Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment LA County Board of Supervisors LA County Probation

At Contentious Meeting, LA County Supes Said Enough Is Enough & Banned Use of Pepper Spray on Kids

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

When the Los Angeles County Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday, February 19, to slam the door on the use of pepper spray on the kids in the care of LA County Probation, they expressed their intention in unusually forceful terms.

“The matter before us is one that is urgent,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who, together with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, co-authored the motion. “The need for reform and oversight may never have been as vital as it is now.”

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas (R) and Shiela Kuehl (L), photo by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors

The mission of the county’s juvenile probation system, he said, was not meant to be about “punitive or military impulses.”

Kuehl was even more emphatic. “This is a form of torture,” she told those in attendance. “And I don’t care if it works. It is not a tool that I want used in Los Angeles County,” she said.

“This is not just a thoughtless way to take away another tool,” Kuehl added.  “I think it’s a way to take a weapon away.”


1000 times hotter than a jalapeño

So how bad is it for a kid to be blasted by oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray (what is often called pepper spray)?

According to the Kuehl-Ridley-Thomas motion, OC spray is measured in “Scoville” units, with one Scoville equivalent to the heat of a single jalapeño pepper.

Yet, the heat of the kind of law enforcement-issued OC spray used in the probation department, the motion continued, “is over a thousand times more powerful than the heat from a jalapeño pepper,” and significantly more powerful than commercially available mace sprays.”

An assault by OC spray will cause a person’s eyes to immediately close, due to a “bubbling or boiling sensation,” which is followed by “temporary blindness and intense eye pain.” The short term effects can last from 30 to 45 minutes, and include “burning in the throat, wheezing, gagging, gasping, inability to breathe, and blistering of the skin. Long term effects include acute hypertension, deterioration of nerve tissue and corneal damage.”


Getting to phase out

According to the Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents, OC gained popularity in the 1990s as a defensive weapon for civilians and law enforcement agencies because they produce an immediate, temporary immobilization and incapacitation when sprayed directly into the face or eyes.

Given its effect and the fact that 35 states in the union that have banned the use of oleoresin capsicum in youth facilities, LA county’s youth advocacy groups and civil right’s organizations—such as the Youth Justice Coalition, the Children’s Defense Fund, Homeboy Industries, the ACLU of Southern California, Public Counsel, the Alliance of Boys and men of Color, and more—have been pushing hard for a ban on the use of pepper spray on the county’s kids for some time.

Probation staff member, photos by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors

A group of thirteen such groups sent a joint letter to the board on Tuesday, urging them to finally move forward with phasing out the burning spray.

The letter, written by ACLU staff attorney, Ian Kysel, noted, among a list of relevant observations, that, a survey conducted by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) found that where OC spray is used, relationships staff and youth fear for their safety more than average.”

Yet, what finally moved the supervisors to definitive action was a 28-page report by the Office of the Inspector General that was delivered to the board on February 4. The report painted an unignorably distressing picture of the use of pepper spray on the kids in the county’s care who are housed in its three juvenile halls and two of its youth probation camps.


Pepper spray as punishment

The OIG report had been ordered up by the board in December 2018,  in response to reports of “safety concerns” in the county’s juvenile halls and youth probation camps, along with the discovery in March 2018, that the use of pepper spray in the county’s three juvenile halls had risen between 192 and 338 percent between 2015 and 2017, depending upon the facility.

To research their report,  the OIG team interviewed youth and staff in the affected halls and camps, and learned that OC Spray had, for many staff members—particularly those who were less experienced— had become a go-to method to obtain compliance when kids acted up, instead of being used only as a last resort in genuinely dangerous or volatile situations, as was supposed to be the case.

Furthermore, when the OC spray was used, the investigators found that certain staff members applied it punitively, spraying kids at close range, and for longer than was recommended, and sometimes in obviously painful and inappropriate parts of the youths’ bodies.

L-R, Deputy Alternate Public Defender Maureen Pacheco and Stacy-Padilla, Public Defender’s Office, photo by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors

Worse, once kids had been sprayed, and the behavior that had preceded the spraying was clearly over, some staff members failed to allow kids to appropriately decontaminate.

“Staff appear to repeatedly place recently sprayed, un-decontaminated youth in their rooms,” wrote the report’s authors. “In several incidents, youth appear to have been left in their rooms, visibly struggling, for periods exceeding fifteen to thirty minutes, without apparent efforts to decontaminate them.”

