Pepper spray still used every day in LA County juvenile halls, despite supervisors’ orders to stop – Orange County Register

When Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall reopened in July 2023, probation officers arriving for their first shifts were forced to surrender the pepper spray canisters they had relied on to combat fights and unruly youth at other juvenile facilities.

“There will be no pepper spray at this location,” Felicia Cotton, then-acting chief deputy of the Los Angeles Probation Department, had plainly vowed during a July 13 presentation to the Probation Oversight Commission.

The agency saw Los Padrinos as a chance to finally implement a long-delayed directive from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to stop using oleoresin capsicum spray, commonly known as pepper spray or “OC” spray, in the juvenile halls.

The ban lasted just two weeks before its complete reversal.

The fresh start imagined by county officials collapsed when 13 teens broke out of their units on the night of July 28, 2023, smashing doors and windows and brawling with staff until they reached Los Padrinos’ walls. There, the oldest in the group scaled a wall and escaped onto the neighboring golf course before he was apprehended. Police officers in riot gear swarmed the facility to help restore order.

Chief Probation Officer Guillermo Viera Rosa (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Probation Department)
Chief Probation Officer Guillermo Viera Rosa (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Probation Department)

The next day, Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa temporarily issued pepper spray to all permanent staff at Los Padrinos “until the facility is fully stabilized” but pledged to revisit the decision promptly.

A year later, pepper spray is now used an average of 1.3 times per day at Los Padrinos and has been quietly reinstated in units that house vulnerable populations, including girls and youth with developmental disabilities, against the Board of Supervisors’ orders, according to a Southern California News Group analysis of two years of incident data.

Critics blame a lack of training in deescalation tactics and a punitive culture among officers for Los Padrinos’ reliance on pepper spray, while its proponents argue it is a necessary tool to prevent violence from escalating amid a staffing shortage that has left officers without backup.

The Probation Department, under prior leadership, had announced in February 2023 that it would stop using pepper spray on girls and youth with developmental disabilities in its custody and would completely phase out the chemical irritant across all of its juvenile facilities over the next year.

The Southern California News Group analysis revealed that the department’s efforts seemed to be paying off. Incidents involving oleoresin capsicum spray initially dropped by more than half in the five months following the announcement. Pepper spray usage hit its lowest point in two years in July 2023, the same month the Probation Department consolidated the majority of its detained juveniles at the newly reopened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey.

That progress reverted following the escape attempt.

Pepper spray usage quadruples

According to the data evaluated by SCNG, pepper spray usage quadrupled the month after its reinstatement and has largely stayed at those levels since. Officers deployed pepper spray against juveniles 355 times in the 281 days from July 29, 2023, to May 5, 2024.

Forty-six youth with developmental disabilities were listed as receiving injuries during such incidents, the data showed. While girls make up about 8% of the roughly 300 youth at Los Padrinos, they were involved in more than 17% of the total uses of pepper spray. The girl’s unit, P/Q, had 62 uses of pepper spray, the second highest of any unit in the facility, in the first ten months after Los Padrinos reopened. Ten of the girls injured were described as survivors of sex trafficking.

P/Q holds only about 21 girls in any given month. By comparison, the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility, a specialized unit in Sylmar that houses about 50 to 60 boys and young men sentenced for serious crimes, had 11 uses of pepper spray during that same period.

Los Padrinos has six times the population of the SYTF, but 32 times more pepper spray deployments, data showed.

Another phase-out plan

Probation is now developing a new phase-out plan, its third attempt in five years. Following the controversial reinstatement of pepper spray, officials pledged to have a plan ready by November 2023, before pushing it back to June 30. The agency may missed that deadline too.

“The safety and security of both youth and staff are paramount,” a probation spokesperson wrote in a July 3 email. “Again, the Department is conducting a thorough evaluation with the Board of Supervisors’ goal of eliminating OC Spray in our facilities in mind, as well as balancing the immediate need for maintaining a secure environment in our juvenile facilities.”

The department did not respond to several questions about the decision to reinstate pepper spray, or a follow-up asking about the status of the plan.

Staffing at core of problems

It would be difficult to argue that Los Padrinos has “stabilized” in the months since Viera Rosa reinstated pepper spray. There was a second escape attempt. Regulators, fed up with Los Angeles County’s repeated failures, threatened to shut down Los Padrinos over inadequate programming, low staff ratios and dangerous conditions.

