LA County Probation LA Probation Oversight Commission

LA Supervisors Point to Soaring Use of Pepper Spray As Symptom that County’s Juvenile Halls Are Not Safe

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On December 11, last Tuesday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas read an urgent new motion into the board’s record.

The motion, co-sponsored by Supervisor Janice Hahn, points to “safety concerns” in the county’s juvenile halls and youth probation camps. These concerns have been raised, stated the motion, both by probation officers and other staff, plus the kids in the county’s care, and their families and advocates.

The problems with safety are particularly in the juvenile halls, and have to do with “assaults on both youth and staff,” and the high use of pepper spray, according to the motion.

Data released earlier this year showed that the use of pepper spray in the County’s juvenile halls had 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.

Now, more recently, according to the motion, other “serious” uses of pepper spray have surfaced.

If passed, the motion, which is scheduled to be voted up or down this Tuesday, directs the Inspector General, Max Huntsman,  in coordination with County Counsel and Chief Probation Officer, Terri McDonald, to investigate these escalating concerns, with a special focus on the “use of force including pepper spray.”

The group is to report back to the board in writing in 45 days with findings and recommendations for improvement.

Ridley-Thomas and Hahn acknowledge that the nation’s largest probation department has taken steps to train officers, develop new reform policies, and to “create quality assurance” mechanisms.

“But the problems seem to persist,” the motion states tersely.


A crisis?

Indeed, the issues that the motion references are not new, and in many ways they appear to have been growing, according to both juvenile advocates, and officers working in some of the county’s youth facilities.

In February of this year WitnessLA reported that, according to data provided by the probation department, in 2015, there were 98 juvenile assaults on officers and staff in the halls. In 2016, that number nearly doubled to 182 assaults. In 2017, it shot up again to 314.

Then in March, probation higher ups reported that incidents involving pepper spray—technically known as oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray—were shooting skyward too, to the point that, in the county’s Central Juvenile Hall, the use of the chemical spray increased 338 percent from 2015 to 2017.

More specifically, during that period the use of pepper  spray 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.

Not coincidentally, most of the violence, and the use of the pepper spray, reportedly took place in the three juvenile halls.

Some probation supervisors have suggested that part of the cause of this rise in assaults has to do with a change in the youth who were being sent to the county’s juvenile halls. As youth crime continues to fall, and more young people are diverted from youth lock-ups, those left in the juvenile facilities are kids with greater challenges, they said.

Yet, other probation sources, along with experienced youth advocates, say that the so called “different kind of kids” explanation is both oversimplified and inaccurate.

“It’s very common to have fights between youth in facilities because it’s a completely unnatural situation and people are stressed,” Sue Burrell, Policy Director at the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, told WLA’s Lauren Lee White in February. But “attacks on staff are usually when there’s a generalized crisis in a facility and the youth are very frustrated.”

Accounts of what amounts to a crises have been, in fact, reported in LA County’s juvenile halls by those who work in the halls, and others, such as probation commissioners who have visited the facilities in recent months.

For example, in October of this year, WitnessLA learned that two different reports had described critically unsafe conditions for both kids and staff at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall

The first report was triggered in September, when officials at AFSCME Local 685—one of the main unions representing officers working for probation—-were worried enough by the urgent messages from their members stationed at the Sylmar facility (known as Barry J) that they sent union representative, Stacy Ford, to visit the hall and find out what was going on.

Ford went to the Sylmar-located facility, and his subsequent report was extremely critical.

After Ford’s report, five members of the LA County Probation Commission also made a visit to Barry J, and came back with an equally disturbing picture of an understaffed facility that resulted in exhausted Detention Service Officers (DSOs) who were asked to work overlong hours under problematic conditions.

More recently, two veteran probation sources working in Downey’s Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall Juvenile Hall, told WitnessLA about similar problems at their facility.

The sources, who asked not to be named,  described chronic understaffing that resulted in extended shifts, and exhausted DSOs who often called in sick—either because they were sick, or because they couldn’t get childcare for the repeated extra shifts, or because they needed time off, but were not given in, with the shortages.

This, in turn, said one of the sources, caused more shortages, and various collateral problems. For instance, those who covered for those who officers who were out were often slotted to work in units where they were unfamiliar with the kids.

According to the  source, the parade of unfamiliar officers resulted in youth being less secure, and doing less well “because they do not have consistent staff in their units.”

