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Criminal Justice

Why Are LA Probation Officers Still Pepper Spraying Kids?

Buildings viewed from above are laid out in aa modified triange, with the top right side angled. inside the rectangle is a grassy law. A pool of water is visible near the top middle.
An aerial view of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall
(Courtesy Google Earth)
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Agustin Herrera says he lost count of the number of times he was pepper sprayed in Los Angeles County juvenile halls and camps.

But the now 20-year-old Herrera, who spent nearly all of his teenage years incarcerated, says he’ll never forget how it felt.

“It just immediately felt like itching, and it was like burning,” he said. “I kind of wanted to claw out my eyes for a second.”

Herrera described a burning sensation that didn’t go away for hours. In the shower, he would worry about getting the spray on his private parts, “hoping that it doesn’t burn,” or even worse, make him pass out from the pain.

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In Feb. 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.

“Escalation of violence is the escalation of violence, no matter who engages in it,” Supervisor Shelia Kuehl said before the vote.

The Probation Department presented its plan to phase out the spray by Sept. 2020, with a price tag of nearly $40 million.

Yet nearly two years after that target date, the spraying hasn’t stopped.

‘It Is Long Past Time’ To Stop Using Pepper Spray

A chart showing the combined total pepper spray trends for both juvenile halls.
(LA County Probation Department)

According to recent Probation Department data:

  • Probation officers sprayed detained youths at least 409 times between June 2021 and June 2022. 
  • Uses of spray have steadily increased almost every month since June 2021, with a peak of 55 incidents of spraying in May 2022. 
  • On July 2, probation officers used spray four times in one day at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. 

LAist asked the Probation Department for a list of pepper spray incidents in July. It has not yet provided us that information.

“We’ve given our County Probation Department more than enough time to implement a graduated plan, and yet they continue to use it in our juvenile halls,” Kuehl said in a statement on Monday. She called the department’s failure to stop using pepper spray “extremely disappointing.”

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“It is long past time for the Probation Department, in collaboration with union partners, to implement its [phase-out] plan,” Supervisor Holly Mitchell said in a statement. She said she remains “deeply troubled by the prevalent — and too often unjustified and abusive — use of pepper spray” in the juvenile halls, saying it “contributes to a disturbing culture of violence, all despite the County's commitment to the Care First vision.”

The Youth Justice Coalition questioned why Probation is still using pepper spray after receiving $13 million in its 2020-21 budget to help phase out the spray. “Where is the accountability for this?” the group said in a statement.

The head of the Probation Oversight Commission is also calling for swifter action. “I believe the [oversight commission] and the Board of Supervisors should ensure that Probation swiftly develop an ambitious plan with concrete dates to enforce the motion [to phase out pepper spray],” the commission’s Executive Director Wendelyn Julien said in a statement Tuesday. She said the commission and the board “must hold the Department accountable for following through with the plan.”

Blaming A Lack Of Funding And Staffing Issues

A chart showing pepper spray incidents in the two juvenile halls.
(LA County Probation Department)

“Progress is frankly limited at this point,” Chief Deputy Probation Officer Adam Bettino acknowledged at the Probation Oversight Commission’s June 23 meeting.

Bettino blamed the continued reliance on pepper spray on multiple factors, including a lack of funding from the Board of Supervisors to implement training and hire enough additional staff to maintain security and expand mental health support without using spray.

The department has a $410 million dollar budget; it oversees approximately 400 incarcerated youths in its halls and camps.

At the July 28 oversight board meeting, Bettino went deeper into staffing issues. He said dozens of officers are calling out sick every day, protesting what they say are unsafe workplace conditions. And he confirmed that in July, only five out of 15 probation employees reassigned to cover vacancies in the juvenile halls showed up for a weekend shift.

“We continue to have resignations on an almost weekly basis,” Bettino said, adding the department has lost around 100 employees in its juvenile facilities in the last calendar year to resignations, retirements and promotions. He said that’s why he’s asking the county to lift a hiring freeze it imposed in 2020.

