Inappropriate and Avoidable Uses of Pepper Spray at LA County Juvenile Facilities, New Report Finds

The Los Angeles County Inspector General found inappropriate and avoidable uses of pepper spray in Los Angeles County juvenile halls and camps, a new report says.

The report released Monday outlines horrifying moments when pepper spray was used, and also reveals the concerns of probation officers and other staff as overall 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 subdued with pepper spray. That youth 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.

LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who called for the unprecedented investigation and who's spearheading probation department reform, said issues raised in the report "point to a punitive culture that's lacking in accountability."

"We just can't have the human rights of young people being violated in our custody and our care," he said.

The Probation Department declined to comment before Tuesday's LA County Board of Supervisors' meeting where the report will be discussed.

But at a county supervisor meeting in December, Sheila Mitchell, the probation department's chief deputy of juvenile services, said that the department welcomed the outside review. She said the department is working first on training officers who use pepper spray excessively, but she acknowledged much work remains.

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. 


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New 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 new Probation Department data analyzed by NBC4.

Among the recommendations by the Office of Inspector General are:

  • Add cameras in all juvenile facilities;
  • Analyze every pepper spray incident by a committee including reviewing any surveillance footage;
  • Revise training materials to remove language that inadvertently encourages incomplete or inaccurate report.

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.

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.

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