The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to eliminate the use of pepper spray in juvenile halls and camps, a change expected to be phased in over at least the next 10 months.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended banning the use of oleoresin capsicum spray, commonly known as pepper spray, in favor of more humane behavior management.
“There are alternatives, they are not easy, any more than disciplining your child without hitting them is easy,” Kuehl said. “If we want to teach nonviolence to young people, we have to start with ourselves.”
The board also called for increasing staffing, training and additional oversight of the Probation Department.
The recommendations followed a report by the Office of Inspector General, released Feb. 4, which found abusive and potentially criminal use of OC spray by some probation staffers.
The chemical is banned for use in juvenile facilities in 35 states and California is one of only five states that allow probation officers to carry OC cans at all times, according to the motion.
Though probation officials said the majority of staffers don’t resort to using pepper spray and most of the time it is used in line with policy, the OIG report found some use it as a first line of defense, sometimes escalating non-violent situations. Policy dictates its use as a last resort and only when youth are physically aggressive.
Staff sometimes misreported the use of force, saying youth were aggressive when video surveillance showed otherwise, according to the OIG.
The OIG also reported that staff sometimes failed to decontaminate youth after using the chemical spray, which when sprayed in the eyes brings tears, pain and temporary blindness.
Kuehl described it as “a form of torture” worse than mace and Supervisor Kathryn Barger called it “painful” and “inhumane.”
The OIG report mentioned one child with a mental health condition, who was sprayed in the groin and buttocks when he was found trying to hurt himself. After being sprayed, he was left in a room without running water for about 20 minutes before staff returned to help him.
Juvenile justice advocates told stories of developmentally disabled youth being sprayed multiple times, including a 14-year-old on anti-psychotic medication and subject to seizures who was sprayed four separate times, once because he refused to give up a pen.
Policy prohibits using the spray on youth taking psychotropic medication or who have asthma or are pregnant.
The board directed staffers to develop “a plan for the phased elimination of the use of OC spray in all Los Angeles county camps and halls before the end of calendar year 2019.”
Separately, Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Janice Hahn proposed that the OIG report back within 30 days with new data on the use of OC spray and other use-of-force incidents in the juvenile halls and camps.
Probation officials said the use of the chemical had increased roughly 200 percent from 2015-17 at Los Padrinos and Barry J. Nidorf juvenile halls and more than 330 percent at Central Juvenile Hall. However, they also reported usage was down 20 percent in 2018 as compared with 2017.
Eliminating its use will require finding solutions for staffers who don’t feel safe in an environment where youth-on-youth assaults were up 66 percent and youth-on-staff assaults were up 58 percent from 2016-17.
Barger said she heard the same message over and over from probation officers working on the front line.
“They do not feel that they are getting support in training,” Barger said, telling Chief Deputy Probation Sheila Mitchell, “The buck stops with you all.”
As the department continues to close juvenile facilities and focus on diversion programs, the concentration of “high needs, high risk” youth in halls and camps has grown.
Many of those youth need mental health care and the board directed the Department of Mental Health to assess those needs over the next 60 days and recommend ways to improve trauma-informed approaches to dealing with juvenile offenders who don’t qualify for diversion programs.
Probation officers and union leaders highlighted the risks they face, including rival gang members eager to attack one another and mentally ill youth subject to drastic mood swings.
“There’s no consequences for assaulting staff at all,” said Thomas Holland, a probation staffer who said he had once been a ward of a juvenile camp. “Nothing’s working. We’re overwhelmed. We’re working short … we need help and pepper spray needs to stay.”
Hans Liang, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 685, reminded the board of Arnold Garcia, a counselor fatally beaten by a teen at a county detention center in 1994.
A plan for implementing phased elimination is expected back in 60 days.
“None of us wants children or staff hurt as we transition from one tool” to another, Probation Chief Terri McDonald told the board.
The Probation Reform and Implementation Team is set to hold a hearing in March to tackle other safety recommendations laid out in the OIG report, including more cameras, more reporting and more staff training.
Ridley-Thomas expressed frustration with the pace of change in the department, though its leaders stressed that they are committed to a rehabilitative rather than a punitive culture.
“What is it with the Department of Probation that it takes all this effort to make these changes?” Ridley-Thomas asked, later adding, “I’ve grown completely impatient with the claims that `we’re working on it.'”