On April 24, four Los Angeles County probation officers allegedly beat a non-combative 17-year-old probationer housed at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, CA, while a fifth officer, a supervisor, looked on. The Sylmar-located facility is one of three juvenile halls, and twelve juvenile camps operated by the nation’s largest juvenile probation agency.
The supervisor, who appeared to be overseeing the beating, was reportedly the facility’s “Officer of the Day” meaning, he was like a watch commander at a police or sheriff’s station. He was the guy in charge of the whole place.
There were no civilians present at the beating incident, other than the kid himself, so it would have been the teenager’s word against five adult law enforcement officers, had it not been for one thing: A video camera was installed in the probationer’s room.
And, unlike the bad old days, back in 2010, when around scores of the Sylmar facility’s cameras were broken or otherwise mysteriously disabled, and had been for several years, things have improved considerably on the surveillance front in the county’s juvenile halls, and the camera in the boy’s room was in perfect working condition. Thus there is a video that captures the whole event, including quite a bit of what happened—and didn’t happen—before and after.
WitnessLA has obtained a copy of the 4:18 minute video and it makes for very disturbing viewing. We cannot post the video itself as it involves a minor. But, we have posted a series of intentionally blurry screenshots that at least give you a small idea of what the recording depicts.
WHAT THE VIDEO SHOWS
The four-plus minute video is taken from what appears to be a ceiling-mounted camera. In the beginning of the recording, only the supervising officer and the boy are present. He and the tall probationer are several feet apart and the supervisor appears to be instructing the kid. (The video is a bootleg of the original, thus has no sound.) The probationer does not appear to be behaving in any way that is aggressive, threatening or combative. But, presumably there is some verbal conflict between the two. As the supervisor talks, the man conspicuously rolls up the sleeves of his shirt in what several of our probation sources who have seen the video labeled a threatening gesture.
Eventually, the supervisor leaves the room. Before he exits altogether, additional words are exchanged, then the supervisor vanishes, closing the door and presumably locking it behind him. The boy, who has a cast on his right arm (that is reportedly unrelated to his time with the county), slumps against the wall, visibly upset. A few seconds later, he throws an object at the door. The object is large and soft like a blanket, mattress cover or most likely, the narrow cot mattress itself.
Finally the kid flops down dejectedly on his cot, at the left side of the screen. He sits for a few seconds, then finds another object to throw at the door, this time a small, white object. (We initially heard the boy hurled a milk carton. But now we hear from a highly knowledgable source that actually the frustrated kid throw a balled-up piece of white paper.) In the case of both of the object tosses, there is no one else in the room, and the door is not only closed, it is locked (as are all such probationers’ rooms in the “SHU” area at Sylmar), thus the throwing is not an attempt to injure anyone, but an acting out of emotion.
Another twenty seconds pass. The door to the room opens. The supervisor reappears and walks into the room, at which point the boy stands up and shuffles to face away from the officer, either in response to a command, or for his own reasons.
Next, in reaction to a sound or to something that is said, the kid turns around to look at the officer, his body language still not at all threatening, coiled, or combative.
We see three additional probation officers enter the room. Five or six seconds after the boy’s turn, one of the new officers lunges at the kid from the rear with startling speed and force, slamming the boy face down to the cot, then dropping down on top of him.
We have learned that the cot is basically a rectangular cement block, which is reportedly only covered with a towel when the kid is slammed to its surface.
The officer then appears to deliver a serious of fast hard slugs to the kid’s body.At the same time, the other two POs both pile on, wrestling, kneeing, and punching the tall boy.
A few seconds later still, a fourth juvenile hall staffer enters the room and piles on the boy along with the other three, each seeming to either strike or knee him or simply hold him down. The boy is still on his stomach, but now his head and upper torso are pushed off the cement cot and toward the floor.
The kid visibly struggles against the blows, seemly only trying to protect his body, although he is hard to see his actions fully, since the bodies of four large men cover his.
About 60 seconds into the beating, an adult in some kind of uniform, reportedly a second supervisor, comes briefly through the door, stares for a second or two at the beating-in-progress, then exits.
Finally, approximately 1:48 minutes into the thumping, and pummeling, it abruptly stops.
The attackers simply get up from their various positions on top of or kneeling over the kid’s body. They straighten their clothing, and exit the room, The supervisor holds the door open with his right hand as they leave, making a shooing gesture with his left hand. Then he goes out the door himself. And that is that.
Once the hands and bodies of the POs are removed, we can see that the kid’s lower body is still on the cot, stomach down, with his upper torso off the cot and draped toward the floor. Weirdly, whether it was simply due to the struggle, or was deliberate, the boy’s white shorts have fallen or been pulled down halfway to his knees meaning he is visibly naked from waist to mid-thigh.
As he raises himself slowly to a sitting position, he attempts to tug up his shorts, only partially succeeding. Finally he succeeds in moving to a sitting position on the cement cot, feet on the floor, facing the room’s door.
He puts his face in his hands. His back shakes briefly as if he may be sobbing. Then, after a brief swipe at his eyes, he clasps his hands in front of him, and sits quietly, his head down, as the video ends.
There is, of course, more to the video and, according to a department source who has seen the longer version, the boy eventually tries to get up off the cot and walk, but collapses due to the pain. Thus instead, he lies down on the cool floor, looking for relief.
