Alarm Raised Over Pepper Spray Use in Juvenile Facilities

Acting on a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Chair Janice Hahn, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted its first ever investigation into the Probation Department and raised alarm over excessive and improper use of pepper spray at juvenile halls and camps.

After hearing the OIG’s report, the Board of Supervisors ordered a special hearing on the issue to ensure solutions are vetted by the community and other stakeholders. The Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT) will hold the special hearing at a date still to be determined. Created by the Board last year, the PRIT is primarily tasked with plotting a comprehensive roadmap for reforming the Probation Department, as well as developing the structure of an independent civilian Probation Oversight Commission.

The Board will consider taking additional action on February 19th, including calling for a plan to implement the OIG’s recommendations, as well as an assessment of mental health needs in juvenile halls and camps to guide approaches for preventing or minimizing use of force.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

“It’s high time we come to grips with this – no more excuses,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Several findings of the investigation point to a punitive culture lacking in accountability. Our responsibility is to protect the basic human rights of the youth in our care – not further traumatize them. The Probation Department must return to its mandate of rehabilitation to ensure the safety of both youth and staff.”

The OIG report included a recommendation that Los Angeles County “explore the feasibility, with significant input from all stakeholders, of restricting or eliminating the use of pepper spray in Probation Department juvenile facilities.” This after its investigation found pepper spray appears to be a commonly used tool by some staff to obtain compliance, in violation of policy.

Representatives of the Office of Inspector General presenting their findings to the Board of Supervisors. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

The OIG found instances where pepper spray was excessive and not justified, often because it was used as the first – rather than last – tool for gaining control. For example, in one incident, a youth was sprayed in the face, without physical provocation, for not following verbal commands to enter a cell. The OIG also found instances where pepper spray was used on vulnerable populations, including asthmatic youth, who can suffer serious respiratory effects, as well as youth on psychotropic medication.

The investigation also uncovered improper decontamination procedures. In a severe instance, youth had no choice but to use toilet water to remove the pepper spray. OIG found staff reports about these troubling incidents were incomplete and sometimes blatantly misleading, seriously inhibiting oversight.

Public Defender Ricardo Garcia. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

“In no uncertain terms, that is abuse of these children,” said Public Defender Ricardo Garcia, whose attorneys represent hundreds of youth in juvenile halls, the majority of whom are being held pre-adjudication. “These are children, for all intents and purposes, who are still presumed innocent,” he clarified. “These are individuals who have not been charged, who have not been convicted of a crime.”

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald acknowledged some Probation officers used pepper spray in ways that were “grossly outside of policy or expectations,” but said this did not represent the vast majority of the department’s staff.

Still, Chief McDonald told the Board, “I am as concerned about the data and reporting of force within the Probation Department as I was when I took over the Sheriff’s Department” during the height of the jail violence controversy. She added, “We owe it to our youth, to our staff, to our families, to our communities to do better.”