Los Angeles Bans Use of Pepper Spray on Kids in Juvenile Justice Facilities

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas (R) and Sheila Kuehl (L). Photo by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors

When the Los Angeles County Supervisors voted unanimously on February 19, to slam the door on the use of pepper spray on the kids in the care of L.A. County Probation, they expressed their intention in unusually forceful terms.

“The matter before us is one that is urgent,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who, together with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, co-authored the motion. “The need for reform and oversight may never have been as vital as it is now.”

The mission of the county’s juvenile probation system, he said, was not meant to be about “punitive or military impulses.”

Kuehl was even more emphatic. “This is a form of torture,” she told those in attendance. “And I don’t care if it works. It is not a tool that I want used in Los Angeles County,” she said.

“This is not just a thoughtless way to take away another tool,” Kuehl added. “I think it’s a way to take a weapon away.” 

Getting to Phase Out

Given its effect and the fact that 35 states in the union that have banned the use of the stuff in youth facilities, L.A. County’s youth advocacy groups and civil rights organizations — such as the Youth Justice Coalition, the Children’s Defense Fund, Homeboy Industries, the ACLU of Southern California, Public Counsel, the Allegiance of Boys and Men of Color, and more — have been pushing hard for a ban on the use of pepper spray on the county’s kids for some time.

A group of 13 such groups sent a joint letter to the board, urging them to finally move forward with phasing out the burning spray.

The letter, written by ACLU staff attorney, Ian Kysel, noted, among a list of relevant observations, that, “a survey conducted by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) found that where OC (Oleoresin capsicum) spray is used, relationships staff and youth fear for their safety more than average.”

Yet, what finally moved the supervisors to definitive action was a 28-page report by the Office of the Inspector General that was delivered to the board on February 4. The report painted an unignorably distressing picture of the use of pepper spray on the kids in the county’s care who are housed in its three juvenile halls and two of its youth probation camps.

Better Training and Better Recruitment

Supervisor Hilda Solis said she understood that, with the removal of pepper spray, many officers would need “better training and education” in order to “help provide rehabilitation for these youngsters.”

“That means,” according to Solis, that the board would have to put “some skin in the game by allowing for funding to be made available” for the requisite instruction.

But she also told her fellow supervisors that the board also needed to consider “setting a better standard in terms of who we hire.”

Like Solis, Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Ridley-Thomas emphasized the need for more and better training, plus a lot more mental health clinicians in the halls and the camps.

“What is it with the department of probation that it takes all this effort to make these changes?” Ridley-Thomas said at one point, his voice sharpening.

Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell told the supervisors that she agreed, it was “an immoral act to be using OC spray on youngsters that are facing a high degree of trauma,” as was true, she said, of “at least 95 percent of the kids in juvenile hall today.”

Creating A Replacement Strategy

A second motion, authored by Ridley-Thomas with Supervisor Janice Hahn, instructed the Inspector General and Chief Probation Officer to report back in writing within 30 days with updated data on pepper spray use and use of force in the department, and to make this information available at the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT) Hearing, which is to take place next month. PRIT is then to create a set of recommendations in return, and send them back to probation, who is to create an implementation plan for the PRIT’s suggestions, and those in the OIG report.

Celeste Fremon is founder and editor of WitnessLA. An expanded version of this story originally appeared there

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