Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday officially called on the Office of Inspector General to investigate a dramatic spike in the use of pepper spray by probation officers at juvenile halls and camps.
The move came during a Board meeting Tuesday and after an NBC4 investigation found pepper spray use skyrocketed from 2015 to 2017 as many other agencies across the country are shunning its practice.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who spurred the action, called the spike in pepper spray use very troubling at a department with a history of federal oversight for the way it treats its youth in custody.
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"It's clear that the board has demonstrated time and time again that reforming our probation department is very, very important," Ridley-Thomas said. "The need for reform, investigation and oversight may never have been as vital.
"All of us are concerned about the trauma that these youngsters have endured and we maintain that this re-traumatizes them."
The move was unprecedented, Ridley-Thomas said, as the OIG, created out of a jail crisis in 2014, has been tasked with investigating problems at the county jails and the sheriff's department.
Sheila Mitchell, the probation department's chief deputy of juvenile services, said that the department welcomes the outside review. She said the department is working first on training officers who use pepper spray excessively.
But, she acknowleged, much work remains.
When she noted a decline of 20 percent in uses of pepper spray this year, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn told her it was misleading because the department documented a three-fold jump since 2015.
An NBCLA.com and I-Team investigation shows that 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, the investigation found.
The increase comes after federal monitoring of the department by the U.S. Department of Justice ended in 2015. The investigation found that it appears the trend is likely to continue. Between January and July of this year the department reported 404 such uses of force, according to an NBC4 analysis of probation department data.
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 restrtict pepper spray in the state failed this spring.
But Kenneth Batiste, who spent 25 years as a probation officer at Central Juvenile Hall near downtown Los Angeles, said the halls can be dangerous.
He recalled a time when a kid hit, kicked and choked a female probation officer unprovoked.
"When you give a lady that's 4 foot 9, 4 foot 10 and you tell her to go into juvenile hall and deal with a girl that is 5 foot 10, twice her size, you better have something to go ahead and cut down on it," he said. "I believe that you should have oversight."
But, he added, "if the staff is not safe, nobody in there's safe."