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Inaccurate, Incomplete, Unreliable Data Used to Track Assaults at Juvenile Hall, Report Says

"You can't be charged with oversight if you only get to see what the department wants you to see."

The Los Angeles County Probation Department is using inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable information to track assaults and uses of force in juvenile halls and camps, a new report says.

The department reports a spike in violence and uses of force, but a new LA County Inspector General's report questions the accuracy of the data. The so-called Physical Intervention Reports, which document uses of force at juvenile halls and camps, are manually entered into Excel spreadsheets, leaving room for errors and omissions, according to the OIG. The Inspector General called for the revamping of an outdated system and how use-of-force incidents are documented.

The report raises the question about how a department can be held accountable amid departmentwide reform.

"You can't be charged with oversight if you only get to see what the department wants you to see," said Cyn Yamashiro, a former public defender who is a member of a panel that's helping form a new Probation Department reform body. "They really need to figure out a way to have a comprehensive and robust data system that's going to give people the answers, the questions that we're asking."

Disability Rights California, which protects those with disabilities across the state, is concerned about an issue raised in the report saying the department does not track whether youths in custody have a documented disability.

"We are very concerned about the department's failure to identify, track and accommodate for disability in its disciplinary process," said Carly Munson, an attorney for DRC, which was a party to a lawsuit against LA County in 2010 for education conditions at Challenger Memorial Youth Camps in Lancaster. "We're very disappointed, especially given the history of interventions in Los Angeles County, to see the failure to make sustained, lasting changes."

In a statement, Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald said the department is aware of the agency's complex data challenges and is creating a plan to improve data collection.

She said the department is working with the Inspector General's office and the board of supervisors to address many of the issues surrounding data collection.

"We are acutely focused on the safety in our facilities and will continue to capture, analyze, and monitor pertinent data to promote a safe environment," she said. "Additional cameras, enhanced quality assurance systems, and a focus on training will greatly improve the fidelity of our data collection efforts."

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 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 spike led to calls by county supervisors to ban pepper spray by the end of the year. The department is working on a report on how it'll phase it out.

Probation union leaders, meanwhile, say de-escalation techniques being proposed may work, but officers are under-trained, understaffed and overwhelmed.

They say officers are resorting to using pepper spray to avoid physical confrontations with minors, fearful of punitive bosses, as violence spikes and injuries rise in lockups that now house only the most violent offenders.

"While the union does not advocate to ban pepper spray, we are always open to alternatives -- alternative solutions if there is something better and it's safer for everybody," said Deputy Probation Officer Hans Liang, the president of AFSCME Local 685, the LA County Deputy Probation Officers Union.

Stacy Ford, a union representative for officers working in halls and camps, said it's all about safety for both youth and officers who monitor them.

"We need to create a safe working environment," he said. "The minors need to feel safe. The officers need to feel safe."

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