A SINGLE INCIDENT OR SOMETHING MORE?
Is there a brutal subculture inside Los Angeles County’s juvenile facilities? Do certain LA County Probation staff members believe that physical violence, along with humiliating actions and demeaning language, is “necessary” to “keep” unruly incarcerated kids “in line?”
While many of LA’s juvenile probation staff do genuinely remarkable work with the teenagers in their care, sources inside the department, along with youth advocates and juvenile defense attorneys with whom we’ve spoken, are concerned that an unacknowledged minority of probation’s staff members are emotionally and physically brutal in their approach to the kids they should be helping.
In late June, we wrote about a reported beating of a 17-year-old boy by four Detention Services Officers (DSOs) while a supervisor looked on, all of which was caught on video. WitnessLA obtained a 4:18 minute bootleg copy of a portion of the official video that showed the April 24 pounding that took place in the boy’s room in the SHU section of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall located in Sylmar, California.
The video—along with our report of a second alleged assault by a DSO at Central Juvenile Hall-–was much of what triggered the LA County Board of Supervisors to pass a Mark Ridley-Thomas-authored motion earlier this month, which asks the County CEO to return to the board in 45 days with a report that examines Probation’s policies and procedures for handling incidents like the ones was caught on video at the Sylmar facility. Within 90 days the board wants an analysis of three years of critical incidents that have occurred within the juvenile camps and halls.
But, despite the existence of the recording that we obtained, and despite the board’s concern, a lot of questions remained about how this beat down occurred.
What happened before the beating incident that caused staff to pick on this particular kid?
Sources close to and inside probation have provided us with a few of those answers. In addition to the 4:18 minute video in our possession, there is another video clip that is of about 15 minutes in length, which was pulled from the camera feed in the young man’s room as part of the ongoing investigation into the April 24, incident.
Two sources, who asked not to be named, but who have seen the 15-minute-long video have described to us what it contained.
The beating is disturbing enough, said one of the sources.But what is equally disturbing, he said, is what led to the beating.
“They set the kid up,” he said.
But before we get to what came before the recorded pummeling, it helps to step back farther into the recent past to find out a little about the kid himself, and to trace how he came to be in an LA County juvenile hall in the first place.
A GOOD KID GOES OFF THE RAILS
The probationer on the video reportedly has no violence in his record. For purposes of discussion, at his mother’s suggestion, we’ll call the boy Curry, both to protect his anonymity and because he loves basketball. In any case, “Curry” had no juvenile record at all until life events sent him into an emotional crisis. His parents were divorced and, after shuttling for a while between mom and dad, in the last few years, he had lived full time with his father in Arizona. Then Curry’s father was diagnosed with a fast moving lung cancer. By the time the malignancy was discovered, it had metastasized.
When his father died a few months later, Curry was inconsolable. The death of his dad also meant he needed to leave friends and his school in Arizona, in order to go to return to Los Angeles to live with his mother.
By this time, Curry’s mother, whom we’ll call Naomi, had a new husband, and two children by spouse number two—a four year old, and a brand new baby. In addition, Naomi was juggling a full-time job along with the demands of baby and child-raising. Thus, no matter how much she knew she needed to help her teenage son, having a disaffected, grief-stricken 17-year-old parachuted into a home already made chaotic by the baby’s arrival, was less than ideal.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, for a variety of reasons, things began to go south.
For one thing, Naomi had rules, and the dad had been far more permissive. Also, Curry has a mild learning disability and, according to his mother, is an athlete more than he is a student, even under normal circumstances. During the period of his father’s illness, he had fallen severely behind in school. When he came to LA after his dad’s death, his school situation worsened. He got farther behind in credits, was not reading at grade level and school officials recommended a self-study program at home. This was the last thing that either Curry or his overwhelmed mother wanted. From Curry’s perspective, home study meant he was no longer permitted play basketball, at which he reportedly excels, and which is the activity that, in the past, had most steadied him.
Naomi went to the local school board and tried to get officials to put Curry back a grade, which she hoped would allow him to both catch up and also to play ball, but school officials refused, she said. “Emotionally he needed help in dealing with his father. And he’d say to me, ‘I just want to be in school. I just want to play basketball.’ He lives, loves, eats basketball,” she said, and he wants to get a sports scholarship, which he felt was slipping away. “Maybe I should have pushed harder with the school officials…” she said.
