In a 28-page report presented to the Los Angeles County Supervisors on Tuesday, February 5, the Office of the Inspector General paints a 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.
And while the OIG’s report, presented by Assistant Inspector General Cathleen Beltz, doesn’t out-and-out say whether or not LA County should join the 35 states in the union that have banned the use of aerosolized Oleoresin Capsicum, commonly called OC-spray or pepper spray, in youth facilities, the report tiptoes right up to the edge of such a directive.
(California is one of six states—in addition to Illinois, Texas, South Carolina, Indiana and Minnesota—that allow staff in juvenile facilities to carry OC canisters.)
As Assistant IG Beltz pointed out, before the report outlines its 18 recommendations, it firmly and unequivocally advises the county to “evaluate whether the use of OC spray” in its facilities, aligns with probation’s “philosophical shift toward rehabilitation and trauma-informed care and its ongoing implementation of the LA Model.”
Furthermore, most the information in the body of the OIG report demonstrates fairly convincingly that, if the nation’s largest juvenile probation system really wants to claim rehabilitation and healing as its guiding approach to the kids who come through its doors, that mission doesn’t easily dovetail with the use of OC spray on those same kids.
Lots and lots of spraying
The OIG’s report came about in response to a motion authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and co-sponsored Supervisor Janice Hahn, which was passed on December 18, of last year, and pointed to “safety concerns” in the county’s juvenile halls and youth probation camps.
The motion was prompted in part by the discovery in March 2018, that the use of pepper spray in the County’s three juvenile halls had risen at a disturbing rate between 2015 and 2017, a fact that was perplexing since the youth population in probation’s youth facilities was continuing to fall.
In Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, use went up 214 percent. In Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, use rose 192 percent. And at Central Juvenile Hall, pepper spray use shot up 338 percent.
In December 2018, probation reported that pepper spraying had dropped some over 2017. But it was still high, and there were concerning reports of its overuse and misuse.
The motion instructed IG Max Huntsman and his office to investigate these escalating concerns about use of force, with a special focus on the “use of force including pepper spray.”
After all, it was twelve years past the truly bad old days when, on November 6, 2006, the US Department of Justice began investigating LA’s juvenile probation camps, and found the facilities rife with horrors. Probation officers batted kids around, instigated fights, randomly denied bathroom breaks, recreational time, and/or medical treatment, failed to check on kids who were on suicide watch, drank alcohol on the job, and pepper sprayed teenagers with abandon.
At that time, probation managed to dodge a federal consent decree only by agreeing to 41 demands for reform spelled out in a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding with the government.
It took until mid-2015 before DOJ monitors finally pronounced LA probation to be “in compliance” with what had grown into 73 reforms demanded by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.
But now, three years after the DOJ packed up and went home, officers had been doubling or tripling their use of pepper spray in five of the county’s juvenile facilities?
What was going on?
Appropriate intervention or abuse?
In the course of its research for Tuesday’s report, OIG staff spoke with more 45 kids in the county’s three juvenile halls, and at Camp Ellison Onizuka, and Camp Ronald McNair, which are the only camps where OC spraying is allowed.
In addition, they spoke with more than 30 line staff and supervisors, plus probation leadership.
According to the report, most of the probation officers the OIG staff interviewed “expressed a passion for their work and a determination to positively affect the lives of youth.”
Yet, when it came to the use of OC Spray, the investigators found that too often it was used, not as the “final and ultimate authorized” method to “gain control of a situation and/or subdue” youth as is dictated by probation policy—but as the “first or second resort.”
Failure to decontaminate
In several incidents, wrote the OIG, 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.”
Worse, according to kids interviewed by investigators about incidents in which they were OC sprayed, or others around them were, in an unsettling number of cases, said the kids, the staff didn’t allow them to properly “decontaminate,” in other words to get the skin-burning substance off their bodies quickly and well.
“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. In videos the inspectors view, “youth can be seen attempting to self-decontaminate from the toilet.”
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.”
Several kids described staff-led decontamination efforts that involved either hot water or just wet towels with which to scrub themselves, “two improper decontamination practices” that increase the effects of the OC spray, not lessen them.
And there were other problems. The report found that certain staff use OC spray as a threat, wordlessly shaking OC canisters at kids without first giving verbal commands.
In other instances, youth described being given non-specific commands that didn’t allow them to comply before being sprayed.
“While threatening the use of OC spray may achieve compliance in some situations, it appears to have unnecessarily escalated confrontations in others,” wrote the OIG authors.
Training, Training, Training
When it came to the interviews with those who work in the halls and the two camps, the OIG reported officers “frequently expressed fear regarding their personal safety,” with several citing “inconsistent and inadequate staffing” as a chief source of unease.
Another important topic mentioned by staff was training.