We understand that a nurse came in to check on the boy some minutes after the five probation officers vanished from his room. Her entrance and time with the kid are on the extended version of the video, which we have not seen. Her ministrations were allegedly minimal. She swabbed the abrasions and swelling on his face, and the like. Then she reportedly left the room without a thorough check for injuries.
Later still, however, the boy reportedly called for a staffer due to his pain. The second staffer sent him to the hospital where, in addition to bruising, reported black eyes, bruises, swelling and abrasions, it is learned that he has a badly and painfully sprained ankle.
According to our sources, once probation higher-ups learned of the incident, they made sure that the young man was moved to Central Juvenile Hall, rather than send him back to Sylmar, and also made sure he was seen by mental health professionals.
An investigation into the incident was launched right away.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
So what should we take from this incident?
For one thing, it is extremely troubling that a minimum of six probation officers, two of them supervisors, either knew about or directly participated in a beating that was not a consequence of an emergent situation. To the contrary, four adults administered the beat down with cold efficiency, as a supervisor looked on, presumably with approval since he allegedly is the person who set it in motion in the first place.
Furthermore, we have spoken to three sources who have seen the video. Two are highly experienced probation officers, the third is a juvenile advocate who has spent a great deal of of time inside the county’s probation camps and halls, and is no stranger to the difficulties of safely housing and helping law-breaking, often traumatized kids, many of whom have poor impulse control, some of whom can be quite dangerous.
All three told us that they were distressed by what they saw.
“I was appalled,” said one of our veteran probation sources who asked not to be named. “The kid was never acting in any way that was threatening. His body language suggests he is angry, but he’s also compliant. When staff walked in the room, there was no time when the kid was noncompliant. That’s what was appalling about it,” the source said. “It’s pretty bad.”
Another veteran probation department source, who has also seen the video, had similar comments about the alleged beating. “It was quick, brutal, and then ‘adios.’”
We should also note that, while we don’t know whether the kid in the video did or did not mouth off or act out in some way prior to the incident depicted, one thing we have heard from sources inside probation, is that the young man in question reportedly does not have a violent record, nor a lengthy one.
The incident is alarming on its face, but the fact that these appear to be premeditated actions in which five probation officers, one of them a supervisor, participated, and that those staff members apparently assumed they could get away with it, suggests that the actions on the video are not merely part of a single aberrant incident.
Instead, sources we spoke to admitted, the incident would seem to point to the existence of a disturbing culture within the juvenile probation staff that is far more problematic than we had hoped. Given the recent completion of the multi-year oversight by the department of justice, the settlement a few years ago of a gigantic, high profile class action lawsuit, and many genuine strides toward reform, with more in the works—we would assume that the ghastly scandals of the past are over, and that four people beating a non-threatening teenager would be off the table—unheard of.
Probation Chief, Cal Remington could say little about the incident, due to legal constraints. But he did tell us this: “We hold our staff to a very high standard. We have zero tolerance for mistreating the juveniles in our care. And while I can’t really comment on an ongoing investigation, this matter is being thoroughly investigated, and we take matters of this nature very, very seriously.”
The LA County Board of Supervisors reportedly learned about the alleged beating belatedly. But, a few weeks ago, they were given access to the video and several Supes have privately expressed extreme dismay. However, none whom we contacted wanted to go on record about the incident.
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has confirmed that the Probation Department has presented a case “involving the alleged assault of a juvenile housed at Sylmar.” The case, she said, concerns “multiple individuals” and is “under review by prosecutors” in the DA’s Justice System Integrity Division.
In the meantime, multiple staff members are reportedly on administrative leave with pay,while the DA’s office reviews their cases.
This is all well and good, and hopefully the five people responsible for the alleged beating of a non-combative 17-year-old on video will be appropriately held to answer, and will not be allowed to work anywhere near adolescents, now or in the future.
But what about the attitudes toward the law-breaking kids in our county’s care that the video arguably represents? By all accounts, we have good, reform-minded, and very skilled interim probation chief in Cal Remington, and presumably the powers-that-be will eventually find the right permanent chief to lead the state’s largest probation agency.
However, one person can only do so much, especially when an agency has been plagued by ghastly dysfunction as long as this one has—recent improvements, notwithstanding. For the foreseeable future, much of the day-to-day job of leading LA County Probation will involve juggling chain saws (metaphorically speaking).
We know that the Working Group for Probation Department Oversight is meeting regularly to, as they state on their website, “determine whether a new citizens’ commission should be established to comprehensively monitor the troubled agency,” as the Board of Supervisors have rightly requested.
We hate to be preemptive, as we understand the working group still has more work to do, but yes: monitoring body badly needed,. And make that a monitoring body with access to all relevant information so it has the ability to actually do its job. And by “relevant information” we mean, like, say videos of four adults overseen by a supervisor beating down a 17-year-old, who could be your kid, or grandkid, or could be mine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We have continued to update this story as we get more detailed information from sources familiar with what happened on April 24. For example, we originally were not sure if the cement cot was covered or not. We have since learned positively that the boy tossed his mattress at the door, and the only thing covering the cot at the time of the alleged beating incident was a towel.