New calls were made Tuesday to cut pepper spray use at juvenile lockups after a new report found troubling, inappropriate and avoidable uses of pepper spray in Los Angeles County juvenile halls and camps.
The calls came up as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors heard a report by the Los Angeles County Inspector General’s Office that outlined horrifying moments when pepper spray was used, and the concerns of probation officers and other staff as violence inside juvenile halls and camps is up.
In one case, a young person with a mental health condition who was hurting himself or herself was sprayed in the groin and buttocks then left in a room with no running water for about 20 minutes before being decontaminated, according to the report.
“I believe the only solution in this situation is to ban the use of pepper spray in our facilities,” Ricardo Garcia, the Los Angeles County public defender, told the board Tuesday. “I don’t see an alternative. This is not the first time that board has heard that this is a very real issue.”
LA County Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald said the use of pepper spray has been a very challenging issue. She said the department has been reevaluating over 600 use of force incidents, focusing primarily on pepper spray use.
In the review, she said the department found several cases of what appear to be unnecessary or excessive force that had not been previously reported.
She said that the department immediately launched internal and criminal investigations of the incidents some of which are pending criminal filing with the LA County District Attorney’s Offrice.
She said the majority of the time probation officers are found within policy when they have to use pepper spray.
“The problem were the ones in which the actions were grossly outside of policy or expectations,” she said.
She attributed it to a cultural issue and said it was a small number of officers who “chose the wrong approach.”
“We owe it to our youth, to our staff, to our families, to our communities to do better,” she said.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she is concerned about the harm being done to teens in custody and said she opposes the use of pepper spray.
“I think that it is time for us to stand up and say that,” she said. “The evidence seems to be very clear.”
The Office of Inspector General reviewed the rising use of pepper spray in juvenile halls and camps after the NBC4 I-Team found a 154 percent increase over a three-year period in pepper spray use.
The LA County Probation Department recorded 747 uses of pepper spray in 2017 at juvenile halls and camps, a jump of 154 percent over 2015 when the department used pepper spray 294 times, according to an NBC4 analysis of department data. Central Juvenile Hall recorded a 343 percent jump in that same time period, the highest number of all facilities.
New department data released last month through the California Public Records Act shows that pepper spray dropped 11 percent in 2018, compared with the previous year. The number went from 747 in 2017 to 664 in 2018, according to the data analyzed by NBC4.
Among the recommendations by the OIG are: including adding cameras in all juvenile facilities, analyzing more detailed reports about pepper spray incidents, and revising training materials to remove language that inadvertently encourages incomplete or inaccurate reporting of incidents.
NBC4 found that probation officers are using pepper spray — the highest level of force used in the county’s facilities — at a higher rate than they have in years as the population of teens behind bars drops.
Pepper spray, while authorized for use in the halls and camps in LA, is deemed to be dangerous for health, especially for those who are pregnant and for those who have asthma, NBC4’s investigation found.
The increase comes after federal monitoring of the department by the U.S. Department of Justice ended in 2015.
The spike comes as departments across the country have shunned it saying it exacerbates violence, has the reverse effects of rehabilitating youth, and is a potential liability. It also comes as agencies are moving away from juvenile incarceration and toward rehabilitation.
California is one of six states that allows probation officers in juvenile facilities to carry pepper spray, according to the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. A proposed law to restrict pepper spray in the state failed last spring.