Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment

Bad Numbers: Inspector General Says “Little to No Confidence” in LA Probation’s Stats Claiming Soaring Assaults By Kids

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Wednesday, February 27, the Los Angeles Times published an article describing a sharp increase in assaults on guards in LA County’s juvenile detention facilities.

Overall, “the rate of assaults on guards more than doubled between 2015 and 2018,” wrote the Times, although they noted that the attacks had slowed slightly in the past year.

The story was based around data the Times had gotten from the LA County Probation Department “in response to a California Public Records Act request,” the story continued.  And these stats showed that,  at the county’s juvenile halls and camps, “the assault rate per 100 juveniles rose by more than 120%.”

In the three juvenile halls in particular, “the raw number of assaults on officers” jumped from 98 to 296,” the Times wrote. “Taking into account the declining population of detainees, that translates into a rate increase of 254%.”

When it appeared, the LA Times story was widely read by youth advocates and others who have a stake in the ongoing efforts at reform of LA County’s juvenile halls and camps.

Among those interested readers was Rodrigo A. Castro-Silva, the interim head of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).*

After reading the story, Castro-Silva wrote a two-page memo about the data it included.

The memo—which WitnessLA has obtained—was distributed privately to each member of the board of supervisors on Thursday, February 28.

In it, the Interim IG listed the stats the LA Times had cited illustrating a spike in assaults on guards. His office too, wrote the IG, “…had reviewed the probation department’s data and data collection methods relating to use-of-force…and “youth-on-staff assaults” at the department’s facilities.

“Based on our review thus far, we have little to no confidence in the reliability of the Department’s data on youth-on-staff assaults…”  the IG wrote, the single sentence underlined for emphasis.


Timing and context

To better understand the rest of the IG’s memo, it helps to know the context in which it and the Times story arrived.

A little over a week prior to the day the LA Times story was published, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to phase out the use of oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, commonly called pepper spray, from the county’s juvenile camps and halls.

The idea that the county should ban the use of the burning aerosol on the kids in its care had been gathering momentum for a while.  Yet a more intense sense of urgency seemed to pick up speed after a 28-page report  compiled by the Office of the Inspector General.

The report had come about in response to a December 2018 motion authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and co-sponsored Supervisor Janice Hahn, which asked the OIG to look into the recent discovery that the use of pepper spray in the county’s three juvenile halls had doubled—and in one case more than tripled—between 2015 and 2017, a fact that was perplexing since the youth population in probation’s youth facilities was continuing to fall.

When it arrived, the OIG’s rigorously-researched report painted a detailed and distressing picture of the way pepper spray was being overused and, in certain cases, horrifically abused by a portion of the staff members in the county’s three juvenile halls and two of its youth probation camps.

Two weeks after the OIG’s report was released, the board passed its motion to phase out the use of OC spray, despite the fact that a significant number of Detention Service Officers (DSOs), who worked in the county’s juvenile halls, spoke to the board, when it came time for public commentary, about why they felt that, if pepper spray was taken away from them as a tool, the county’s juvenile halls  would not be safe for staff members or for youth.

The board passed the OC spray ban unanimously anyway, but with a strong recommendation for additional training for staff in de-escalation techniques, which many detention officers have repeatedly requested.

Eight days later, the LA Times published the data they’d acquired from probation showing an alarming rise in youth assaults on staff in the halls and the camps, stats that they said validated “concerns frequently raised by detention officers and their union leaders.” These officers and union people told the Times that the increase in “tense and violent situations with juveniles” was much of the reason behind the “rise in pepper-spray use,” which had “prompted scrutiny from county leaders”—and thus the ban.

The officers, the Times wrote, said they needed the spray—“which advocacy groups say is inhumane for subduing unruly juvenile detainees.”

“Pepper spray needs to stay,” said officers who spoke with the Times, two of whom described harrowing experiences of being beaten by kids.


The search for good data

There were three main illustrations that Interim IG Castro-Silva listed as reasons why his office had little confidence in the probation department data cited by the LA Times.

First, he wrote, probation leadership told them that the department “has found that its line-level staff were routinely inaccurately reporting youth-on-staff assaults.”

In the IG’s own investigation for their February 4, report to the board, they noted several such incidents in which “the use-of-force reports filed by staff described youth behaviors as aggressive or threatening, even when available video footage shows that youth appeared to pose no threat to staff.”

This was particularly problematic when trying to assess the accuracy of use-of-force reports and “subsequent data,” said the IG, “because not all use-of-force incidents are captured on video.”  It seems that, unlike the nearly wall-to-wall camera in the county jail system, for better or for worse, there are comparatively few cameras in the county’s troubled juvenile halls.

