Pepper Spray Is Used Too Often To 'Subdue Youth' In LA's Juvenile Justice System

A police officer holds a bottle of pepper spray in this file photo. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)

Staff at L.A. County's juvenile halls and camps use pepper spray on kids too often, too quickly, and in situations when it isn't necessary, according to a report issued by the county's inspector general.

And the use of the pepper spray — sometime referred to OC spray, for the chemical irritant oleoresin capsicum — has increased dramatically since 2015.

"The need for reform, investigation, and oversight may never have been as vital as it is now," Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said after the report was presented Tuesday to the board of supervisors.

Using pepper spray is supposed to be the "final and ultimate authorized" way to "subdue youth," according to probation department policy. But the report concluded that probation staff commonly reach for pepper spray first before employing other deescalation measures.

"Some incidents reviewed include uses of OC spray that likely violate Department policies, at times involving youth who appeared only passively noncompliant," it said.

The report also noted several incidents where "the use-of-force reports filed by staff described youth behaviors as aggressive or threatening, even when available video footage showed that youth appeared to pose no threat to staff."

Pepper spray was also found to be used on youth who had respiratory illnesses or were taking psychotropic medications, it said, adding that "several" youth at the juvenile centers said some staff "threaten the use of OC spray or retrieve and shake OC canisters in front of youth as the initial and sole effort to gain compliance without first giving verbal commands."

Read the full report:

There were also issues with "decontamination" — getting pepper spray off kids.

The report said youth reported delays in getting the spray off them — sometimes 30 minutes or more - or the use of improper methods like hot water and towels.

In some instances youths were left in a bathroom with no running water, and were attempting to wash off the spray using toilet water, the report said.

Investigators found 36 percent of staff was using pepper spray — and of that number, 47 percent had less than two years of probation experience, said Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell.

Employees reported fearing for their safety due to understaffing, and said they weren't given adequate training to respond to crisis situations without using force. Staff also said they were unprepared to deal with youth suffering from severe mental illness or behavioral issues.

During Tuesday's meeting, Assistant Inspector General Cathleen Beltz said that part of the problem stemmed from the lack of mental health staff available, which Ridley-Thomas quickly dismissed, saying it's common knowledge that mental heath is an issue.

"It's high time that we come to grips with this," he said. "No more excuses."

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at the Board of Supervisors meeting. He said it was "vital" to reform and investigate the use of pepper spray in the juvenile probation system. (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald said staff relayed a fear of being written up or investigated for physically harming a youth as a reason why they were using pepper spray more than employing physical restraint.

The department said it was implementing new training on crisis and de-escalation techniques as a result of the findings.

As of Feb. 1, 2019, the department states 56 percent of their full duty personnel have received a "refresher" training on pepper spray.

L.A. County has the largest probation department in the nation, with an average daily population of approximately 7,750 youths in the system. Last year there were about 900 housed in juvenile halls or camps on any given day.

Last year, the department said it had found steep increases in the use of pepper spray from 2015 to 2017. Use of the chemical was up:

  • More than 300 percent at Central Juvenile Hall
  • More than 200 percent at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall
  • Nearly 200 percent at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall

Investigators interviewed more than 45 incarcerated youth and more than 30 staff and managers for the report presented Tuesday.They also investigated 21 incidents involving the use of pepper spray.

Some watchdog groups have called for a ban on the use of pepper spray in juvenile facilities, a step 35 states have taken. California is one of six states that allow juvenile detention staff to carry pepper spray.

In their discussion of the report Tuesday, the supervisors were noncommittal about the idea of a ban.

The supervisors directed the probation department to hold a "special hearing" on the report and bring any recommendations back to the board.