As with the reports on Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, the source described severe concerns about “safety and security,” for both the youth and for fellow officers.

In the 500-page “governance” report on LA County Probation, released on February 13, 2018, conducted by Oakland-based Resource Development Associates (RDA), the authors reported that, in their interviews with  both probation “staff and youth,” they heard that the juvenile halls were “unsafe environments for everyone inside them,” and that  newer staff in the halls feel underprepared to face day-to-day challenges.

“Many told us that the Department’s training academy focuses too much content on policy and procedures, and not enough on preparation for field work and real-life situations. Staff reported they felt unprepared to deal with conflicts and other challenges they face during their workday.”


Taking tools away without replacing them

In February of this year, juvenile advocates pushed unsuccessfully for California to ban the use of pepper spray in youth facilities. (California is one of only six states that still allow staff members to carry the spray.)

A month later, probation higher ups reported that incidents involving pepper spray—technically known as oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray—were shooting skyward, to the point that at the county’s Central Juvenile Hall, use of increased 338 percent from 2015 to 2017.

Use of the spray 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 same period.

Yet, many staff know that the days for the use of OC spray in youth detention facilities in Los Angeles County are likely numbered.

According to Mark Soler, the Executive Director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington D.C., a public interest law firm that has been instrumental in helping to set standards for youth facilities around the country, those juvenile facilities that are still using OC spray are increasingly outliers.

Youth who have been on the receiving end of the stuff are quick to describe why.

Francisco Martines, now 24, told WitnessLA’s Taylor Walker back in February that, when he was 17, and locked up in Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, he had an asthma attack after another boy near to him was was pepper sprayed.

“I was in class, and a student got agitated and aggressive” because his requests to go to the bathroom were being denied, Francisco explained.

“I don’t know if the teacher was having a bad day, but [the teacher] just wouldn’t let him” use the restroom, which made the teen frustrated and angry, Francisco said.

“The probation officer came in and gave him a warning,” Francisco said. “He didn’t try to calm him down. He just warned him, and then sprayed him, which affected the whole room.”

Although Francisco was not the direct target of the pepper spray, he said having the chemical spray deployed in the room made breathing difficult and painful. It feels like “being punched,” he said. It “takes the air out of you. You’re gasping for air.”

Francisco said he particularly suffered because he is prone to asthma attacks. “It’s horrible. It’s really hard on the lungs.”

Other young people described extreme burning, and far worse, if the kid was hit in the eyes.

At a public meeting last week for the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT), which is charged with designing the soon-to-be-created Probation Oversight Commission (POC), two experienced probation officers spoke about the need for better ways to deal with the problems they and their colleagues are witnessing in the juvenile halls.

“How do we deal with situations,” that, in the past, have called for pepper spray, asked Thomas Bell, “When we got 20 kids who are about my size fighting in the yard or somewhere, how do we break that up if we don’t have pepper spray?”

If not pepper spray, then staff need to know what tools and techniques are to be used instead.

Jonathan Byrd, the chief steward for AFSCME Local 685, also spoke at the PRIT meeting about the need for help, training, and change.

When the POC is up and running, “we would like to give it our complaints,” he said. The officers “feel unheard too.”

And so the motion.


And now the semi good news

As dire as everything sounds, after this story was first published on Monday morning, we were able to speak to LA County Chief Deputy Probation Officer, Sheila Mitchell, who said some solid progress was being made on the pepper spray front.

After the spiking use of pepper spray in the past few years, in 2018, according to Mitchell, the department’s numbers for use of OC spray are “down 20 percent.”

This was true of the cluster of youth camps known as Challenger (which are the only juvenile camps in LA where the spray is still used), and the three juvenile halls—with the exception of Los Padrinos, where the numbers evidently didn’t come down as easily.

In the third quarter of 2018 in the camps, said Mitchell, numbers fell still further, from 11.8 per 100 youth, down to 1.6 per 100 youth.

The numbers are also down drastically in the third quarter, said Mitchell—this time, “including Los Padrinos.”

She described working together with the union, Local 685, to get officers the tools and training they need, so that the halls are “safe environments for staff,” and that the kids in the county’s care are also getting what they need.

“But we still have work to do,” she said. “California is, as you know, one of the last states to still us OC spray. And our staff is feeling more confident that they can resolve issues without deploying OC spray.”