In still other instances, kids were exposed to OC spray, then placed in rooms with toilet and sink units, but where the sink water was either not functioning or was turned off.

And in some dismaying incidents described in the OIG report, the use-of-force reports filed by probation staff described kids behaving in ways that were “aggressive or threatening,” even when available video footage showed that the kid or kids appeared to “pose no threat to staff.”

In other videos the inspectors viewed, “youth can be seen attempting to self-decontaminate from the toilet.”

Supervisor Hilda Solis told the board and the assembled audience that she too had viewed some of the videos, which she said she found to be “very, very troubling.”


Better training & better recruitment?

Solis said she understood that, with the removal of OC spray,  many officers would need “better training and education” in order to “help provide rehabilitation for these youngsters.”

“That means,” according to Solis, that the board would have to put “some skin the game by allowing for funding to be made available” for the requisite instruction.

L-R, Probation Chief Terri McDonnell, and Chief Deputy Sheila Mitchell, photos by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors

But she also told her fellow supervisors that the board also needed to address “the very culture of the probation department.” which will take, she said, “both the administration and the employees, working together.”

It also means thinking beyond training “to look at who we attract to this profession because it isn’t a punitive agency anymore,” Solis said, “it’s about rehabilitation.”

Like Solis, supervisor Kathryn Barger and Ridley-Thomas emphasized the need for more and better training, plus a lot more mental health clinicians in the halls and the camps.

“What is it with the department of probation that it takes all this effort to make these changes?!” MRT said at one point, his voice sharpening.

Chief Deputy Probation Officer, Sheila Mitchell, told the supervisors that she agreed, it was “an immoral act to be using OC spray on youngsters that are facing a high degree of trauma,” as was true, she said, of “at least 95 percent of the kids in juvenile hall today.”

As Probation Chief Terri McDonald had already noted earlier, Chief Mitchell was previously probation chief for Santa Clara County,  “a jurisdiction where OC isn’t used.”


The tool issue

When it came time for speakers from the audience, many who’d signed up to address the board had been in the county’s youth facilities themselves when they were younger, had been pepper sprayed, and gave harrowing accounts of what it was like.

There was also a considerable line-up of probation staff members who work in the facilities in question, who expressed their fear that the already problematic juvenile halls would become more dangerous for staff and kids if the supervisors pulled the use of pepper spray out too quickly, without the proper transition and training, especially in deescalation techniques, and also without an agreed upon replacement strategy for the times that deescalation fails.

A far less happy group of staff members objected vehemently to the idea of pepper spray being removed from their metaphorical tool belt at all.


“Code blue”

Attorney Maureen Pacheco, from the Los Angeles Alternate Public Defender’s Office, told the board, and the rest of the crowd, that one of her office’s clients described how being pepper sprayed made him feel “like he was dying.”

She then told the story of another client, a boy who was 14-years old when he wound up in one of the juvenile halls.

“He has mental health issues,” Pacheco said,  “and significant emotional needs.” In addition, the boy has juvenile diabetes and a condition called hypothalamic hamartoma, which is a tumor-like formation on his hypothalamus that may cause seizures, “and can impact his ability to think clearly, she said.  Added to everything else, the 14-year-old was on antipsychotic medication plus medication for seizures.

In other words, the boy, whom Pacheco called “P,” was definitely not a kid who should pepper sprayed.

“It was not only contraindicated, it was very dangerous,” she said.

Yet according to Pacheco, when “P” was in county custody, he was sprayed four separate times.

The first time, she said, was for taking a pen from a staff member and then not returning it when told to do so.

“His mom said it was like a ‘fidget toy’ for him,” Pacheco explained.  “He intended no harm.  The staff member tried to take in back from him, P. resisted, and was pepper sprayed.”

And that was just one of P’s four spraying incidents.

Roark Stacy-Padilla from the Public Defender’s office told the board her own disturbing client stories of kids being pepper sprayed when in the county’s care. One story featured a child “who was pepper sprayed and then left alone in his room,” said Stacy-Padilla. The boy subsequently passed out, “and he was awakened by hearing the words, ‘code blue,'” while CPR was being performed on him,” after which time he was transported to a hospital.

In addition to telling hair-raising pepper spray stories, several who spoke, including LA’s Public Defender, Ricardo Garcia, who was appointed last September,  made a point emphasizing that the county also had to “consider and care for” the probation officers who have the county’s kids in their care, many of whom “work diligently with all their hearts.”  All those individuals who do care, are a “real part of the solution,” he said, and need to be worked with, and “leveraged.”