Sixty-six officers, including 14 officers accused of potentially orchestrating fights at Los Padrinos, have been placed on leave since January.

Los Padrinos’ problems always lead back to the department’s struggle to get probation officers to show up for work. On the day when a second group of teens attempted to escape in November, the department had scheduled 100 staff members — the minimum needed to run Los Padrinos — and only 40 showed up. The crisis has created a domino effect whereby additional officers skip work because the low staffing levels make the halls less safe and holdovers more likely.

In May, half of the 791 staff members assigned to juvenile institutions were on leave.

The department narrowly avoided Los Padrinos’ closure by involuntarily redeploying more than 200 officers from its field offices. The Deputy Probation Officers Union has filed an unfair labor practices claim, alleging the county has “reassigned these employees to an entirely different and more dangerous job classification.”

A memo from Viera Rosa to the Board of Supervisors in June indicated the department is unable to determine the “percentage of trained staff” in each unit at Los Padrinos because ongoing staffing shortages force the department to constantly shuffle people around.

When pepper spray can be used

Violence continues to plague the halls as well. The vast majority of the pepper spray incidents at Los Padrinos — 85% — listed attacks against other youth or against staff as the reason for the chemicals’ use. Chemical intervention is allowed only “when there is an imminent threat to youth’s safety or the safety of others,” and only after deescalation efforts have been unsuccessful, according to the Probation Department.

However, roughly 10% of the incidents appeared to be for nonviolent reasons, including property destruction, youth being out of bounds and “disruptive behavior.” The department did not respond to questions asking for clarification about when pepper spray can be used in those instances.

The department’s monitoring for misuse of pepper spray has faced criticism in the past. The Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General in February 2024 looked at a sampling of 31 OC spray incidents and found that only 61% of the reports were reviewed by one of the department’s three compliance teams to ensure they were within policy.

In one incident from Central Juvenile Hall before its closure in July 2023, a deputy probation officer sprayed three youth, who were not acting aggressively, for refusing to return to their respective classrooms, according to the OIG.

“The video shows the DPO taking out OC spray, and as the first and third youth began to laughingly grab each other, the DPO sprays them both with OC spray,” the report stated. “Later, as the third youth was complying with the DPO’s order by walking to the classroom, the DPO again sprayed the third youth in the face. The DPO sprayed the youths a total of five times.”

The OIG found that the DPO mischaracterized the situation in her report, but the Probation Department was unaware of the discrepancies because it never reviewed the video to determine if the use of OC spray complied with policy.

Banned in 35 states

There’s mixed opinions on whether pepper spray should be used at all in juvenile halls. Thirty-five states — and seven California counties — have banned pepper spray in such facilities. California is one of five states that allow probation officers to routinely carry canisters on their person.

Pepper spray triggers burning, tearing and swelling in the eyes and respiratory tract, making it difficult to breathe and see, according to the National Institute of Justice. The effects can last up to half an hour, if the individual is immediately removed from the source and decontaminated. The Probation Department is required to take youth for decontamination within 10 minutes of using pepper spray, though it routinely has failed to meet that standard, according to the L.A. County Office of Inspector General.

A bill from Assemblymember Mike Gipson, D-Gardena, in 2021 attempted to prohibit the use of “chemical agents” in juvenile facilities, but the bill died, under opposition from probation unions, after it was amended to exempt pepper spray.

Advocates say the bans on pepper spray in other jurisdictions proves it isn’t needed.

“They can look to the majority of the country for a guideline,” said Aditi Sherikar, a senior policy associate with the Children’s Defense Fund California.

Sherikar blames the Board of Supervisors for failing to enforce its prior motions ordering the department to stop using pepper spray. The Probation Department has developed plan after plan, but continues to make excuses for why those plans can’t be implemented, she said. First it was COVID, now staffing.

“The minute that people look away, or get distracted, they go right back to using it,” she said. “They use their own flaws, their own problems, to justify not being able to train their officers, to justify not phasing it out.”

‘Cruel and inhumane’ or necessary evil?

Ricardo Garcia, Los Angeles County’s public defender, called the use of OC spray in juvenile halls “cruel and inhumane.”

“It inflicts pain and suffering on our young people who are already in a vulnerable state. It compounds trauma, contradicting principles of rehabilitation, care, and youth development,” Garcia said. “Resorting to such methods of control and discipline undermines dignity and can exacerbate tensions rather than promote safety. We need to emphasize alternative approaches that prioritize the well-being of all those in our detention centers.”

