Phasing Out Pepper Spray

The Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT) released a road map for providing humane treatment and improving safety in Los Angeles County’s juvenile halls and probation camps that, for the first time, includes recommendations for phasing out the use of pepper spray over the course of a year. The roadmap emerged from a Special Hearing called for by the Board of Supervisors, asking the PRIT to solicit community input after voting unanimously to eliminate pepper spray in February.

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

“It is high time we come to grips with the problems plaguing the juvenile halls and probation camps,” added Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who wrote the motion to create the PRIT. “Alarmed by findings of abuse in the OIG’s investigation, the Board directed pepper spray be phased out and that safety be improved for youth and staff alike. The PRIT has given us a roadmap with clear and actionable steps on how to do this, crafted with input from a range of stakeholders. There is no excuse for not moving forward now, and with expediency.”

“The Special Hearing allowed the Board of Supervisors’ PRIT appointees to elevate community voices, including formerly incarcerated people and probation officers, to shape the first-ever road-map for humane treatment and elimination of pepper spray in LA’s juvenile justice facilities,” said Saul Sarabia, PRIT Chairman. “It advances the Board’s vision to center robust community engagement as a key element in oversight and systemic reform of the nation’s largest Probation Department,” Sarabia added.

PRIT’s proposed timeline begins with enhancing training for all staff who work with youth, particularly on de-escalation techniques and non-use of force options. Such training is to start as soon as possible, and be ongoing. Soon after, only supervisors – not line staff – will have access to pepper spray, though only as a last resort. Eventually, the pepper spray will be placed in a lock box and taken out only under very limited circumstances. By the end of the year, all pepper spray will be removed from juvenile halls and probation camps.

“Having gone through the experience of being pepper sprayed as an adult, I am glad to see that L.A. County’s Supervisors have decided to eliminate its use on youth under the care of the L.A. County Probation Department,” said PRIT member Jose Osuna, who formerly worked with Homeboy Industries. “I believe that the PRIT’s recommendations lay out the safest path that can be taken in order to accomplish that.”

“We appreciate the work the PRIT has undertaken to develop these recommendations and will take them under advisement as we continue to develop a comprehensive strategy to safely eliminate the use of OC spray in our residential facilities. Our goal is to continue to work with our staff and partners to reduce the circumstances that contribute to the need for physical interventions. Additional training to build upon staffs skills working with high need youth and increasing rehabilitative services are among the actions we plan to take to ensure a safe environment,” said Probation Chief Teri McDonald, who received the recommendations.

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

Concerned about the tripling of pepper spray use in the County’s juvenile halls in the last three years, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on February 19 to phase out pepper spray, and tapped the PRIT to conduct a special hearing after a County Inspector General (OIG) investigation found excessive and troubling uses of pepper spray. The OIG noted cases of pepper spray being used on youth under psychotropic medication, youth being pepper sprayed in the groin, and youth not being allowed to decontaminate after being pepper sprayed.

PRIT’s special hearing, held March 16 in Carson, drew more than 100 people, including formerly incarcerated youth, probation staff, experts in youth justice, youth advocates, County leaders, concerned community members, and other stakeholders. Their comments informed PRIT’s report, which had 15 recommendations in all.

The first 10 recommendations included developing strategies for ending the “us versus them culture” observed by the OIG in juvenile halls and probation camps and providing environments where youth can flourish. This includes providing enhanced mental health support to youth; and expanding staff support to deal with childhood vicarious trauma. Additionally, the PRIT recommended the Probation Department ensure robust oversight in creating a way for youth to report grievances without fear of retribution.

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

The last five recommendations strive to balance the urgency of phasing out pepper spray with the need to do it incrementally.

“As the author of a recent motion to eliminate pepper spray from LA County juvenile halls and camps, I applaud the Probation Reform Implementation Team for synthesizing the insights of our community stakeholders on how to eliminate pepper spray while preserving safety in our facilities,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, lead author of the motion to phase out pepper spray.

“Phasing out the use of pepper spray at our Probation facilities is the only way to address our serious concerns for the young people in our care– but I am also concerned for the safety of our staff,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn. We are charting path forward that takes into account both of these legitimate concerns equally.”

The PRIT is a five-member panel of experts primarily tasked with developing a comprehensive plan for reforming the Probation Department, as well as to transform the existing Probation Commission into a new – and strengthened – Probation Oversight Commission.

The effort is in line with the Board’s far-reaching commitment to criminal justice reform, and is expected to result in better outcomes for youth and adults under Probation supervision, and to make Probation more transparent and accountable to the public.