Votes and replacement strategies

Just before the OC banning motion was finally brought to a vote, Sheila Kuehl had one more thing to say to those gathered.

“Everyone will tell you it works better to use violence,” she told the audience.  “It does. That’s why people beat up their wives.  That’s why people hurt their kids.  That’s why teachers used to beat children at school.”  But “if your only tool is a hammer,” Kuehl continued, “everything looks like a nail. And the leadership I’m asking this board to take is to say ‘no,’ to this kind of violence.”

As was expected, the board unanimously passed the ban, and also voted unanimously for a companion motion, authored by Ridley-Thomas with Supervisor Janice Hahn.

This second motion instructed the Inspector General and Chief Probation Officer to report back in writing within 30 days with updated data on pepper spray use and use of force in the department, and to make this information available at the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT) Hearing, which is to take place next month.  PRIT is then to create a set of recommendations in return, and send them back to probation, who is to create an implementation plan for putting the PRIT’s suggestions, and those in the OIG report.

PRIT, for those who don’t remember,  is the panel created by the Supes that is tasked with creating a work plan for reforming the probation department, as well as hammering out a plan for the soon to be created Probation Oversight Commission (POC).

We bother to explain all this, because the real back door significance of this motion is that it effectively jump-starts probation oversight early.

In the meantime, on Thursday, WitnessLA spoke to Stacy Ford, who is the special representative from AFSCME Local 685, the union for probation’s rank and file.

Ford was one of those who spoke at the board meeting about staff concerns, and we asked him how, in retrospect, he felt it went.

“Well, you can’t take away the pepper spray without replacing it with something,” he said.

Ford also brought up the fact that last fall he had written about conditions at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, located in Sylmar, as being unsafe.  (WLA covered that story here.)

“And right now the juvenile halls are still unsafe,” he said.  “So, take away the pepper spray without some sort of replacement,” and it won’t be a good situation.  So, according to Ford,  the unions are hoping to work with the probation department “to come up with a plan where everyone is safe across the board, when pepper spray is phased out.”

“A solution exists,” he said. “We’re just trying to survey different ideas that can work.”

In fact, Ford said,  after Tuesday’s board meeting upper management at probation had actually reached out to his union.  They had their first meeting on Thursday with Chief Deputy Probation Officer, Sheila Mitchell,  and some other higher-ups in the agency’s juvenile division, he said.

At the meeting, Mitchell had stressed that she was proud of the partnership the probation has “with our labor unions” that were “going to be joining us in this effort.”

Ford seemed optimistic that the promised partnership was coming about.

On Thursday, they had “a very good discussion,” he said. “We have agreed that we’re going to work as a team to come up with a solution. We are all stakeholders, we’re all coming to the table, and we’re going to come up with a solution.”


All photos by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors

27 Comments

  • The death of GSN Arnold Garcia, beaten to death by a “child”, ushered in the era of oleoresin capsicum. Will the BOS or the “advocates” be at the funeral of the next officer or child lost owing to this decision? Leadership in the County and the Probation Department is at a complete nadir.

    • An excellent point and the answer is no, they won’t be at any funeral for staff. They could care less. They will be too busy ensuring that the “child” that killed them has legal representation. They confuse the apparent poor judgement of a handful with everyone. The only surprise is that they could remain so ignorant for so long. The voters in Los Angeles really need to wake up.

  • Reading this article I was impressed by the level of cluelessness of the women who are

    1) in positions of power (I include Ridley-Thomas in this category)

    2) are giving witness testimony (often third hand)

    3) reporting the story.

    I wonder if this is is a kind of unintended consequence of feminism, childless middle aged ladies applying their suspended motherly instincts to these wayward “children”. Kind of like a rule by the “cat ladies”. I can’t prove it, but it sure would explain a lot.

    • MK, what?? This has zero to do with race, feminism or gender. It’s the same old, same old politics for Los Angeles County. Rather than hold a few people accountable if the rules were broken, let’s blame everyone and look virtuous and oh yeah, let’s order up more training and get in some outside folks to evaluate and fix everything. Formula sound familiar? No regard for the fact that the threat of or use of pepper spray has stopped cold some dangerous situations that would have resulted in injury to youth and/or staff. Good luck to Probation attracting applicants with college degrees willing to be punching bags.