Yet, while numbers are lower, “they’re not at zero,” said Mitchell.

“Zero is our north star. And we’re working toward that end.”

Mitchell also spoke about the drop in pepper spray use on Tuesday at the meeting for the board of supervisors, during the discussion about the motion.

After Mitchell finished, motion co-author, Janice Hahn seemed less than impressed by these new numbers.

“So what you’re saying,” asked Hahn, “is that the numbers are down 20 percent from being tripled.”

Yes, Mitchell said.

“That’s a little misleading.”

Shortly after, the vote was called and the motion passed unanimously.


Editor’s Note: Updated with information from LA County Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, Tuesday, December 18, 12:48 a.m, and again with information from the meeting of the LA County Board of Supervisors, at 8:38 p.m.

15 Comments

  • The problem is that teams have to be trained. They must act in concert to provide 360, 24/7 communication, healthy living fundamentals and a graduated reward, punishment, work environment.

  • That is indeed the question, and I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer from any of the critics.

    “How do we deal with situations, when we got 20 kids who are about my size fighting in the yard or somewhere, how do we break that up if we don’t have pepper spray?”

    Its great that there are other counties and states that don’t allow it, but do the Juvenile facilities in those states have a large population of gang involved youth who are locked up for serious offenses? Doubtful. In Kansas or Missouri, how often do they have “disturbances” where 10 or more kids are simultaneously fighting one another with the intent to maim or injure? Celeste, do you have a suggestion on the “other techniques and tools” that would be effective in this scenario because I’m all ears.

    Once someone can satisfactorily answer DPO Bell’s question, I will then consider giving up pepper spray as an option.

    • Editor’s note: Dear “Prostaff,” We agree that your question must be definitively answered. Thank you for your comment.

      • Unfortunately Celeste, this question cannot be answered until the Department, BOS and the Powers-that-be address the elephant in the room, the thing that nobody wants to talk about, which is the big “D”…… Discipline. It is unfortunate and true that many of these kids have suffered from trauma and neglect and the last thing that they need is more trauma, however limitations and consequences need to be set in order to deter anti-social behavior and more importantly, prevent predatory and aggressive youth from harming their peers.

        “Back in the day”, the go-to form of discipline was the Special Handling Unit. If a kid hurt or attempted to hurt another kid or an Officer, they were placed on a 24-hour “timeout” in a room. Although there are many identified flaws with this method which we will not discuss, it served to deter negative behavior from bad actors and protect the kids who needed protecting. When the Special Handling Unit was discontinued, nothing was implemented to replace it.

        Nowadays, since there are no negative consequences, there is nothing to stop or deter a violent or predatory youth from assaulting another youth or Officer other than having charges filed on them (many times the level of assault does not meet the criteria for a filing). As a result of this, if a bad kid wants to attack another kid, say because he didn’t want to give him his/her desert from their meal, there is nothing stopping him and no real consequences that he/she fears. After they do it once, or witness it happen, they quickly learn that there are no major consequences for their violent behavior and continue to repeat the process. As a result, the level of violence between the youth has gone up and subsequently, the staff use of OC spray to break up these fights and assaults (here’s your answer to why staff are spraying).

        Nowadays the aforementioned powers only want to discuss positive reinforcement and incentive programs. While these may work for the majority of the kids, it doesn’t work for the worst 5%. When you have no policies or procedures in place to deal with the worst kids, you leave them unchecked and give them power to dictate how the rest of the kids act due to fear of these sociopaths. If you are serious about reforming the Department, we need to have a actual dialogue about the need to devise solutions to prevent and address bad behavior that are not just limited to positive reinforcement.

  • I am a former Superintendent of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. During my 8 year tenure, we were under DOJ Mandates and many programs were in place to reduce the use of OC spray. Additionally, we had the Special Handling Unit (SHU) as a consequence of negative behavior. I also implemented an incentive program for our kids who displayed positive behavior. The program was called “Incident Free Days”, any unit that went without an incident for a week got rewarded. Each week of no incidents gave a better reward for the unit(s), culminating in a Pizza And Movie night for any unit(s) with no incidents. At one point we had zero incidents in the facility housing 630+ kids. I funded this out of my pocket to start and eventually found advocates for the children who assisted in funding this program. The advocates also funded a program in which we gave out gas cards, gift cards, TVs etc for Staff in appreciation for their hard work. The population of the entire bureau is now lower than the population I administered during my tenure. The Superintendents of each facility should be meeting monthly to discuss not only consequences, but incentives to change the culture of their facilities.