Naomi did her best to help him stay on track with home study, but without sports, and with his grief over his dad’s death so fresh, Curry grew restless and began hanging out with people that his mom didn’t approve of. He started coming home late. Then sometimes he didn’t come home at night at all. Unable to rein him in, Naomi called the cops. She wanted somebody else to step in as an authority figure, and help her get her son into therapy, she said.
But Curry hadn’t broken any laws, and the police explained that getting her unhappy kid in line was her job. “We’re not the answer ma’am,” the officer she contacted said.
After the cops, Naomi called the Department of Children and Family Services—foster care—where officials had a similar reaction to that of the police. “No ma’am, that’s not how it works,” Naomi said the DCFS people told her. “You can’t bring him here.”
The act that finally brought Curry into the juvenile justice system-–and Naomi hoped, some help—occurred in a moment of adolescent stupidity and frustration; Curry took off in a car that belonged to an adult friend of his girlfriend. The car business was a murky affair that Naomi admitted she could not fully explain. Curry thought he was in the process of buying the car, putting whatever money he or his girlfriend managed to scrape together toward a used vehicle, never mind that he wasn’t an adult and had no driver’s license, nor ability to get vehicle insurance. The adult who was “selling” the car, off the books, to the non-licensed teenager, gave Curry the keys, and let him drive it for days at a time. At some point, however, the kid and the car-selling guy had a fight, reportedly over the terms of the “sale. “ Whatever the case, Curry drove off, and the car owner called the cops.
Since Curry had no previous juvenile record, the judge was reluctant to send this struggling but otherwise decent kid into lock up, so put him on house arrest.
Just about 24 hours after Curry’s newly acquired probation officer came to his mom’s house to explain the terms of his legal situation, Curry and his mother had yet another argument. Furious, Naomi confiscated his cell phone, and Curry punched a hole in the wall, fracturing his right arm in the process, landing him eventually in a cast. (The cast is visible in the 4-minute beat-down video.) Later that night, the squabble continued, and Curry took off, thus violating the terms of home detention, before it really got started. When he didn’t come home, his mother notified authorities, who tracked him down with little trouble.
Curry was sent to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, while probation officials tried to figure out what to do with him. But before he could be placed elsewhere, Curry and some other boys tried, unsuccessfully, to escape from Los Padrinos. After the foiled escape, Curry was transferred to Barry J. Nidorf juvenile hall in Sylmar, where he was put in the SHU, ostensibly to thwart any further breakout attempts.
This brings us back to April 24.
THE REST OF THE VIDEO
From the beginning of his time at Sylmar, Curry was reportedly labeled as a problem kid, either because of the escape attempt, or because he may or may not have been slow to follow directions on the yard. In any case, although our sources tell us there were no reported incidents, some staff evidently considered him a kid who needed a lesson.
At the beginning of the 15-minute video segment from April 24, according to our sources who have viewed it, we see Curry alone in his cell, where he is looking through what appear to be papers and a notebook.
“On the video you just see a whole bunch of time go by with the kid sitting on the bed, writing and looking through some papers,” said one of the sources. “He was occupying himself in what looked like a quiet, constructive way.”
Eventually, a staff member comes to the door of his room. The staffer tells Curry that he needs to get ready to shower. So the kid stashes his paperwork under his bunk mattress, takes off his clothes, leaving only his boxers, and wraps himself in a towel. The staffer returns and escorts him out of his room.
Next, according to our sources, the same staff member enters the boy’s room and begins tossing it. He finds the papers that the kid had stashed under his mattress, all of which the staff member confiscates along with Curry’s clothing, his mattress and his bedding—everything but his mattress cover.
According to department sources, staff members are allowed to search a kid’s room once a day. If there is some report of contraband, they can also search more often. But they are not allowed to confiscate a kid’s personal possessions unless those possessions are contraband or in some way pose a danger. (We continue to hear sporadic reports of these kinds of unmotivated confiscations of probationer’s belongings, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
In any case, a minute or two after the staffer exits the room, “Curry” reenters his room in boxers. “You see him realize that that everything has been taken,” said one of our sources. “He looks for his papers and notebook and sees they’re gone too.”
At this point, a clearly upset Curry bangs on his door calling for staff. Someone finally opens the door, and there is an exchange which upsets the kid further. When that staff member leaves, Curry bangs on the door a second time.