  • Hahahaha and the major thong character is ur typical la county spook hunter…

    Ok ban the use of pepper spray on children. When
    are male deputies gonna be banned from raping female inmates and leaving sperm to found by imvestigators

    • At major thong…dude were u drinking or your true self came out. If you have a wife or daughters you should be re-thinking ur words because you sound just as bad as the masogynistic deputies I work with and for.

      But looks like we are heading back that way except with Macho men and subservient Latina women…all in the old low riding Pico car this time. Neandrathal thinking will soon find the LASD with more lawsuits and more vacancies.

      • La Op, sorry to hear about your victimization at the hands of those awful bullies. Maybe you can get a couple of dozen cats for comfort, I hear a lot of middle aged single ladies seem to think that helps.

  • I guess you just have to laugh. Without OC, the restraint process will become even more violent resulting in far more injuries to the juvenile and staff. Watch.

    Clueless people making clueless decisions.

  • When pepper spray first came out, I was working patrol. Everyone was skeptical, but as deps saw fight after fight being averted and aggressive, assaultive suspects turn into crying, gasping, booger dripping COMPLIANT arrestees, cops everywhere realized what a valuable tool it is.

    This is a huge mistake. There WILL be more hands-on incidents and both “children” and officers WILL be injured.

    • No where in the article does it state how they want staff to address fighting and riots.

      Use of physical force can result in injuries to staff and inmates. Liberals will yell “brutality”

      When a large riot of 50 erupts and only two or three staff are available how can the situation be controlled rapidly and safely?

      If fights or riots are not quickly stopped then staff will be blamed.

      The media always blames law enforcement and never offers a safe and reasonable answer.

  • Ditto the comments of LASD Apostle in experiences and opinion.

    Unintended consequences and they will be blaming the Department of Probation staff and management for those consequences. Been there done that.

  • It will be like the octagon. Punches, kicks body slams…whatever it takes to protect oneself from these “misguided wayard angels” and break up the fights. I sure wouldn’t try to stick my hands between two fighting “cherubs”.

  • This is so ridiculous!! I would rather have a kid crying for a half hr. Then kids and staff being injured during restraints. These are NOT your average CHILDREN, They are criminals. I wish Celeste, ridley-thomas, kuehl, and the rest of the board of supervisors would show up in a Uniform for one shift, without cameras and escorts and see How it really is dealing with these minors. Of course that would never happen because they would be afraid. I was locked up as a minor in Sylmar and several other camps, back when there was regementation. If I was locked up in today’s dept. I would never have changed. There are no consequences for their actions anymore. The minors are the ones running this dept. These minors can continue gang banging, getting high, being violent, fighting other kids, assaulting staff, groping female staff and you know what they get. A hug, cause they play the act of being a misunderstood child. These minors Need to be taught that in the real world, there are consequences for your actions.

  • LASD Apostle – Amen.

    Where has common sense gone? Why the inappropriate over-reaction/over-correction to the errors of a few?

    How in the hell can ending a violent confrontation via pepper spray (after a warning is issued to stop) be viewed as, “immoral” by the Assistant Chief?

    Five years from now the Board will be wondering why the injury rates to youth and staff have escalated. What a mess the system in Los Angeles has become thanks to these idiots. The Board and the gutless people at the helm of the Probation Department should be run out of the County.

  • California used to be thought of as a “progressive state”, in terms of it’s educational system and forward thinking politicians. Now California and New York are the laughing stock, crackpots, and outliers amongst the 50 for good reason. The states so called elected “leaders” and others with influence (professors, local politicians, career beuracrats, members of the media) have substituted personnel agenda’s, biases and opinion for common sense and long term practicality. And who has to be subjected to this reactionary, carefree and clueless leadership…low level workers.

    Even former President Obama knows the only way the Dromocratic party will have any chance in 2020 is to find a “Moderate Democrat” to run. Far left or far right is not the way to go.

    In the Great State, democracy has devolved into a “Idiocracy”.

    SMH….

  • Written by a liberal idiot that has no idea about the job corrections have to do. “SAVE THE KIDS!” is the only thing on her stupid mind.

  • This is obviously a reaction by “politicians” to a matter that they know nothing about. Let the BOS spend some time in these halls and camps to really see how these “poor victims” really act and then let them come up with a different strategy besides holding their hands and stroking their hair like they are true victims. They forget that most of these staff truly want to help the youth they are serving and the reputation of the PD is being tarnished by the 5-10% of poor staff including these “so-called” union reps who continue to misguide our good staff without any recourse for their poor, unethical advice to staff.

