A girl at a juvenile lockup was pepper-sprayed three times in one day by Los Angeles County Probation officers in a series of incidents sparked after she was seen playing with a spider in a cup, a federal lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles on Friday, is the first publicly known lawsuit involving the use of pepper spray at a Los Angeles County juvenile lockup since the department was ordered to phase it out after NBCLA found a spike in its use in recent years.
The unnamed minor alleges she was sprayed three times while housed at the Eastlake juvenile lockup on a misdemeanor accusation in July 2017, and was not properly decontaminated.
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The girl alleges that she was sprayed by at least two female guards, whose last names are alleged in the complaint, in addition to the county, the department, and the chief probation officer, court documents said.
The first incident was point-blank in the face for four or five seconds while she was restrained on the floor of her cell, the lawsuit says. The second time was after she said probation officers ignored her pleas for help, fresh air, and milk and water, which is typically used to relieve pain from being pepper sprayed.
She alleges she was not properly decontaminated after the second incident, and was left her in a cell where she had to immerse her head in the toilet to relieve the pain, the lawsuit states.
She was given a two-minute shower, hours later, and was forced to sleep on a concrete slab overnight in a type of straitjacket called a turtle shell, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit, which demands a jury trial, alleges the girl suffers emotional, mental and physical pain, anguish, fright, nervousness, anxiety, shock, humiliation, indignity, embarrassment, and apprehension. She will continue to incur medical expenses, including psychological treatment. The lawsuit alleges the incidents were sadistic, abusive, excessive, and a "gross abuse of power that shock the conscience."
It alleges the department failed to properly train probation officers and staff to handle the "usual and recurring situations with which they must deal."
"The use of pepper spray is one such pervasive, troubling and unnecessary practice and it is at issue in this case," the lawsuit states. "Adult probation professionals can control a 15-year-old girl without shooting pepper spray into her eyes."
Her lawyer declined to comment, referring to the allegations in the complaint.
The Probation Department, which has not filed a legal response yet to the complaint, says it cannot comment on pending litigation, but said, "in all situations, we do not tolerate the abuse of youth in our charge and each and every allegation is investigated."
After NBCLA's reporting found a 154% increase in pepper spray use in juvenile facilities from 2015 to 2017 and a county investigation found excessive and abusive uses of pepper spray, including failures to immediately decontaminate kids, the department was ordered to phase it out in juvenile facilities.
The incidents of that July day, as spelled out in court documents, started after the girl says she saw a spider on a recreation room table.
A probation officer became angry when she put the spider in a plastic cup, the lawsuit said.
"In a violent and aggressive manner," the officer grabbed the cup, "threw it onto the ground, and stomped on it, crushing the cup and the spider inside," the complaint said. The officer told the girl that what she was doing was "[expletive] nasty," the lawsuit states.
The girl responded by saying, "that was mean and unnecessary," according to the complaint.
The girl said that when she went to her cell she was pushed onto the floor, kneed in the back, and sprayed multiple times point-blank in the face as she lay restrained on the ground, the lawsuit states. She said she screamed as pepper spray ran off into her nose and mouth.
Eventually, she was handcuffed, escorted to the shower and given a carton of milk to rinse with. When she asked for another carton, an officer responded, "You're not wasting our milk!" court documents said.
Later, alone in a cell, she splashed water from the sink onto her face and eyes to relieve the pain. She said that evening, still in pain, she yelled for help, fresh air, more milk, and water, but got no response from probation officers.
She alleges she heard probation staff outside her cell door yell at her to shut up and threaten to come back in if she didn't calm down.
Then, two officers came into her room and sprayed her again without warning before leaving.
She said she immersed her head in the toilet to try to rinse her eyes, mouth, and ears. She said while she was screaming she heard officers laughing outside her room and saying, "We're going to have to refill our bottles for this one," referring to their pepper spray canisters.
The girl alleges that even after that, an officer entered her room as she lay on her bed in a fetal position in pain and sprayed her again in the face without warning before walking out without saying anything.
She remained alone in her room, crying for help, for about two hours before she was allowed to take a two-minute shower, the lawsuit said.
She alleges she slept on a concrete slab in a "turtle shell," a type of straitjacket used to restrain juveniles who may hurt themselves or others, until the next morning, court documents said.
As the lawsuit plays out in court, the probation department is expected to present its plan next week to the County Board of Supervisors on phasing pepper spray out by the end of 2020.