At the same time, Bettino said his department’s phase-out plan “needs a revise,” noting for example that he does not think it needs as many new staff as it originally thought.

Safety is top of mind for many who work in juvenile facilities. “Our officers' lives are in danger every single day,” said Manuel Melena, a probation officer who addressed a July 25 meeting of the California Board of State and Community Corrections. He said staff had recently been assaulted and injured by youths.

A coalition of probation unions representing officers and staff is holding a rally in downtown L.A. next week to demand that the Board of Supervisors address their concerns.

A source who works at Central Juvenile Hall near downtown L.A. told LAist that recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the halls have left kids stuck in quarantine with limited access to outside time and programming — which has led to pent-up energy and fights.

“There’s that phrase, an idle mind is the devil’s playground,” the source said. “They need to be out, they need to get out their energy.”

The source also said many of the kids left in juvenile hall after years of downsizing are in for serious offenses and have high levels of trauma, and some probation officers may not feel like they can handle situations without spray because the fights can get violent

Some youth tell the source they have an "out of body" experience when they fight, and don't realize what they’re doing.

“You’re fighting all the demons from ever in your life, you’re not just fighting that kid anymore,” the source said.

In its July 28 quarterly update to the supervisors on the plan to stop using pepper spray, the Probation Department noted it had trained 452 staff as of June 1 on training, including “practical skills in de-escalation.”

Probation Under Fire

Barbed wire lines the top of a brick wall.
Barbed wire on the fence enclosing Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall
(Emily Elena Dugdale

The juvenile halls have been scrutinized recently for failing to comply with state safety mandates.

Over the course of a weekend in April, the probation department transferred all 135 children held at Central Juvenile Hall so state inspectors could assess the building. The youths were taken to Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, almost doubling that facility's population. Sources said the transfer was “a mess.” (The youths have since returned to their respective halls.)

In January, we reported that an imposter posing as a medical professional had gained access to Nidorf and took COVID-19 "'swabs'" from youths there, according to the L.A. County Public Defender’s office and the Probation Department.

Last September, the oversight board determined that the county’s juvenile halls were “not suitable” to house minors, and gave the county 60 days to improve conditions. In November, the board said the facilities were again acceptable, but expressed concern with the length of time kids were locked in their units.

In Jan. 2021, former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced a settlement with L.A. County to improve conditions in the juvenile halls.

Last month, the inspector general’s office released a new report on the state of the county’s compliance with the settlement agreement, which included details on use of force against children in custody.

Investigators highlighted a case in which a probation officer falsified his write-up of an incident in which the officer pepper sprayed a youth involved in a fight.

The officer wrote that the youth approached him with “clenched fists.” But a review of video showed the officer deployed “an unnecessary burst of OC spray” as the youth was turning away from the officer “without clenching his fists,” according to the report.

A section of the inspector general’s report.
(LA County Office of the Inspector General)

Kuehl and then-Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas led the charge to ditch the spray after a searing 2018 report from the county inspector general’s office showed the use of pepper spray between 2015 and 2017 had jumped by 200% and 300% in certain juvenile detention facilities.

Staff at L.A. County's juvenile halls and camps used pepper spray on kids too often, too quickly, and in situations when it wasn't necessary — even when some children had medical conditions that should have prevented the use of the spray, according to the report.

In 2019, six probation officers were charged with unlawfully spraying teenage girls at the now-shuttered Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall.

Four of the probation officers were acquitted in Feb. 2020. Last August, charges against another probation officer were dismissed. In March, the last officer was acquitted of charges.

Multiple counties in California have banned pepper spray in juvenile settings. But a bill introduced last year by Assemblymember Mike Gipson to ban the spray across all juvenile facilities in the state died earlier this year, after strong opposition from the union representing county probation officers.

Formerly incarcerated youth Agustin Herrera said what sticks with him the most about getting sprayed was looking at the faces of the officers who did it.

“Some of them laugh,” he said. “I think they enjoy it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the inspector general's report on the county's compliance with the 2021 settlement agreement with the California Department of Justice was released last week.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
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.

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