escapees and parolees wanted for serious and violent felonies, is the primary departmental gang management unit, conducts complex gang related investigations of inmates and parolees suspected of criminal gang activity; and is the administrative investigative and law enforcement liaison unit.” In layman’s terms, this means the unit does anything asked of it to keep communities safe.

“What is SSU and its relationship to CDCR? We’re essentially the multi-tool,” explained Senior Special Agent Joseph Beeson. “We’re the tool chest, we’re the Leatherman tool.”

That means working around the clock, embedded with law enforcement agencies from tiny rural areas of the state to major cities, monitoring criminal activity and gathering information that has saved many lives in the SSU’s 50 years of existence.

The SSU was formed in 1964 in response to the “Onion Field Killings,” when two parolees killed a Los Angeles police officer and attempted to kill his partner. Gov. Pat Brown requested the agency form to liaison between law enforcement on the streets and CDCR. At that time, there were six parole regions in the state, and six SSU officers were assigned to work within those regions, assisting CDCR’s Division of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO) and institutions in finding the nexus between criminals in prison and on the street.

While most citizens don’t realize the SSU even exists, in actuality its agents have been involved in nearly every major criminal investigation since the unit’s inception. High-profile cases include investigating Manson family threats against law enforcement, the Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of Patty Hearst and CDCR’s Operation Manhunt, which tracks down cold-case escapes going back to the 1960s.

In addition to gang investigations and fugitive apprehension, the highly trained SSU agents also specialize in high-risk inmate transports and dignitary protection. They even work out of state when needed, assisting corrections departments and law enforcement agencies with investigations that cross state lines.

It takes a lot of skills, tactical and personal, to be able to jump into an investigation with multiple moving parts, including law enforcement, witnesses, suspects and their families. Dangerfield likens SSU agents’ communication skills to “working a living room,” meaning in the midst of a chaotic event such as a home search, agents have the ability to get everyone involved on the same page and working toward the same goal, while staying calm and getting along.

Charles Dangerfield, left, and Brian Parry both served as chief of the Office of Correctional Safety and as SSU agents. Photo by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer.

Charles Dangerfield, left, and Brian Parry both served as chief of the Office of Correctional Safety and as SSU agents. Photo by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer.

“SSU is always going to be about people,” Dangerfield said. “You’re working with different officers or the bad guys, or the family of the bad guys. You have to be able to change hats – you might change four or five hats in one operation.”

Brian Parry agrees. An SSU agent for more than 20 years, Parry retired from CDCR in 2002 as chief of OCS.

“Communication is one of the biggest skill sets to look for,” he said. “When you’re out there in the middle of a house doing a search, and people are upset, or you’re trying to talk somebody out of something, you have to have good communication skills — that and the ability to handle high-risk situations.”

Parry knows what he’s talking about. After 20 years working with the Los Angeles SSU, Parry came to Sacramento following the Los Angeles riots. During that time, Parry and his fellow agents assisted prison Community Emergency Response Teams and parole agents with transporting inmates, guarding parole offices and investigating criminal activity.

“We went into South Central LA while it was still burning,” Parry remembered.

Several arrests were made as a result of SSU investigations, and one criminal with an ax to grind made Parry his target. Deciding that a move north would be in his family’s best interest, Parry came to Sacramento, eventually taking over OCS and helping SSU expand – although the highly specialized unit has always remained relatively small. Today, there are 32 Special Agents and six Senior Special Agents.

Beeson and Senior Special Agent John Prelip emphasized SSU’s expertise when it comes to Security Threat Groups, often referred to as prison gangs. But STGs are more than that – they include street gangs, disruptive groups and other organized criminal groups. The gang culture has evolved over the years to where shot-callers can direct gang members both inside and outside prison walls to carry out acts of violence and even murder in very short amounts of time. Agents have thwarted numerous attempts to introduce large amounts of contraband into prisons, shutting down large operations before they get inside an institution. An SSU agent with a deep knowledge of STG culture knows the signs of a gang crime.

“An SSU agent is able to identify organized crime that has a nexus to a prison gang,” Beeson said. “A special agent looks at a crime with a different set of eyes and can say, ‘There are a lot of indications that this crime is involved with a prison STG.’ And we’ll be able to investigate those leads when the crime is larger than what it appears to be on the surface.”

Prelip said SSU prides itself on that ability to work with different agencies, pointing out that the word “service” is in the unit’s title.

“We make sure that those agencies know that we are here to serve them,” he said. “We are here to liaison. We are not here to lead or take over for them. Our mission is within our name – we are a service unit, we are here to serve the mission of CDCR and liaison with outside law enforcement.”