A new federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed against Los Angeles County Probation alleging that a teenage girl, who was 15-years-old at the time, was “brutally and unconstitutionally pepper-sprayed without justification” while she was a resident of the county’s Central Juvenile Hall.
LA County Probation is “supposed to protect the minors it keeps in its custody,” said attorney Justin Sterling who, together with attorney Erin Darling, brought the lawsuit.
“All too often, it does not protect them. Instead,” Sterling said, “certain probation officers take an ‘us versus them’ approach to the minors in their keep, treat the youth like mini-prisoners, and resort to violence.”
Sterling and Darling agreed to take the case after the mother of the girl, who is now seventeen, contacted them with her daughter’s story.
The lawsuit alleges a harrowing and seemingly unnecessary series of actions involving pepper spray on the part of several detention officers toward a 15-year-year-old in June 2017.
It arrives at a timely moment in that, next Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will be considering a plan from Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald that lays out the details of her strategy for the phased elimination of the use of OC spray in all Los Angeles County youth camps and juvenile halls.
The story alleged in the civil rights complaint is a lengthy tale. But the allegations are serious, and very much worth your time. So stay with us.
Spiders and pepper spray
In or around July of 2017, during the early morning hours on a weekday, a fifteen-year-old girl who is identified as “I.R.” was seated at the recreation table located in the common area of one of the dorms within the Extra-Security Unit (ESU) where she was housed in LA County’s Central Juvenile Hall.
On that day, most of the girls in I.R.’s unit had been already escorted to their morning class, but I.R. reportedly remained alone at the rec table in the common room outside the unit’s cells due to “insufficient Eastlake staff” to escort her to the classroom with the others.
While the girl waited to be taken to class, she tried to counteract her boredom by entertaining herself with random activities at the rec table. A few minutes into her wait, I.R. spotted a spider on the table. Curious about the creature, I.R. managed to gently move the spider into a plastic cup that was nearby.
A staff member, whom we’ll call Officer 1 observed I.R.’s actions from a distance and reportedly approached I.R. angrily. Then “in a violent and aggressive manner,” according to the complaint, Officer 1 grabbed the cup containing the spider, threw it onto the ground, and stomped on it, crushing the cup and the spider inside it, allegedly pronouncing I.R.’s actions with the spider “fucking nasty.”
The 15-year-old I.R. remembers being startled and upset by the squashing of the spider. “That was mean…!” she said, or words to that effect, standing up at the rec table.
When I.R. stood, a second female staff member—whom we’ll call Officer 2—approached.
“Excuse me, where do you think you’re going?”
I.R. described Officer 2 being approximately 5′ 7″ tall and “heavy-set.”
Upset I.R.reportedly began to retreat to her cell, which was nearby.
As I.R. walked toward the cell, one of the detention officers told her that she had to ask for permission “to do that.” I.R. said nothing but kept walking.
“I’m going to have to give you an OC warning,” she heard the same officer say as she neared her cell.
OC warnings refer to aerosolized Oleoresin Capsicum, commonly called OC-spray or pepper spray. They are preemptive warnings that detention officers give to youth in the county’s three juvenile halls prior to deploying pepper spray
Officer 1 reportedly gave this warning while behind I.R. According to the complaint, the girl continued to walk forward, ignoring the officer’s words.
Once in her cell, I.R. sat on her bed, and complained about the officers’ treatment of her, saying something to the effect of, “You had no reason to give me an OC warning just then.”
Officers 1 and 2 reportedly followed her into her cell.
According to I.R., she asked the two officers for space, trying for a calm voice, and reached for a book which was beside her bed.
Then, allegedly without cause or justification, other than I.R.’s verbal complaints, one of the officers grabbed the girl by her neck and pushed her forward, off her bed and onto the ground, until she was lying prone on her stomach.
(According to Sterling, I.R. is approximately 5’4″ and around 100 lbs.)
The girl felt one of the officers holding her head sideways with her cheek pressed against the floor. The other officer placed her knee into I.R.’s back to hold her down. Then, while she was held chest down on the floor, one of the officers allegedly again yelled, “Pepper spray warning.”
A few seconds later, according to the narrative described in the complaint, the officer sprayed the girl point blank in the face with OC spray.
The spray hit her mostly in the eyes and ears. But the amount was such, according to the girl, that it dripped also into her nose and mouth. I.R. estimates the stream lasted for around four or five seconds.
Eventually, I.R. was allowed to get up, was handcuffed, and taken to the shower to decontaminate under the water.
According to the complaint, the hot water of the shower didn’t help alleviate her pain at all, which was “severe and unchanged.”
Probation staff then provided her with a small one-serving size carton of milk, which she used to rinse her eyes. This helped slightly, but not enough. The girl asked the staff member for a second carton.
“You’re not wasting our milk,” the detention officer allegedly said in response.