This time when the door opens there are two staff members. The one in front is carrying a dinner tray. There is an exchange that appears to upset the kid more. Now in a fury, the boy reaches out with both hands and flips the dinner tray back toward the staffer.
The video shows the second staff member behind the tray holder, pulling out his radio and making some kind of call.
A few seconds later, the supervisor arrives with two or more other staffers. As the supervisor talks to Curry, he reportedly twirls a “very heavy set of keys” that is attached to a chain. Our sources who viewed the recording, both described the key twirling as “aggressive” and “provocative.”
Perhaps 30-seconds later still, the part of the video that WLA has obtained begins. The supervisor and the kid are alone in the room, with the kid behaving in a compliant, non-threatening manner, but nevertheless visibly upset. The supervisor then rolls up his sleeves. A few words are exchanged and he leaves the room.
The very upset Curry picks up his mattress pad, which is now one of the few things left in his small cell, and tosses it impotently at the closed door. Then he tosses a milk carton—which is presumably a left over from the tray tipping incident—at the door.
The supervisor returns, tells the boy to face his bunk. Curry does so. Seconds later, three large staffers enter, one of them wearing black gloves. One lunges at the boy from the rear, slamming him down on his molded cement bunk, hard and fast. Then the rest pile on, as the supervisor looks at the action, pacing occasionally. Somewhere during the action, a fourth staff member enters the room, and the fray. After 1:48 minutes into the thumping, and pummeling, the four attackers rise off the kid’s body, and leave the room. After a pause, the supervisor follows.
Once alone, Curry raises himself painfully to a sitting position. His sole remaining article of clothing— his boxer shorts—have been pulled down halfway to his knees. Splotches of blood are visible on the shower towel that is now draped over the cement bunk.
But unlike our recording, the full 15-minute clip doesn’t end there.
Shortly after the beating, Curry tries to stand but his ankle, which was injured in the fight, gives way and he falls to the cell floor, where he curls up and remains, visibly in pain. While he is still on the floor, a nurse enters the room, but—counter to what we’d heard earlier—our sources who saw the longer video say that the nurse never touches the kid or attempts to examine him for injuries.
“She just stares at him, and leaves,” said one source. “It was incredible.”
Later there is a second nurse who saw the boy was injured, examined him briefly, and later, reportedly, caused him to be transported to County USC hospital, where he stayed for treatment.
After his release from the hospital, Curry was transferred to Central Juvenile Hall, and then finally to another “placement,” at Boys Republic.
At Boys Republic, he seemed at first to do well. But then, after a week at the facility, the distressed seventeen-year-old escaped from the Boys Republic facility on June 21, shortly after midnight, with help from his teenage girlfriend, who picked him up outside the place.
He was recaptured a few days later, and transferred back to Central Juvenile Hall while everyone tried to figure out what to do next.
SO HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM?
We have learned from sources inside probation that when the five staff members allegedly involved in the beating first reported the incident, as is required when force is used, they stated that the force used on the boy occurred only after Curry forcefully assaulted detention officers (DPO). The account of the unhappy 17-year-old as the violent aggressor might have gone unchallenged, according to our sources, had someone in a position of authority not decided to pull the video recorded from the overhead camera in the boy’s cell. As we know now, those images told a very different story
“So you wonder is it just a small group guys who behave this way?” said one county official when we were discussing the matter. “Or is it a larger group of guys who think that this is how you teach kids a lesson? That’s the worry. These are traumatized kids. We need our staff to understand that,” he said.
“When you have nothing, and someone takes [the few things you do have], you’re upset. If he was writing gang stuff, then, yeah, you take it. But there is no evidence that he was writing anything that was a problem. So when staff took his stuff and didn’t give a good answer, he was upset. So let him be upset. But egos got involved.
“When you look at the video,” he continued, “you know that couldn’t have been their first time. It’s too organized. It’s too calculated.” So there are two issues, he said, “the actual incident, and the implications of that incident…”
Jane Robison, spokesperson for the DA’s office, said that the matter of whether the DSOs who allegedly participated in the physical assault of the non-resisting 17-year-old should be criminally charged is still being investigated.
As for the Probation department, Chief Cal Remington told us that his people are pursuing “an ongoing investigation that we take very seriously. But,” he said, “we’ve expanded it beyond just this one incident.”