On Friday afternoon, six Los Angeles County Probation officers were charged for unlawfully using pepper spray against a total of five different teenage girls who were confined in the detention officers’ care at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, according to the LA District Attorney’s Office.
The charges against the six officers—five of whom were female, one male—involve six individual incidents that occurred between April 7 and July 21, 2018.
All six of the incidents involved the alleged use of pepper spray against a young person in such a way that it qualified as an unlawful assault (CA Penal Code Section 149).
But in the case of four of the incidents, some or all of the officers involved reportedly “prevented the victims from being decontaminated after they were sprayed,” wrote the DA’s office in its official statement.
The felony complaints issued for the arrest warrants use harsher language in characterizing the no-decontamination charges, which are described as causing “a child to suffer and be inflicted with unjustifiable physical pain,” and “willfully” causing “said child to be placed in such situation where his/her health was endangered.”
Furthermore, one of the six, a 47-year-old senior detention officer named Marlene Rochelle Wilson, was charged with unlawful use of pepper spray in four separate incidents, which occurred on four different days, involving four separate girls.
In three of those four alleged incidents, according to the felony complaint, the individual girls involved were deliberately prevented from getting the burning spray off of their bodies.
In addition, one of the teenagers was allegedly sprayed on two different occasions, 20 days apart—on July 1 and July 21, 2018, by different officers. On July 1, 2018, she was reportedly not allowed to decontaminate after being sprayed.
“I choose to view this unfortunate situation as an example of how this Department will not tolerate the abuse of the authority bestowed upon all of us in this profession,” Chief Terri McDonald wrote in a statement sent out to probation union leaders following the news of the criminal charges.
“If you observe a miscarriage of justice, a misuse of authority, or abuse of any kind, it is your responsibility to disrupt and report the incident. The individuals under our supervision are relying on our ability to discern, protect, and uphold the laws by which we all abide.”
In her public statement, Chief McDonald, emphasized that the department had themselves investigated of the alleged incidents that have led to the recent charges before referring the results of their investigations to the D.A.’s office.
More where these came from?
The news that aerosolized Oleoresin Capsicum, commonly called OC-spray or pepper spray, was being used abusively by certain staff in the county’s youth facilities, first came to public attention on February 5, of this year when the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) delivered a 28-page report to the LA County Board Supervisors detailing the use of pepper spray on the kids in the county’s care.
As WitnessLA reported, the OIG’s report painted a distressing picture of the use of pepper spray on the youth who are housed in LA County’s three juvenile halls and two of its youth probation camps.
In several incidents, wrote the OIG, the use-of-force reports filed by probation staff, after the use of OC spray, 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.
“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 one incident the OIG reviewed, a boy “with a mental health condition” was engaging in self-harming behavior, and was OC sprayed in the groin and buttocks.
Following this use of OC spray, the frantic boy was one of those who was left in a room, which apparently lacked running water, for approximately 20 minutes before being decontaminated.
Another boy reported to investigators that he’d heard others suffering in their rooms “on several occasions following the application of OC spray.”
WitnessLA has asked representatives of probation, and also the district attorney’s office if the charges against the six detention service officers are the first of a larger number of charges that are likely to be filed for similar mistreatment of young probationers, such as those described in the OIG’s report.
So far, those we spoke with said they couldn’t say whether or not there would be more such charges coming.
The new charges have arrived approximately six weeks after the OIG’s report led to a unanimous vote by the LA County Board of Supervisors to phase out the use of pepper spray on the county’s kids.
The February 19 vote was also the culmination of a series of warning signs that pepper spray was often being used as the first go-to strategy when kids acted up, rather than the last resort.
As WitnessLA reported, in early 2016, data was released showing 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.
Although, by early 2018, the department’s numbers for use of OC spray were coming down slightly from their worst of their highs, the dramatic spikes—along with other “safety concerns” in the county’s juvenile halls and youth probation camps—caused LA County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn to introduce a motion that triggered the OIG’s investigation, which in turn resulted in the February 5, 2019, report.
“The filing of criminal charges against six Probation officers validates the earlier concerns we raised about excessive – and now potentially illegal – use of pepper spray in our juvenile halls and camps,” wrote Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in a statement after the DA’s office announced the arrests.
News of the charges, wrote Ridley-Thomas, “underscores the urgent need to safely and responsibly phase out the use of pepper spray, and to implement stronger oversight and other changes to be recommended by the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT).”
Youth advocates conveyed a similar message.
“While recognizing the presumption of innocence in our justice system, Friday’s charges underscore how wrongheaded it is to give chemical weapons to County Probation Officers, whose charge is to protect and rehabilitate youth,” said Ian Kysel, Staff Attorney of the ACLU of Southern California.”
Kysel also pushed for the LA County Supervisors to “expedite efforts to transform the juvenile justice system and create a new and powerful oversight body so that such abuse of children and youth never happens again.”
So who’s using—and overusing—OC Spray?
After department higher-ups began studying the use of OC Spray, said L.A. County Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell when she spoke at a special PRIT hearing on the topic phrasing out OC spray, “at first we assumed” that it was being used “systemically.”
But then as Michell and company drilled down to find out who was really using the stuff, it turned out “it was only 36 percent of our staff that used OC spray,” she said. In addition, “if you were using OC spray you typically had less than two years of service, or more than ten years of service.”
Several of our probation sources told us that at least one, possibly two of those who were charged last week had previously engaged in unlawfully abusive behavior toward a kid or kids when working in one of the other juvenile halls, before transferring to Los Padrinos.
Hans Liang, the president of AFSCME Local 685, the union that represents rank-and-file probation officers, told reporters at NBC4 in a statement related to the charges, “We are professional peace officers and we do not support ever endangering the lives of those in our care. The new Chief Probation Officer has changed the rules without properly training and equipping us to handle the increasingly violent men and women in our care. The facilities in which we work have become more dangerous, we are understaffed, and under siege.”
Attorney Elizabeth Calvin, who is the senior advocate in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, had a different reaction when she tweeted after the news broke: “Finally. Calling it what it is. Child abuse. Assault.”
All six defendants, who had their first court appearance on April 5, are scheduled to be arraigned on May 23 in Department 40 of the Foltz Criminal Justice Center.
Deputy District Attorneys Kaveh Faturechi and Oscar Plascencia of the Justice System Integrity Division are prosecuting the cases.
At present, five of the officers charged are on unpaid administrative leave. One of the officers, supervisor LaCour Harrison, has resigned from the department.
The six officers charged are the following:
Marlene Rochelle Wilson (dob 11/26/72) charged with five felony counts of assault by a public officer and three misdemeanor counts of child abuse. She faces a possible maximum sentence of eight years and eight months in state prison.
Janeth Vilchez (dob 5/19/70) charged with one count each of assault by a public officer and child abuse. She faces a possible maximum sentence of four years in prison, to be served locally.
LaCour Harrison (dob 6/15/65) charged with one count of felony assault by a public officer and two misdemeanor counts of cruelty to child by endangering her health. He faces up to four years in prison to be served in local custody.
Claudette Reynolds (dob 1/9/62) charged with one count each of assault by a public officer and cruelty to a child by endangering her health. She faces up to 3 ½ years in prison to be served in local custody.
Maria Asuzena Guerrero (dob 7/15/90) charged with one count of cruelty to a child by endangering her health.
Karnesha Marshall (dob 2/11/91) charged with one count of cruelty to a child by endangering her health. Both Guerrero and Marshall face up to six months in jail.