Campus Kilpatrick Juvenile Justice Juvenile Probation LA County Probation

After Feds Leave, Pepper Spray Use Skyrockets Again in LA’s Juvenile Justice System

Jeremy Loudenback

Just a few years after Los Angeles County exited a monitoring agreement with the Department of Justice, the county’s probation department has seen a return of rampant use of pepper spray in settling altercations and other misbehavior at juvenile detention facilities.

According to a presentation by the LA County Probation Department at Thursday’s Probation Commission meeting, incidents involving pepper spray at the county’s Central Juvenile Hall increased 338 percent from 2015 to 2017.

Pepper spray use also increased by 214 percent at the Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey and by 192 percent at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar during that time, according to Luis Dominguez, acting deputy director for the Probation Department.

Pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, is currently only used at the county’s three juvenile halls and the set of juvenile detention camps located at the Challenger complex in Lancaster.

In preparing preliminary data for the Board of Supervisors, Dominguez said that the increase in the use of pepper spray has mirrored an increase in the number of violent incidents at camps and halls, including both youth-on-youth violence and altercations involving probation staff and youth.

“OC spray is being used as a direct result of increased assaultive behaviors and violence by youth,” Dominguez said.

But a pending piece of state legislation may force the county to figure out another way to deescalate situations.

Implementing the Probation Department’s Use-of-Force Policy

The statistics shared by the Probation Department also revealed that probation officers’ use of pepper spray is an increasingly popular option for situations when officers at camps and halls must use force to break up or prevent violent incidents.

The department uses a six-tiered system called safe crisis management to determine the appropriate use of force when responding to an incident at one of its juvenile facilities. Levels one, two and three include low-level interventions for responding to youth, such as offering a verbal warning to a youth, stepping between two youth in a fight or placing hands on a youth to stop an altercation.

Levels four and five are considered high-level interventions, such as forcing a youth to the ground.

Level six is reserved for pepper spray.

In 2017, there were 1,629 safety incidents at county juvenile halls, according to Dominguez. Probation staff members used low-level interventions — levels one, two and three — 52 percent of the time. High-level physical interventions — levels four and five — occurred 16 percent of the time, and pepper spray was used in 32 percent of the cases.

The percentage of incidents involving pepper spray is even higher at juvenile camps. According to internal county documents obtained by The Chronicle of Social Change, the department used pepper spray in 42 percent of incidents at juvenile camps in 2016.

After Federal Oversight

Over the past 15 years, LA County’s juvenile probation department has twice come under federal oversight after Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations, once for conditions at its juvenile halls in 2004 and another for its camps in 2008. Both times, the department was cited for excessive and inappropriate use of pepper spray on youth, among other issues.

LA County successfully concluded DOJ monitoring of its camps in 2015 after making progress with its policies around the use of pepper spray at its facilities. According to the terms of its last settlement agreement, probation officers must now weigh each pepper spray canister after each use and on a yearly basis.

The experience of being pepper sprayed is not uncommon for youth at probation facilities, either because of a physical altercation or a result of getting caught in the cross-fire. A series of interviews of youth at Probation-run camps and halls conducted by the Violence Intervention Program in 2016 found that 20 percent of youth in the care of the Probation Department had been pepper sprayed, including one young woman who was pregnant at the time.

Most described the experience as a burning sensation, with others reporting painful welts and difficulty breathing.

“You feel like your body is on fire,” said one youth detained at Camp Smith.

Searching for an Alternative to Pepper Spray

The increase in the use of pepper spray at LA County juvenile facilities comes at a time when the practice could be phased out at the state level. California is one of only five states that allows guards at juvenile facilities to wield the chemical spray, and a new bill by state Assemblyman Ed Chau (D) introduced this year would place strict limitations on its use in juvenile detention facilities.

That left some at the Probation Commission meeting wondering about alternatives to pepper spray.

