Los Angeles County supervisors are set Tuesday to discuss whether pepper spray should still be used in juvenile lockups after an alarming uptick in its use, which has led to an internal department investigation by the County Inspector General.
The spike in pepper spray use comes as the population of youth offenders is dropping amid a push toward rehabilitation and as similar agencies across the country are shunning its use, saying it's ineffective, inhumane and a potential liability.
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.
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 transformation of L.A. County Probation operations requires that we evaluate what training is needed as well as taking a fresh look at our existing staffing," said LA County Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald in a statement. "A variety of new training has been provided to support our efforts, but we will need to continue to work together with employees to ensure staff are equipped with the skills they need to de-escalate and respond to incidents, that adequate supervision is available, and that meaningful programs are provided for the youth."
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 NBC4 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.
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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.
The OIG report also said that officers involved in uses of force were to avoid words like "tackled," "slammed" and "pinned."
The OIG noted a problematic slide included in both new hire and annual training presentations, the report said.
"The slide, titled 'DID YOU REALLY MEAN WHAT YOU WROTE?' displays an animated graphic of a masked criminal behind a red prohibitory sign," the report said. "The slide purports that certain terms should not be used when writing a use-of-force incident report because the terms may 'unintentionally evoke suspicion.' "Lastly, the slide explains that if a term is "unavoidable," staff should "fully describe the circumstances" and "justify" their actions," the OIG said.
"We want our members just to be honest," Liang said, "without having to, in their mind, calculate how they're going to say it in a way that doesn't sound so bad."