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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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