Los Angeles County continues to wrestle with the safety and well-being of youth in its juvenile detention facilities after a new report found the Probation Department has too often used pepper spray on youth.
The report, released by the L.A. County Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Monday, found the county’s Probation Department lacks sufficient training, supervision and accountability systems around its use of oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, more commonly known as pepper spray. The report found that many staff at detention facilities used it in “inappropriate and avoidable” ways — including over-relying on it as a primary option for obtaining compliance from youth instead of utilizing other de-escalation techniques. It also noted that staff reported “being unprepared to deal with youth experiencing behavioral and mental health issues.”
At a meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, supervisors considered the OIG’s findings and the impact of pepper spray on youth in the county’s custody.
“Violence begets violence,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis. “We have to take a different mode.”
As The Chronicle of Social Change first reported in March, the use of pepper spray in juvenile halls skyrocketed from 2015 to 2017, including a whopping 338 percent in Central Juvenile Hall. The Probation Department also noted an increase in youth-on-youth assaults and assaults of staff during the same time period. In December, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas asked for an outside review of the Probation Department’s after continuing reports of sprays used on the 900 youth detained in county juvenile detention facilities.
The Probation Department allows staff to use pepper spray in its three juvenile halls and two of its six juvenile detention camps. California is one of only six states that allow staff in juvenile facilities to carry canisters of pepper spray on the job.
Probation Department leadership chalked up increased use of chemical sprays to the strains of implementing the county’s alternative to solitary confinement as well as staff’s desire to avoid physical altercations with youth.
“When we first got here, the issue was not about OC spray, it was about physical intervention at Barry J. Nidorf [Juvenile Hall],” said Chief Probation Officer Teri McDonald, who started in January 2017 after 25 years with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “I’m afraid that some of the actions that the staff took in relying on OC was their desire not to get in trouble for a physical engagement. I think that’s driving part of the overall numbers. We owe it to our youth, to our staff, to our families, to communities to do better.”
According to the Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell at Tuesday’s meeting, 36 percent of staff in juvenile halls were responsible for most incidents involving pepper spray spray in recent years. Of those, 47 percent have less than two years on the job with the Probation Department, pointing to a need for enhanced training.
The report also noted that some probation staff reported fearing for their safety as a result of a lack of supervision and under staffing.
The OIG report urges the county to “evaluate whether the use of OC spray in department facilities aligns with the department’s philosophical shift toward rehabilitation and trauma-informed care.” It offers 18 recommendations, mostly around providing better training and oversight practices for probation staff. It also calls for the county to install cameras in all of its juvenile justice facilities, not just Central Juvenile Hall.
According to Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, the board will direct further conversation around the issue to the Probation Reform and Implementation Team, a recent county effort to garner community input around the powers of a new probation oversight commission.
The topic of pepper spray in juvenile facilities has already come up at that team’s monthly meetings. At a gathering last month dedicated to assessing the state of the county’s juvenile facilities, former probationer Miguel Lugo of Homeboy Industries shared his experiences of getting exposed to chemicals.
“I’ve been pepper sprayed to the point where when you sit in a box, you’re sweating it out of your body and your sheets are completely orange,” said Lugo. It’s painful to sit there into the night, just feeling the itch, just for a mistake you did as a kid.
“If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Learn more about the federal rule change to provide legal representation to children and parents involved in the child welfare system in our exclusive webinar, A New Era of Funding Family Justice, with Leslie Heimov and Vivek Sankaran on Feb. 21st. Hosted by John Kelly, Editor-in-Chief for The Chronicle of Social Change.