David Looney: Chief Federal Probation Officer, 1991-2000

By Joseph Carlisle

This article is based on an oral history conducted by Janice Dilg in June and July 2015.  The oral history is on file with the Oregon Historical Society on behalf of the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society.  The transcript for his oral history can be found at https://usdchs.org/oral-histories/

David Looney is a product of humble but proud pioneer families. He is humble about his background, upbringing, and accomplishments, and at the same time proud of his family, the small Eastern Oregon community he grew up in, his time at the University of Oregon, his service in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam conflict, and his civil service in the Probation and Parole Office for the U.S. Court for the District of Oregon. He exemplifies the skill and character required of all federal probation officers.

Born on August 16, 1945 in Emmett, Idaho, to Woodrow Wilbur “Bill” Looney of Jordan Valley, Oregon and Ruth Harriet Henderson of Round Valley, Idaho, David Looney is the third of four children–two older brothers and a younger sister. After his birth, the Looney family moved to Adrian in Eastern Oregon.  The Looneys borrowed enough money to open a store that began as a service station but later offered everything a small town could need–from meats to dry goods. Watching his parents work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, Looney’s work ethic developed at an early age.

Education was important to the Looney family.  Looney’s mother went to Lewiston Normal School, later teaching for a few years in Watson, Oregon at the base of Leslie Gulch on the Owyhee River.  His father had little formal education, but always stressed the importance of it to his children, insisting that his children attend college.  Looney recalls, “My father was very convincing when he wanted to be, and so I did.”  With two older brothers excelling at school, Looney found the prospect of school exciting, “a big deal.” As a first grader, he brought all of his books home every day.  His teachers had high expectations for him as a student and as a person.  With their expectations and the challenges they presented, they were very influential in his life.

An excited Dave Looney is ready for school.

An excited Dave Looney is ready for school.

Family vacations were modest affairs.  His parents did not vacation together, as someone had to run the store.  Occasionally, he, his brothers, and his father would go camping, fishing, and hunting.  When Looney had free time after school (between football practice and chores) he and the family dog ran a mile out of town with a shotgun to go hunting. To hear Looney describe it, a person could not have asked for a better environment to grow up in as a child.

College and Military Service 

Following high school, Looney attended the University of Oregon. In Adrian, Looney read whenever he had the opportunity between school and chores. College life in Eugene was eye-opening.  He noted that his college experience was not like the movie Animal House (set in a similar time frame), but it was challenging and occasionally fun. Looney worked throughout college and over his summers. On graduation in June 1967, he had more money than he did when he started. He did very well in English and history in college, and majored in history with an eye toward teaching.

Prior to graduating, Looney was drafted into military service during the Vietnam conflict.  Because of the importance his father placed on finishing his degree, he chose to serve in the Navy, the only branch of the military that allowed him to defer until after his graduation. Five days after he graduated, he reported for officer training. He went on to serve on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam.  When he was transferred to a landing ship tank unit and was sent to San Diego for training, “a fun little story” occurred.  His transport ship had a fire and in putting it out, several systems important to the ship’s navigation were damaged.  After Looney took the bridge watch at 4 a.m. and the commanding office indicated he was not going to hold his hand through the night, Looney guided the disabled ship to the port entrance. Ten days later, in November 1969, his military service was complete.

After his discharge, Looney traveled around the country having a range of different adventures.  Looney eventually returned to Oregon and settled in Salem.  He worked at Willamette University as a janitor, at a local golf course, and a Plaid Pantry store, sometimes all at the same time.  He also moonlighted as an editor of student papers, which got the attention of the university president, who tried to persuade him that there was a place for him at Willamette. Looney, however, chose to move on in the fall of 1970 to take a job with the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

Looney’s work at the penitentiary was initially as a corrections officer staffing the perimeter towers at night.  He was later assigned to the D Block where he had a lot of contact with the inmates.  He found that most of the inmates he had contact with were decent people; some good, some bad. Some were property offenders and some were murderers.  He realized that even in prison, there were “people with good hearts who wanted to do the right thing.” He thought that he might have an opportunity to work with people who would not otherwise be seen as candidates for reformation. He took his job seriously, writing an inmate up for a violation of rules, yet also handing out Lucky Strikes at Christmas. He developed a good rapport with both his colleagues and most prisoners.

A young federal probation officer in 1973.

A young federal probation officer in 1973.