Second, according to Castro-Silva, the department uses an outdated and inaccuracy-prone system of data-gathering related to youth-on-staff assaults.  This method involves handwritten “paper force reports,” scribbled literally on forms with checkboxes from which other staff members have to fish out the “relevant data,” and record it on Excel spreadsheets. This is done by a “revolving set of available staff,” who may or may not have even the slightest familiarity with the incident in question, or any way of clarifying the salient details of the various scribbles and box-checkings should the paper reports be at all ambiguous. All of this may lead to “data integrity issues,” wrote the OIG in something of an understatement.

Finally it turns out that, according to the IG, probation’s policies don’t precisely define the term “youth behavior constitutes assaultive behavior.”

While their review is ongoing, the IG concluded, “the foregoing leads us to believe the data provided to the L.A. Times is unreliable, which calls into question the article’s conclusions.”

When we asked the probation department what it thought about the Interim Inspector General’s memo, a department spokesperson told us that, unfortunately, probation was “unable to comment on the OIG report…as it is not a public document.”


Problems and solutions

In April of last year, WitnessLA made a similar request for similar data (albeit not for as extensive a time frame as the LA Times used), which probation officials kindly supplied.

In the resulting story, reporter Lauren Lee White found that as she drilled down into the matter of the youth attacks on staff that were distressing a great many detention officers, an interweave of complex and multi-layered issues emerged—issues that could not be viewed accurately through the lens of simple cause and effect.  (You can read the story here.)

Yet, in exploring such problems, and imagining their possible solutions, presumably it does help to have good data—which is an arena in which LA County Probation seems to continue to be notoriously challenged.

Ian Kysel, the staff lawyer for the ACLU of Southern California who has been doing work on the formation of the new Probation Oversight Commission, which is presently in process, agreed with the OIG’s interpretation of the unreliability of the force data.

“There’s virtually no system in place to accurately track and aggregate this data” that, he said, “should inform departmental management…and decision making.”

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who has authored or co-authored many of the board’s recent motions pertaining to youth justice reform, also expressed dismay at the OIG’s conclusions.

“Safety for both youth and staff in our juvenile facilities is of paramount concern,” he told WitnessLA. “But to address a problem, we must accurately understand it.”

For this reason, he said, he was “deeply troubled that the OIG has little to no confidence in publicly released data from the probation department on youth-on-staff assaults.

“We must do better — not only in creating rehabilitative and safe environments, but also in tracking data. Accountability and reform will not happen without it.”

WitnessLA agrees.


*Editor’s note:  Inspector General Max Huntsman has been out of the office due to health reasons but is reportedly on the mend.

15 Comments

  • For those that may not know…There is a system that mandates the reporting of something as minor as a hand on a kid’s arm for a few seconds as a level of “force” that must be reported. Whether minor such as this example, or due to restraining youth in a fight, the completion of a set of forms is required every time “force” is applied (including pepper spray) and those forms must be completed by every Officer on duty at the time of the incident in a camp or juvenile hall unit – regardless of whether or not they were present.

    All the forms from each staff member on duty at the time of each incident are collected and reviewed by the on duty supervisor. Depending on the location, they are often submitted to a non-involved administrative supervisor, who reviews them again before submitting them to the facility Director. Once approved by the Director, they are sent to and reviewed by DOJ unit personnel that review the forms for completeness, proper classification of the level of force and whether or not the use of force was within policy. As you can see, before a use of force incident is closed, it has been reviewed by multiple people at multiple levels from different units within the agency.

    The use of force data compiled by the Department has resulted in a second look at those incidents that appear inappropriate. Video tapes are routinely reviewed and investigations initiated accordingly. Violations of the use of force and other policies are taken seriously. There has been nothing “lightweight” about the discipline imposed upon staff for a long time. Those that maliciously abuse kids are fired. Those that are caught lying to investigators are fired. It’s pretty much that simple.

    The data collected by the Department has been deemed acceptable for purposes of DOJ accountability, for use in creating an early warning system to identify personnel that may be at risk for inappropriately using force, and for providing extra training and/or discipline where warranted.

    Now however, this data is now seriously flawed after an article in the Times is published that discusses staff concerns about institutional violence and their objection to having one of the few tools they have to protect themselves and youth taken away.

    For the sake of argument only, let’s say that the number provided to the LA Times proved to be inaccurate by as much as 30%. That still leaves a 100% increase in assaults on staff. Someone should be asking why.

    This begs the ever looming question that LA County leadership continues to dodge…What is the plan to improve employee and youth safety in adult and juvenile institutions?