    They need to look at the policies of this TYRANT of a chief who has given the staff no real tools to combat her obvious attempts to fire staff at any cost. She continues to lead BIASED investigations and fires the veterans who would be vital for this transition. You cannot have staff living in fear for doing their jobs as they were “trained”. Staff are not adequately trained yet they are held accountable for a standard that has not been defined.

    The removal of OC spray will definitely not be the end of the world. Staff need to learn how communicate with youth and know that every situation is a learning opportunity and not an opportunity to fire staff for making a mistake. The clients of the probation department receive chance after chance to make the right decisions, yet the staff are expected to be perfect. They are human beings who make mistakes and should be allowed to learn from those mistakes.

    The department needs to show staff how to do their job properly in every aspect of their duties. Yet, the department cannot even put these expectations in writing for staff to feel that the department truly wants them to know their job and give them to tools to do it correctly. You cannot expect staff to live up to a certain standard if you cannot even define what that standard is!

  • This is just ludicrous. Let me be clear – I absolutely support people being treated in a respectful, appropriate manner but there is a reasonable balance and no longer do elected officials give a damn about anyone’s safety. It takes a serious offense for a minor to be detained at all.

    A smarter move would to have been to pilot the use of alternatives at one juvenile hall and see how that went. Instead, a tool that works has been taken with no appropriate replacement.

    Remember this when you vote! Law enforcement personnel and their unions need to start working now to remove elected officials that endanger them, the people detained and the public at large with these “politically correct” and ignorant decisions.

    • “Law enforcement personnel and their unions need to start workingnow to remove elected official that endanger them”……..

      Be advised that much to the complaints of many, yes many deputies who opposed the same politicians, and were ignored is why the Janus Decision prevailed.

      ALADS fits the bill as they backed every person currently on the Board of Supervisors. I challenge them to dispute this.
      Again, this is a perfect living example of why the Janus Decision prevailed as ALADS took dues from everyone and funded politicians with much blowback and backfire.

  • Friend not Foe, of course they will not be at the funeral. The funeral is a family affair. Just like the boys in uniform are not at the funerals of the people they kill when they mistaken a cell phone for a gun or when they “see the suspect reaching for his waistband.” The reason they are banning pepper spray is because you and your ilk got carried away and were even spraying the flies.

    Old and Jaded, stop whining about someone getting representation. When the boys in uniform shoot someone because they made a mistake or were too quick on the trigger, they get damn good representation. Top notch. And, while awaiting trial for diddling little girls or inmates, you go on paid administrative leave. The guy at Walmart loses his job before he’s even fingerprinted. So, stop whining. You get better representation, also on the public dime since we pay those salaries that allow union representation, and you get paid while fighting your case. And, lest not forget the union PR machine to help you out.

    Maj. Dong, of course you can’t prove it. You can’t prove anything that you say, but, alas, it does not stop you from saying. Surely, you are one of the ones that claims there is no global warming because we had snow. I am curious, why are you so angry at women?

    • Blah..blah..blah rant of a crazy, dis-ordered and chaotic mind. Where does he/she/x come up with this re-cycled, re-hashed and superflous fiction.

      Give us more Krampus….

  • cf – I certainly respect your right to see things differently but a couple points.

    First, you misread my post. I wrote zero about employees getting representation.
    Second, I was not whining but expressing an opinion. Just like you are…
    Third, in addition to friends and family in attendance, agency brass and government officials routinely attend funerals for officers killed on duty.

    No matter who it is directed toward, Maya Angelou said it best, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”

  • After reading this my first reaction was oh crap “Big Red” is in charge of Probation now. She handcuffed the Sheriff’s Custody Division and now is handcuffing the Probation Department. How about all the BOS voluntarily get sprayed with OC to feel its effects, then they can speak with first hand knowledge on the effects. The BOS better set aside a whole slew of money after the employees and/or children get hurt now that you have taken a tool away. You people that don’t work the front lines will never learn

    • Spoken like a true champion…yep big red at it again. Hey more IOD MORE LAWSUITS. CA tax payers will pick up the tab while chilling at the crib drinking some brewskis and watching the tube..and maybe a big fat doobie to boot since it’s legal now. Sit back and enjoy the show for once

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