Parole and Probation

In the spring of 1971, he started as a counselor at the penitentiary, a case manager in today’s equivalent. When the guards were shorthanded, he pitched in and helped with the inmates.  It was a serious job with a lot of risk.  In April 1972 he took a job with Oregon Parole and Probation.  Within eight months, a colleague suggested he apply for a position with the Federal Parole and Probation Office in Portland.  After interviewing, he accepted the job and began his long and distinguished career at the federal level which lasted from 1973 through 2000.  He served as a probation officer from 1973 through 1979, and was promoted to supervisor.  Looney, however, did not enjoy the supervisor position the first time around, and returned to probation officer in mid-1981.  Due to his assignment to a number of serious cases (bank robbers, organized crime families, and white supremacists) he began to experience the inevitable burn-out on the frontline. He became a supervisor again in 1985.  When his friend Frank Gilbert retired in 1991 and his colleague Kathy Zimmerman ultimately decided she did not want the chief’s job (which Looney thought she should take), Looney became the chief of the probation office, a position he served in until 2000.

During the tenure of his service with the U.S. District Court in Oregon, Looney witnessed several pendulum swings. When he started, the individuals assigned to him were considered clients and were later known as offenders. The official focus of the work shifted from treatment and rehabilitation to enforcement.  He served during the transition from treatment and reform to the War on Crime and then to the War on Drugs.  Throughout these transitions, Looney’s focus centered on protecting the public while finding a way to help individuals not to commit further crimes.  His life experience helped him to look for and see both the good and the bad.  He did not see all of the clients or offenders assigned to him as bad people that needed to be controlled or treated as lesser people.  Some people had struggles with substance abuse or mental health issues which prevented their rehabilitation. Some were just not capable of reform. He could see that some people lack the desire and resources to stay out of trouble.  As he stated, what he accomplished in college is virtually impossible today: to graduate from the University of Oregon in four years, while working, and leave school with more money than he started.  These experiences and insights allowed him to approach his clients and offenders with both compassion and high expectations, in the same way his Adrian grade school teachers did with him and his fellow students.  It was likely the reason the court appointed him chief probation officer in December 1991.

Looney worked through the transitions in the court and the court system, speaking fondly of the judges he served under, and expressed the utmost respect and gratitude for their support of him and his colleagues.  In the early years of his career, he attended informal meetings with his supervisors and judges in which individual probationers were discussed with an eye toward crafting the proper sentence for each one.  He and his office produced sentencing reports as guidance to the court.  And in those days, a judge would call and ask why a certain recommendation was made or not, and if they disagreed with it they would make their views known. Through these experiences, he learned valuable insights into how to fulfill the probation office’s role within the criminal justice system. Judge Gus Solomon not only read Looney’s reports, he graded his writing–“You would have little red marks if you didn’t use good grammar.  I mean he insisted on teaching us how to write, which is a good thing.”  Things eventually changed and the system required greater distance between Looney’s office and the court with respect to sentencing. However, he was still able to work with the court in sentencing and in supervision of offenders in the community.

Sentencing Reform Act

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 added more layers to the job. It changed the dialog between the probation office and the court regarding each individual offender’s circumstances and removed much of the court’s discretion in sentencing.  The goal of the act was to reduce all disparity in sentencing between offenders with similar offenses, backgrounds, and risk factors.  The probation office was charged with advising the court regarding the guidelines in a very structured presentence report, which earned the office the nickname “Guardian of the Guidelines.”  It was a difficult transition for many in the probation office, especially those who began their careers under the treatment or medical model.  The new guidelines structured the court’s discretion and did not allow for significant consideration of circumstances unique to an offender. Throughout these transitions the goal of probation office work remained constant: correctly advise the court, protect the public, and provide opportunities for reform of offenders.

The only thing Looney seemed to like more than his work, were the judges and his colleagues.  He was particularly fond of Judges Otto Skopil, James Burns, James Redden, Owen Panner, Ed Leavy, and Anna Brown as they provided tremendous guidance and support to him throughout his career.  Among his colleagues, Looney especially valued the dedication, support, and friendship of Walter Evans, Frank Gilbert, Palmer Lee, and Kathy Zimmerman. He felt these relationships were vital to his success in his career and his love for his work.

While the probation office will continue to change, as will the court and the criminal justice system, all three are better for the example Dave Looney has provided as both a probation officer and person.

Dave Looney and a growing retirement hobby.

Dave Looney and a growing retirement hobby.