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Criminal Justice

Probation Watchdog Finds More Kids Getting Pepper Sprayed In Juvenile Halls

An orange and blue pie chart shows the number of pepper spray incidents between June 2022 and September 2022. 68% of the spray incidents were at Central Juvenile Hall, shown in orange, while 32% were at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, shown in blue.
A graph from the Probation Oversight Commission’s report showing the number of pepper spray incidents at the county’s two juvenile halls.
(L.A. County Probation Oversight Commission)
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Kids are still getting sprayed in Los Angeles County juvenile halls — despite a nearly four-year-old county order to phase out the practice — and in recent months the number is growing.

In August, I reported that probation officers sprayed detained youths at the county’s two juvenile halls at least 409 times between June 2021 and June 2022. That’s an average of a bit more than once a day.

Now, a new report from the L.A. County Probation Oversight Commission finds that between June 1 and Sept. 30, youth were sprayed 232 times — almost twice the average rate of the previous year.

“Examination of recent OC Spray Deployment Reports indicates a troubling pattern of increasing deployments rather than the anticipated decrease,” the report said.

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In February 2019, the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban pepper spray in the county’s juvenile halls and camps — a step taken by the majority of the country’s juvenile justice systems. The Probation Department presented its plan to phase out the spray by Sept. 2020, with a price tag of nearly $40 million.

But the phase out is “stalled,” noted the oversight commission, which cited my August report and “outrage from the public” as factors in its recent requests for regular data updates from the Probation Department on the use of pepper spray.

Chief Deputy Probation Officer Karen Fletcher told the oversight panel Wednesday that there are a lot of factors that influence the use of spray — one of the most significant being a staffing shortage caused by a mass sickout by officers protesting what they say are unsafe working conditions. Chief Deputy Probation Officer Adam Bettino said the department continues to struggle with hiring enough personnel.

Examination of recent OC Spray Deployment Reports indicates a troubling pattern of increasing deployments rather than the anticipated decrease.
— L.A. County Probation Oversight Commission report on pepper spray

The staffing shortages have also created a situation in which there is a lack of “consistent staff,” the report said, meaning youth don’t necessarily see the same Probation personnel from one day to the next.

“We will see, when we have that consistency, less reliance on OC spray,” Fletcher said.

Another factor contributing to the increase in spraying is a lack of supervisors, Senior Probation Director Janice Jones told the oversight panel.

A bar graph showing the number of pepper spray incidents per month from June to September 2022. Barry J Nidorf Juvenile hall is in blue, Central Juvenile Hall is in orange.
The breakdown of pepper spray incidents per month in the county's two juvenile halls.
(L.A. County Probation Oversight Commission)

Prioritize 'Preventative Measures'

The oversight commission report said the most common reason for using pepper spray was “youth on youth violence.”

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Children with developmental disabilities, with open cases with the Department of Children and Family Services, and those who have been sexually exploited “appear to be heavily represented in the units with some of the highest rates of OC spray deployment,” it said.

“Immediate exploration and implementation of preventative measures must be prioritized by Probation if the department intends to comply with the Board’s motion and phase out use of OC spray in juvenile facilities,” the report argued.

It said staffers could remember a training “several years ago” focused on children with developmental disabilities, and noted that Probation employees have not received training through the department’s Regional Center in three years.

barbed wire Barry J Nidorf
Barbed wire on the fence enclosing Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

Bettino said at Wednesday’s meeting that the current staffing shortage “makes it almost impossible” to pull employees off their shifts and provide them with relevant training.

No youths were pepper sprayed on the weekends during the four-month period that was studied, according to the report. Those are generally high visitation days for families.

The oversight panel also approved a motion Wednesday recommending that Probation modify its taser policy in response to L.A County Inspector General Max Huntsman, who called the policy “concerning.”

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Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.