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.