“At least in 2011, there were almost 90 percent of juvenile facilities in the United States that prohibited the use of pepper spray or any kind of chemical intervention in any facility involving youth,” said Commissioner Cyn Yamashiro. “It seems like the writing is on the wall, and it has been for a while, that pepper spray is not going to be an option for the department moving forward.

“What’s the department going to come up with and why aren’t we employing that now instead of capsicum?”

Probation officials point to a training grant from Georgetown University’s Center on Juvenile Justice Reform that is helping to bring the department in line with best practices in the field, along with the department’s ongoing effort to implement a new model of trauma-informed care at the department’s flagship facility, Campus Kilpatrick in Malibu.

But they also say there is still a need for pepper spray as a deterrent.

“Just implementing trauma-informed-care training is not going to assist us in dealing the physical challenges that we’re facing with our youth,” Dominguez said.

According to Probation Department officials, the number of violent incidents since Kilpatrick opened last summer is about 10. Commissioner Jackie Caster hopes that the county can expand the therapeutic design and practices employed at Kilpatrick, which is based on the “Missouri Model” of small-cottage facilities employing positive youth development programs.

“I think this is an argument for speeding up the replication of the Kilpatrick model because obviously what we’ve got at the other facilities is clearly not working and certainly doesn’t sound rehabilitative,” Caster said.


Image: Central Juvenile Hall

This story was written by Jeremy Loudenback for The Chronicle of Social Change, a national news outlet that covers issues affecting vulnerable children, youth and their families. Sign up for their newsletter or follow The Chronicle of Social Change on Facebook or Twitter.

7 Comments

  • …..wake me when one of the big brains comes up with the alternative. Walk in these staff member’s shoes for 5 minutes – I dare you. Staff are injured – and are investigated and frequently fired for excessive use of force. Take away their OC and see the consequences.

    Thanks to the permissiveness that allows violent youth to act out with impunity.

    Advocates, these are not poor stray helpless kittens. They are mostly high risk individuals who don’t think twice before action out violently….trauma-informed or not.

  • Bring on the punches, kicks, elbows and no holds bared fights between staff and “youths”. People in probation, law enforcement and the world in general have the right to defend themselves, and will do so by any means necessary when physically attacked. Keep going down this path and watch the injuries to staff and “youths” go up, along with the civil law suits and workers compensation claims. “Pepper spray” came about as a way to reduce physical violence and injuries, however “great progressive minds” feel it is cruel and unwarranted now.

    Two steps forward in the time frame human existence, and five steps backwards with respect to the application of common sense and practicality.

    Ridiculous….

  • What is typically left out of this discussion is that the Probation Department no longer detains light to middle weight offenders – just ask local police agencies. Generally, only those accused of committing, or adjudicated as guilty of committing, the most serious offenses remain in Probation custody. As a result, staff are dealing with an elevated number of violent, criminally sophisticated, extremely damaged youth. The use of that spray has saved more than one kid (and staff) from being on the other end of a violent attack. It’s INEXCUSABLE that the Probation Commission and others do not more clearly understand the dynamics of the youth that are currently in custody. They absolutely should be helped but they do NOT have the right to threaten and attack others. Custody in L.A. seems to have long been confused by well intentioned but naive people with a mental health facility. The two are wildly dissimilar. Kids in custody can clean up from drug use, get some mental health counseling, improve their education and maybe learn some other skills but the bottom line is that they are in custody – don’t confuse that with any other environment and don’t expect any rehabilitation of any kind if violence is allowed to be unchecked.

  • Gang violence don’t magically stop at the entrance to juvenile camp or juvenile hall. Author (in fact, witnessla as a whole) have no idea what it is working in these facilities. Would you rather “minors” injure each other until unrepairable damages? Because they are ready to kill each other if left unchecked. Trust me.

  • I have been reading these reports from WitnessLA for quite sometime and I almost always agree and disagree with the articles. I find them to be incomplete and too one sided.

    Having said that, I believe any effort to restrict the use of O.C. spray to be an error that will result in increased costs, and greater risk to the kids it’s intent aims to protect.