  • I don’t want to minimize DPO Bell’s question as it requires an answer rom the BOS or Probation Administration…since the Special Handling Units have been terminated and there is an eye toward terminating the use of OC spray how will staff deal with minors who are their size that become involved in a brawl? I get calls from more and more staff who are afraid for their safety in the halls and camps. What will the BOS and Probation Aministration do to assist staff in conducting their duties in a safe manner for them and the kids?

    • Cheryl M. Cooke:

      “…How will staff deal with minors who are their size that become involved in a brawl”?

      Hazardous duty pay is certainly merited. like paratroopers get for making parachute jumps or Infantrymen get for fighting up on the front lines.

      That should certainly be a first step.

  • The Probation Department in Los Angeles has never properly adjusted rewards, sanctions and process to mirror the profile of the population they house.

    The Department no longer houses the same profile of youth that they did ten years ago. The criteria for who is admitted into the juvenile halls has been tightened more than once, in order to keep most kids in the community. The same tightening of criteria occurred with respect to authorizing staff in the community to recommend that a youth be sent to camp.

    As referenced above, the populations of our institutions were previously a combination of low, medium and high risk offenders; most in the middle area. Many of these kids did have a glimmer of respect for authority, wanted to get out and would influence those that were problematic to behave (especially in order to go to a movie, etc.). If there were not problems on the unit, staff would occasionally provide them with treats of some sort as a reward. This is not just a payment system. It afforded staff and youth time to develop a relationship.

    When the Department stopped detaining the low and medium risk kids, the end result was the entire population shifted to typically violent, gang involved, and uneducated offenders; often with serious mental health problems as well as learning disabilities that makes academic progress a real challenge. These are high risk offenders that lack impulse control and are quick to attack each other and staff, resulting in injuries in all directions. While I use the terms “youth” or “kids” – please know that many of these “kids” are older teens that are strong, fit and muscled.

    In response to this dramatic population change, the following occurred along the way:

    *The Department failed to authorize staff at most camps to have pepper spray and limited the use of pepper spray in all institutions. Let me share with those that don’t know…eyes will sting and noses will run but being sprayed beats a broken jaw or other significant injury. Although unpleasant for staff to be around as well, it also helps lower their injury rate, which contributes to a larger amount of staff on duty as opposed to being home injured. All uses of pepper spray are written up and administratively reviewed.

    *The Department essentially banned staff in probation camps from the filing of probation violation reports (777 WIC petitions) or other reports designed to notify sentencing judges of serious youth misconduct. Here was the designed-to-discourage you process: camp staff would write up the report and submit it to their supervisor. The supervisor would make any changes they expected and return it to their staff. After the supervisor was satisfied, it would then have to go to the facility director to review. The facility director would review it and return it to the supervisor to return it to the staff member to make further changes. After that occurred, the supervisor sent the report back to the director, who then sent it to their regional director. If the regional director wanted any changes, it would bounce back down again. Once Regional Director approval was obtained, the report would be sent to the Bureau Chief for review – only to then have permission to file it with the court often denied by some admin assistant. So serious misconduct just wasn’t dealt with in a timely manner. When a post release report was sent to court at the time the youth was due for release, many judges were outraged to learn that their behavior had been so poor and they were being informed of same, months later. It was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t mess. How would your kids feel if they were punished six months after breaking your rules? It doesn’t work…

    *The Department deemed the tactic of “group punishment” a policy violation. In prior years, if youth in a living group wanted to attend a special event, they all had to behave. If not, they didn’t go. The kids typically all stepped up to the plate and actually supported each other doing well in order to have some fun. That’s now out. While debatable at some level, this tactic also contributed to safer environments.

    *Absent youth-meaningful sanctions for misconduct, those detained lost respect for staff and the gangs quietly started to take charge. Drugs in our facilities increased, as did serious misconduct. Many youth stopped feeling safe and allied with their peers for safety. Some youth would threaten staff that were working hard to hold them accountable in some fashion with the filing of false allegations (in order to have them administratively reassigned or placed on desk duty) and be openly defiant. In days past, we never had kids attack staff – attacks on staff have exploded over the last ten years.

