Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday voted to phase out pepper spray in juvenile lockups after an alarming uptick in its use, first reported by NBC4.
Officials will hold a meeting in March to talk about how the phase-out will work, with a goal of ending the use of pepper spray by the end of the year.
"Pepper spray should not be used unless like a lethal weapon is used," Supervisor Kathryn Barger said at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. "It's completely inhumane."
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she worried about the lasting harm pepper spray can cause youths who are already traumatized.
"We have a responsibility for the safety and well-being of the young people in our custody," she said. "We need to use better alternatives to manage discipline issues such as verbal de-escalation and cognitive behavioral therapy."
In a statement, Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald said that over the next two months, the Probation Department will develop a plan to create a "safer environment for both the youth in our care and our employees.
"We are committed to implementing new approaches to ensure our juvenile facilities are safe, trauma-informed environments, focused on positive transformation," she said. "We look forward to continuing to work with the Office of the Inspector General, the Probation Commission, the Probation Reform and Implementation Team, the Public Defender and other stakeholders, as we move forward in making this change."
Some 50 people spoke out at Tuesday's meeting, many urging county leaders to ban pepper spray while probation officers called for better training.
NBC4 reported in December that pepper spray use spiked 154 percent in 2017 over 2015 when the department used pepper spray 294 times, according to an analysis of department data. The number dropped in 2018, going from 747 in 2017 to 664 last year. The biggest spike in that period was at Central Juvenile Hall which saw an increase of 338 percent.
The jump comes after the department had been monitored by the federal government for similar violations years ago.
The recent spike led to a call for an unprecedented probe into the department by the County Office of Inspector General. The report found excessive and improper uses of pepper spray. It also found and problems with training and reporting of incidents.
In one case an officer sprayed a youth with a mental health condition in the groin and buttocks. The youth was left in a room without running water, for about 20 minutes before being decontaminated, the report said, in violation of department policy.
The OIG said the use-of-force reports from that incident were incomplete, did not accurately describe the events that led to the use of force and why it was used and the employee was terminated.
LA County probation officers say they're resorting to using pepper spray to avoid physical confrontations with youth offenders, fearful of punitive bosses, as violence spikes and injuries rise in lockups that now house only the most violent offenders.
"You see a lot of people that are being disciplined or fired for touching people," said Deputy Probation Officer Hans Liang, the president of AFSCME Local 685, the LA County Deputy Probation Officers Union. "So then people's fear puts them to a point where, 'I'm not going to do that. I'm just going to have my spray. I'll use that.'"
The department says new training is underway, but more mental health and trauma services are needed to get to a point where physical interventions are rare.
The news comes as NBC4 found workplace injury payouts jumped nearly $6 million in a one-year period, according to the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office.
Among the claims were stress, carpal tunnel in hands and bumping into cubicle walls. There are also injuries such as being "struck in the back of the head" or "bitten by ward" suffered while "restraining" a youth.