    While there is truth to the fact that the use of O.C. spray has increased, it is also true that the level of violent incidents has increased and more assaults are occurring. What do you suppose is the correlation?

    How about this? The use of Special Housing has decreased. The ability to isolate potentially dangerous and inciteful youth (largely gang members) can no longer be (or is extremely limited) to reduce risks, and maintain order and so the result is that despite efforts to detour, counsel, or use other methods to divert the risks, gang members do what gang members do, they gang bang. Although they are kids, and although O.C. spray is considered the highest level intervention available to stop a fight or an incident. In many cases, it is the least risky alternative to the types of incidents that are occurring. Many of these kids after all are adult sized, actively and frequently violent, outnumber the officers in any given facility, and physically fit to the tune of thousands of pushups per day.

    Many of these risks could be addressed with a stronger ability to separate the major problems from inciting larger problems, but that ability is extremely limited.

    What about the kid that isn’t a gang member? The kid that isn’t yet affiliated, how do you protect that kid if their is a corrupting influence of gang members about them, manipulating and intimidating them? Harder to protect that kid from the major gang leaders that often orchestrate problems.

    Another limitation is reports like this that do not consider all of the elements. It makes zero sense that there is such a push by CBOs and their advocates that failed these youth in the first place to have such a strong influence on the direction the department is heading in.

    This is not to say that I do not agree with reform. But such reforms need to possess a balanced approach that recognizes the systemic problems (DCFS, DPSS, SCHOOLS, and JUDICIAL), the social problems (Family, Community, Culture) and the problems associated with the public safety elements of justice. At some point we need also recognize that despite the fact that there are some good CBOs working to help these kids, they are limited by their capacity to address the broader or deeper issues mentioned above related to other elements that negatively impact the child’s ability to transcend these circumstances.

    We must also recognize at some point that as progressive and Evidenced Based Practice as a new Kilpatrick seems to be. It is still a one size fits all approach to dealing with kids that despite their similar circumstances does not reflect the fact that they are still different individuals, with different interests, and capacities for understanding and learning and they will almost always end up in the same community, culture, and circumstance that resulted in their entry into the system. One size will never fit all, and one perspective or approach to solving what is a wicked problem will ever be effective. We need a balanced interdisciplinary and collaborative approach that is mutually considered and respected.

    The safety and well being of the kids depends on a more comprehensive approach. At this point, the only thing these efforts are accomplishing is an exasperation of the problem that makes kids more at risk, makes the therapists and teachers working in this environment more at risk, and of course officers are more at risk of being assaulted.

    I appreciate from an advocates perspective many of the articles you write, I recognize that the justice system is not perfect and as a result requires reform. But it does have a place, a value, and need and we would be wise to accept in part the perspectives of the discipline.
    Not doing so is an injustice in itself. Please make a better effort to consider the broader, deeper and wider perspectives of the issues.

  • First and foremost, pepperspray is not used in the Camps. So this article is NOT completely true. Secondly, if these minors are so sweet and innocent. Why aren’t they home with there parents? That’s right…….There parents can no longer control them. They have NO respect for adults, society, teachers or anyone of authority. They are NOT normal kids. They have extreme problems, either with anger, substance abuse or mental health issues. Some can not even be reasoned with, like a normal minor. So tell me how would you handle, an irate, angry hostile minor who is attacking another minor and when you go to intervene. Attacks you. How would you deter that minor. How would you stop them? You child advocates, have no sense of reality when it comes to dealing with these criminal offenders. Yes, they are criminals. They may be children, but unfortunately they are still criminals with sophisticated and disturbed minds. They don’t care who they hurt, when they attack. THEY ARE DANGEROUS, when provoked. So if you don’t want them to be restrained from hurting another person or pepper sprayed. Then tell me, how would you handle this situation, because giving them a cookie, is not gonna work. Statistics show that since this new found ridiculous new age philosophy has came about. Youth on youth violence has increased tremendously. This new age philosophy has created havoc amongst the Probation Dept. because these children now have no consequences.

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