Others, including some youth, say pepper spray is a necessary evil.

Sometimes, just warning youth that OC spray will be deployed can defuse a situation, said Stacy Ford, president of the Los Angeles County Deputy Probation Officers Union. He blamed the conditions in the juvenile hall on an overall lack of accountability and consequences for the juveniles.

“I believe with pepper spray, you have less incidents than you do without it, because it serves as a deterrent,” Ford said. “When the youth see that you have pepper spray, they tend to think about what their actions are going to be.”

Pepper spray isn’t used in the juvenile camps and officers are forced to go “hands on” to intervene at those facilities, he said.

“A lot of people get hurt going hands on,” he said.

Youth interviewed by the Probation Oversight Commission during inspections in 2023 stated they did not oppose OC spray because there isn’t enough staff available.

“Multiple young people indicated that some staff were unwilling or unable to assist in de-escalating or breaking up physical fights, so OC spray as an intervention to protect their safety became more accepted by youth,” inspectors wrote. “Other youth reported that at times there are not enough staff in the unit to break up any fights that included more than two youth. The young people shared that because there were so few staff in the units regularly, OC spray was the ‘only help staff have to stop people from getting jumped.’ “

At least two girls interviewed by the Office of Inspector General alleged that after OC spray was removed from their units, girls that had to be physically restrained instead suffered more serious injuries, including broken wrists and leg fractures.

Los Padrinos still ‘violent, unsafe place’

Sean Garcia-Leys, co-executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center and a former probation oversight commissioner, said that while it is upsetting that pepper spray is used so heavily, it isn’t surprising.

“The bottom line is that Los Padrinos continues to be a violent, unsafe place for youth and staff,” he said. “This is a reflection that nothing that has been done has changed that.”

In the absence of a culture and practices that promote safety, there will be times when pepper spray is better than letting fights spiral out of control, he said.

“But that’s only because the more difficult, long-term work and foundation for creating a safe facility hasn’t happened,” he said. “If you compare Los Padrinos to the camps, or the SYTF facilities, you can see that sort of foundation for safety can be built, because we’ve done it in other facilities.”

Garcia-Leys believes the county’s best solution is to reduce the population at Los Padrios to a manageable level. “If the facility is constantly maxed out, it’s never going to improve,” he said.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in January 2024. From left to right: Janice Hahn, Hilda Solis, Lindsey Horvath (chair), Kathryn Barger and Holly Mitchell. (photo courtesy of the LA County Board of Supervisors)
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in January 2024. From left to right: Janice Hahn, Hilda Solis, Lindsey Horvath (chair), Kathryn Barger and Holly Mitchell. (photo courtesy of the LA County Board of Supervisors)

Supervisors unified in opposition

County Supervisors Janice Hahn, Lindsey Horvath, Holly Mitchell and Hilda Solis released statements reiterating their opposition to pepper spray in the county’s juvenile halls.

There is “no excuse for the continued use of OC spray,” Horvath said.

“I’ve raised this issue with the Chief on multiple occasions, and he says that staff will stop coming to work if they don’t have it,” she said. “I can appreciate that we need staff to show up to work so our young people get the services they need, but OC spray shouldn’t be a requirement for people to know showing up to work is essential.”

The county must get to a point where OC spray “is out of our camps and halls and where our probation officers have better tactics they can rely on to stop violence,” Hahn said.

“It is frustrating that we seem to be moving backwards,” she said. “When we hired Chief Probation Officer Guillermo Viera Rosa we specifically directed him to continue the phasing out of OC spray. I believe that moving forward the department needs to double down on de-escalation training while they work on shifting the culture within the camps and halls.”

Los Padrinos lacks staff who are “willing, trained and qualified to practice de-escalation and properly supervise a population of youth with many different types of complex needs,” Mitchell said in a statement.

“The minimal or non-existent use of OC Spray at other facilities, including Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, is evidence of the effectiveness of service models that meet the individual needs of each youth,” she said.

Supervisor Hilda Solis brought forward a motion in 2022 to end the use of OC spray against girls, gender expansive youth and youth with developmental disabilities, stating that it only “perpetuates and exacerbates trauma and harm.”

“The progress has not been adequate, but with the continued pressure from the Board for a full elimination of OC spray and the continued training of staff, we will push to ensure the Department takes steps to lean on other tools and end the practice of utilizing OC spray,” she said.

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