“In particular,” according to the report, staff talked of “a lack of training in de-escalation and physical intervention techniques.”
The OIG authors noted that staff viewed de-escalation and physical intervention techniques to be “perishable skills” that require “regular and frequent training to master.”
As a consequence, around one-third of the report’s 18 recommendations pertain to training.
Apart from training, there was another strong theme that emerged.
The force of mutual respect
According to the report, both the kids and the staff interviewed “consistently spoke with one voice on a particular topic.”
That topic was the importance of relationships, interpersonal communication, and mutual respect as the most crucial ingredient in improving safety and preventing force.
“Several staff reported never having to rely on physical intervention or OC spray when dealing with youth,” wrote the OIG authors.
Instead, those officers told the investigators that their use of “verbal judo” or their “gift of gab” were the skills and attributes that allowed them to address problem behaviors, and “minimize the need to rely on force.”
These same officers told investigators that they felt the department’s training did not provide them with these kinds of effective use-of-force alternatives.
The kids interviewed similarly praised certain staff whom they said were “respectful,” and willing to get to know them as individuals. These officers, the kids said, would “go to great lengths to build rapport with them, rather than using OC spray and/or force in interacting with them.”
On the other side of the relational coin, kids told investigators about officers who would deny them access to certain programs, including religious services. Such staff, said kids, “believed they did not deserve such a privilege.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, several young people who’d been through the pepper spray experience as teenagers in LA’s juvenile halls and camps described similar feelings.
“It’s dehumanizing,” said 25-year-old Kent Mendoza of being sprayed at an LA County camp as an adolescent. On top of the pain, he said,, the experience is re-traumatizing to already traumatized youth. “Every time you pepper spray a 15-year-old kid, you’re telling him, ‘You belong here, and we’re preparing you for prison.'”
“Abuse of children”
Probation Chief Terri McDonald, who spoke at the meeting and praised the OIG’s work, also put out a written statement in response to the report, which noted that probation “recently re-evaluated over 600 use of force incidents,” focusing primarily on uses of OC spray.
It was during the review of those incidents, she said, that probation found “several alarming cases of what appear to be unnecessary or excessive force that had not been previously reported.”
As for continuing the use of OC spray, the chief said that she is “committed to giving the staff the tools they need,” but wants to “eventually eliminate the need for use of OC in juvenile detention.”
When Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia spoke to the board, he went still further.
“In no uncertain terms, it is abuse of these children,” he said of the painful accounts of OC Spray use in the report. Garcia, whose attorneys represent hundreds of youth in the county’s juvenile halls, the majority of whom, he pointed out, are being held pre-adjudication.
What was most telling to him in the OIG’s investigation, Garcia said, was the report’s description of some of the county’s probation officers who said they resolve problems by “building rapport.” And how the kids interviewed for the report said, in turn, that they “felt respected,” by such officers.
We know, Garcia said, that those officers said ‘We never use pepper spray. We don’t feel we have to use violence.’…And so when they go to work every single day, they use other methods to do their work. And they’re successful at it.”
Union boss says nothing else works, and compares non-violent de-escalation of teenagers with roping calves.
At the other end of the philosophical spectrum, Jim Schoengarth, the president of the Association of Probation Supervisors, SEIU 721, and BU 702, did not agree at all that OC Spray should be eliminated.
Chief McDonald, he said, was “currently replacing” the department’s Safe Crisis Management policy “with Non-Violent Crisis Intervention,” which was not a program “that will work with our population.”
To do what probation asks, he said, was akin to “a rodeo where the cowboy takes down the calf.”
“Pepper spray appropriately applied and triaged is safer.”
A few days before the release of the OIG report, a group of prominent justice advocacy organizations including the Youth Justice Coalition, the Southern California ACLU, the Children’s Defense Fund, The Urban Peace Institute, and the Anti-recidivism Coalition (or ARC), sent their own report to the LA County Supes, pushing for the board to ban the use of pepper spray on kids altogether.
Youth who have been subjected to OC spray in Los Angeles consistently describe it as traumatic, the coalition’s report pointed out. “[Y]ou feel like your body is on fire,” said one youth. Youth have described witnessing others have serious allergic reactions, including breaking out with “welts all over their face”
Finally, before the topic was closed for the day, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas read in a motion, the first part of which was voted on and passed on Tuesday.
It instructed the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT), to “hold a special hearing (Hearing) on this report and safety concerns in Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice facilities, and report back to the Board of Supervisors with any recommendations.”
(PRIT is the group that is meeting regularly and very publicly in order to shape the soon-to-be-created LA County Probation Oversight Commission.)
“It’s high time we come to grips with this – no more excuses,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said of the report.
“Several findings of the investigation point to a punitive culture lacking in accountability,” he said. “Our responsibility is to protect the basic human rights of the youth in our care – not further traumatize them.”
And so the story continues.