  • Celeste, I’m no genius, but I think I see a pattern.

    LE reports rising assaults on them, someone comes back and claims the way it was collected is “out dated” and writes a counter OPINION, with no better data of their own.

    You could almost lay this opinion on top of the counter opinion to the Sheriff talking about a rise in inmate on staff assaults, and inmate on inmate assaults!

    A good investigative “reporter” would counter with unequivocal facts that the reported data is, in fact, out dated!

    • This coming from someone who wants to circumvent public disclosure of law enforcement officer’s records as it pertains to use of force, great bodily injury or death.

      Can the pot truly call the kettle black?

    • Amen, Mr. Hernandez.

      These young people are with us one week and LASD the next so your corresponding increase in inmate violence is no surprise. I’ve spoken with a physician that left working in Probation facilities after many years due to feeling unsafe. You have to wonder what will need to happen…

  • Great point Ron. If the Baca/Tanaka scandal taught us anything it’s that the inspector general isn’t there to actually hold management accountable, the inspector general is there to justify his job. Notice the IG’s criticism is merely about stat keeping, which will probably be ignored ,resulting in nothing being done. The illusion of oversight. Judging by the crap the IG puts out this is probably a good thing.

    Of course witness la is hopelessly biased. How about this whopper “the county should ban the use of the burning aerosol on kids”. How’s that for an unbiased description on the use of pepper spray? Great stuff ,can’t wait to see cf’s latest cadet sex fantasy fetish /wall mart shaming reply.

  • Personally I agree that banning pepper spray in Juvenile Facilities is the the wrong way to go.

    Many juveniles have the same size and strength of adults. What quick and non lethal methods are left to quell assaults on other inhabitants and staff?
    While working as young Bailiff in Juvenile court many moons ago, (before pepper spray) I had to physically restrain man sized juveniles who would flip out after being sentenced.

    I was always reminded by fellow deputies who witnessed and assisted in restraining them, that they were “juveniles” preventing me from giving them a “reality slap” in which they definitely needed.

    I’m not disputing the Inspector General’s report as he is credible and knowledgeable however my opinion is that banning pepper spray will maximize assaults and injuries which will result in some deaths in juveniles facilities.

    My advice to staff at these facilities is to take self defense courses and keep a whistle hand to summon for help

  • Interesting…one common theme/denominator in this ordeal, is the Terri McDonald connection with respect to a rise in juvenile (or inmate) assaults on staff after their arrival. LASD saw a similar rise in force incidents and asssults on its personnel I believe, which was explained away as due to better record keeping and tracking during her tenure. I think a far simpler explanation is one of messaging, threatening, fireing and vilifying the staff, and making them staff the scapegoat for ones own failed policies. The BOS is in so deep, they have to back their girls play at all cost I guess.

    Strange, when Sheriff Villaneuva called into question the internal data collected by LASD regarding an increase in assaults on staff, he was criticized by the power elites in LA County government. OIG does it to the LA County Probation Department and he has the full faith and backing of the BOS? Strange isn’t it?

    I guess the BOS is adopting a “see no, hear no and speak no evil” attitude when it comes to juvenile offender or inmate attack’s against their staff.

  • What?! That the Probation Department would misrepresent the reports and data? For their own self-interest? I won’t accept that. What is next, that the police lie on their reports? Or exaggerate what the “perp” was doing? Hard to believe.

    Let us not forget that some of these juveniles are, as former superior court bailiff reminds us, “man sized juveniles.” No doubt they are black, too. Those seem to the scarier or more threatening ones to the men in uniform. Maybe the Super Predators that Hillary warned us about are coming back. Scary. Too bad the fine men in uniform, like the former bailiff, are not free to give them “reality slaps,” as former bailiff calls them. By implication, he does give “reality slaps” to adults. Thank you for keeping us save and for being heros.

    • With nothing to hide I will tell anyone that a “reality slap” was the least thing I could/would do to a combative male in lieu of closed fists.
      The only pain to the suspect or defendant was the embarrassment of being slapped by another male.

      Comparing that to shooting someone, choking them out or beating them, I would consider my methods as model.

  • I invite the IG, the Board of Stuporvisors, and the child advocate that bought the BOS, to dawn the detention officers’ unform and boots and go run the board at Unit MN at Central Juvenile Hall for one week. So they can see for themselves the danger involved in doing the job.
    Idiot politicians and their idiot agendas…

  • Celeste did your Probation sources toell yoo about the female staff that was assaulted by a youth with a pipe at Los Padrinos last Saturday.?

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