    *The Department added a significant level of paperwork and process that staff and management were responsible for. For example, the use of force paperwork – done when staff went “hands on” with a youth was over 40 pages (it has since been reduced but not significantly) and was reviewed at multiple levels.
    The Department mandated so many activities that sounded good that the youth didn’t have a lot of time to develop a relationship with staff and historically, it has been that relationship that has been most effective in creating positive change.

    *The Probation Department over-reacted to absolute nonsense and became extremely punitive toward staff. As staff became aware of investigation outcomes that were inappropriate, many adopted a “see no evil and just get your paperwork done” mentality. Youth saw this as another opportunity to do as they pleased. While outwardly cordial, this current Chief has continued this punitive mentality. Make no mistake, if someone engages in serious misconduct or criminal activity, they should be held accountable but gross over-reaction to a staff error is just as bad as staff over-reacting to out of control youth.

    The Board can thank themselves for a great deal of this. Rather than support logic, common sense and truly helping these kids better themselves, they have fallen victim to the latest study, the misrepresentations of outside audits that lack a proper depth of understanding and the pleas of those that are well intentioned but unfamiliar with working with offenders and as a result have maintained chaos on the Department.

    We have had a revolving door of Chiefs over the last ten years. Each wants to feather their own nest and get that second retirement – and are unwilling to support what is right if it’s going to be unpopular with the Board.

    Probation staff don’t need combat pay – they need the support and tools to get the job done. These kids don’t need pie in the sky theory. They need to know how they can earn enough money to eat. Focus on structure; half of life is about getting up in the morning to get to work. Focus on education. Focus on vocational training. Focus on decision making. Focus on basic life skills. Be clear and driven in a realistic mission to help them as opposed to all over the map. Enlist the advocates to help with this process so they are appropriately involved and supportive.

    In the end, this is not rocket science. It’s about real leadership and that starts at the top.

  • Hazard pay would of course be welcome but it still won’t make us safer. I truly believe that the rise in OC incidents comes after we saw what “assisting” minors physically could cost us. These days people are afraid to touch the minors because just an allegation can impact your career. So many inappropriate behaviors continue because there are no consequences for the minors, only the officers who strive daily to maintain a safe and healthy environment for the minors in our care. Just as the OC incidents are on the rise, so are the assaults on officers and other minors. We need some real world help, not just theory and conjecture.

  • The problem is the design of the county’s facilities. Who was the genius who thought putting more than 12 youth together was going to lead to positive outcomes? These are young people who have been harmed by adults their entire lives. What do you think is going to happen when you put them together in an open setting? You replicated a gladiator school adult-like setting for kids. Now staff and kids are suffering as a result. Close these facilities and move these kids out in a setting that can address the root causes of why they landed in prison to begin with. You are not going to “set them straight” by punishing them more than they have already been punished.

    • Where would you suggest we send them? A placement home or youth transitional?

      There’s a reason why most kids prefer to be in the halls or the camps and many will abscond when sent to placement. These publicly-funded, privately-operated centers are the true gladiator schools. The kids are supervised by individuals paid at or around minimum wage who can barely pass a background check, many of which are former drug users or gang members themselves.

      It’s not uncommon to hear kids tell stories of how placement staff will sell them drugs, pornography or let them fight among themselves for their entertainment. All the same risks and problems without the same level of oversight that the Probation Department is subject to.

  • Well the good news is those under the age of 16 who commit minor offenses such as murder, rape, sodomy of a small child, etc etc will only be tried in the juvenile court system as of January 1st. Our lawmakers in California are really clamping down on juvenile crime. But these are the type of offenders you folks will only be dealing with for a few years before they’re let back out into public. I don’t see any need for self defense weapons such as pepper spray for staff. These kids are just misunderstood. They wouldn’t do you any harm. Pizza parties! Hahahaha Hahahaha.

  • Smaller population but more serious crimes. Someone should do a report on what kind of minors we are housing. We have the worse of the worse that know there is no punishment for there crime. We have minors that are charged with attempted murder being released to placement and coming back a month later for a gun charge. Look at the Blake twin brothers… They where released only to kill a poor older women on Christmas eve a few years ago. How would you feel if that poor lady was related to you? The board of supervisors should be to blame hiring Chiefs they know are here for another retirement. Hire someone young that we all know is here for the long run. How many chiefs have we had in the last 10 years??? This is on the board of supes doing a horrible job… Hold them accountable.

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