The ACLU of Southern California and other groups are calling on the Los Angeles County Probation Department to immediately ban pepper spray amid a spike in its use by officers claiming violence in juvenile lockups has been escalating.
The new push to ban so-called oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray — or pepper spray — comes as the department is working to phase it out by the end of the year.
County supervisors voted to ban the use, saying it's inhumane and out of step with the rehabilitation of youth in custody.
"Use of OC spray is a symptom of a broken culture," the ACLU of Southern California and other youth advocacy groups wrote in a letter Friday to LA County's Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald. "Neither youth nor the public should wait for 2020 — or the end of the chemical agent ban implementation plan for these actions."
In a statement, McDonald said department officials have been training officers in the use of pepper spray and have been meeting with officials from the county education and mental health departments and the public to research best practices.
"We are still in the review and research phase and welcome all ideas for inclusion in our phased strategy," she wrote in the statement. "Several concurrent initiatives are being undertaken to support improved training, promote de-escalation methods and techniques, and ultimately create momentum to shift the culture throughout our facilities."
An NBC4 investigation in December found the use of pepper spray spiked 154 percent 2015 to 2017, going up after the federal Department of Justice stopped monitoring the probation department.
At a special hearing Saturday in Carson to discuss violence at the juvenile halls and camps, a line of people spoke out for and against the use of pepper spray, the department's highest level of force.
"Pepper spray is all we have," said Probation Officer Crystal Cornejo, who works in custody services. "We don't have anything else. These kids they steal; they rob; they kill; they rape; they abuse."
Eduardo Mundo, a retired probation officer who worked at the camps on and off during his 30 years, is advocating for banning pepper spray. He said during his time he never felt unsafe and never used pepper spray.
"I'm sure if we learn how to manage the minors without it and maybe improve the number of people working in the halls, then we can reduce the numbers of unpleasant contacts," said Mundo.