Instead of additional decontamination, I.R. was taken to an empty cell where she was given new dry clothes. Still in a great deal of pain. now in the cell, I.R. repeatedly splashed her face and eyes with water from the cell’s tiny sink, trying desperately to lessen the burning sensation. But the sink splashing helped very little. I.R. continued to be in pain.
Approximately two hours after the spraying, a nurse came to see I.R. and checked her for cuts or bruises, then told her to sign some sort of document. I.R. signed.
The nurse allegedly offered no further decontamination.
Hours late still, around 5:30 p.m. that same day, I.R. was still in the empty cell, and reportedly continuing to call intermittently and loudly for help—namely for more milk, and access to more water.
Staff outside her cell door ordered the girl to “shut up,” reportedly threatening to come into her cell again if I.R. didn’t calm down.
I.R. did not calm down.
Finally, in response to her repeated calls, two staff members whom we’ll call Officers 3 and 4, did come into I.R.’s room, and, allegedly without warning, blasted her once again directly in the face with OC spray. Then they exited the cell.
Alone again, this time with no shower or milk, I.R. immersed her head in the cell’s toilet in an attempt to obtain pain relief, flushing the toilet repeatedly to rinse her eyes, mouth, and ears.
Spray and straight jackets
By 6 p.m. I.R. reportedly had yet to be given any means of decontamination for the second spray. Still in high distress, but now exhausted, she curled into a “fetal position” on the cement slab bed in the empty cell, which had no mattress.
It was then that, incredibly, one of the detention officers entered the cell and allegedly administered the third round of OC spray, again directly in her face, this time without warning.” Then the officer exited without comment.
According to the complaint, I.R. remained alone in the cell for approximately two additional hours, without any decontamination or aid of any kind.
Finally at around 8 p.m. jail staff entered I.R.’s room and escorted her, once again, to the
shower. By then, I.R. could not open her still burning eyes and had to be guided by an officer to the shower where she was given two-minutes under the water and then, while naked, was put into a “suicide gown,” which is a black, straight jacket type gown made from heavy tear-free fabric.
“The kids call a ‘turtle shell,'” said a probation source.
Wearing the turtle shell, I.R. slept on the concrete slab bed until the morning.
Two days later, I.R. was reportedly able to talk to a male detention officer, whom she said she tried to tell about the triple pepper spray incidents.
“You know how it goes here,” he reportedly said. “It’s fine.”
After that, he gave her another form to sign.
I.R. believes she signed it.
So is the story true?
Did all this happen? Is I.R.’s story true?
We asked Justin Sterling how the case came to him, and why he believed it to be credible.
“We’ve been investigating and working on the case for some time prior to filing,” said Sterling. “Our client comes off as very credible. She has specific details that certainly indicate a traumatic event.” He and his co-counsel did a lot of due diligence after the girl’s mother approached them, he said, before agreeing to take the case.
“But it’s still very early on,” Sterling told us. “Discovery has not opened.” Yet, he had “full confidence” in not only the client but her family.
Although LA County Probation officials acknowledged that they’ve seen the federal complaint regarding I.R.’s story, they couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
“But we do not tolerate the abuse of youth in our charge,” department spokesperson Adam Wolfson told WitnessLA “Each and every allegation of abuse of a minor is investigated.”
That was demonstrated, he said, “by the action that probation took with the individuals at Los Padrinos,” referring to the six staff members who were charged with unlawful assault in early April of this year for their use of pepper spray in six different incidents that occurred between April 7 and July 21, 2018.
We also spoke at length about I.R.’s story with a veteran detention officer who works in Central Juvenile Hall. Our source, who asked not to be named, was deeply dismayed when she heard the allegations about the three sprayings, and about the way in which the officers repeatedly left the teenager to suffer without the relief of decontamination.
Bringing I.R. to the shower, the source said, was the incorrect way to decontaminate a youth who had been pepper sprayed, because the hot water of the shower makes the pain caused by the OC spray “even worse.” Specifically, it may worsen the pain in a kid’s eyes, she said, and in some cases will cause the burning spray to run down painfully into other parts of his or her body.
The correct protocol, according to the source, is to take a kid to bathe in cold water in the unit’s utility closet, adding that the officers would definitely have known the correct protocol.
Also, although Sterling said he didn’t know if there were videos of the three alleged pepper sprayings of I.R. in July of 2017, our source feels all but certain there are videos of the incidents.
“There are cameras in that unit and there will be videos,” she said. “I guarantee it. It’s just that no one bothered to start looking at the videos until the Inspector General’s Office did their report last year.” But, if the attorneys have the date and the year of the sprayings, she said, “those videos will be there. I promise you!”
We have also heard from probation sources that two of the officers mentioned the new complaint are being investigated for two other possibly questionable uses of pepper spray on girls in Central Juvenile Hall.
In the case of one officer, the second pepper spray incident reportedly occurred in October 2018. In the case of the other officer, the incident reportedly occurred in 2019.