A little over a month ago, Los Angeles County’s Probation Oversight Commission (POC) issued a report that took a deep dive into the use of Oleoresin Capsicum or OC spray in LA County’s two main youth lock-ups, namely Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall and Central Juvenile Hall.
The results were distressing.
Specifically, the POC report summarized where and against whom the OC spray, commonly known as pepper spray, had been used during the four month period between June 1, 2022 and September 30, 2022
(According to the Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents, OC Spray gained popularity in the 1990s as a defensive weapon for civilians and law enforcement agencies because it produces an immediate, temporary immobilization and incapacitation when sprayed directly into the face or eyes, and other sensitive areas.)
The information about how often and on what youth OC spray was being deployed, reportedly turned out to be vexingly difficult to obtain from LA County Probation according to the members of the oversight commission. When they did get the stats outlined in their November report, the information was startling because of the frequency with which the skin burning substance was being used.
Also, according to the report, OC spray was used as a behavior control far more in Central Juvenile Hall than at Barry J, even though Central’s population has been drastically reduced this year.
Furthermore, at Central, pepper spray was primarily deployed in a cluster of units which contain kids identified as “developmentally disabled,” and/or they were youth “who have open cases with the Department of Children and Family Services,” or they were “youth identified as victims of commercial sexual exploitation,” and other particularly vulnerable groups.
In other words, the pepper spray was used as a control agent on the kids who likely already had the highest degree of trauma.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors were among those who received a copy of the POC report (which WLA also acquired), and what they read drove the board to take action.
The Supes get angry then pass a motion
And so it was that on Tuesday, December 20, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass a motion authored Supervisor Hilda Solis, and co-authored by the board’s newest member, Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, which directs Probation Chief Adolfo Gonzales to come up with a plan in 45 days to phase out the use of OC spray, at the housing units that incarcerate youth with developmental disabilities,and gender expansive (GGE) youth at Central Juvenile Hall, along with other units that house vulnerable kids who have been subject to frequent spraying with the skin burning substance.
Collectively-speaking the board members were not in a good mood when they passed the Solis-Horvath motion.
Their fury was well grounded.
We’ve seen this bad movie before
The issue of using pepper spray has long been a critical issue on the youth side of LA County’s Probation Department.
In February of 2019, the board of supervisors voted to completely discontinue the use of Oleoresin Capsicum on the kids in the county’s care.
The vote came about after the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) delivered a 28-page report to the Supervisors, which painted a distressing picture of the use of the spray on the youth who were housed in LA County’s then three juvenile halls, and also in two of its youth probation camps. The OIG report showed, among other unsettling facts, that between 2015 and 2017, the use of OC spray had increased 338 percent.
“The matter before us is one that is urgent,” said then Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who, together with then Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, co-authored a motion to eliminate the use of pepper spray on the youth in the county’s care by the end of 2019.
Yet, despite all the talk of urgency, months passed and no progress of any consequence occurred.
Instead, in April of 2019, six Los Angeles County Probation officers were charged for unlawfully using pepper spray against a total of five different teenage girls who were confined in the detention officers’ care at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, according to the LA District Attorney’s Office. (LP, as Los Padrinos was known, has since been shuttered leaving only Central Juvenile Hall, located east of downtown LA, and Sylmar’s Barry J Nidorf.)
Then in June of 2019, WitnessLA reported on a federal civil rights lawsuit that told a disturbing story of detention officers at Central Juvenile Hall repeatedly—and, allegedly unnecessarily—pepper spraying a 15-year-old girl without ever allowing her to properly decontaminate her face and body.
And there were other disquieting stories.
Later that same month in 2019, then Probation Chief Terri McDonald, presented to the board a new plan to belatedly begin phasing out youth probations use of OC spray.
Thus, in June 2019, the board again voted to set what it was hoped would be a more realistic goal of a complete phase-out of OC Spray by the end of 2020, which would bring about “a paradigm shift in juvenile detention services.”
The June 2019 decision would also mean that LA County would join 35 states and at least six California counties, such as Santa Clara, Solano, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Marin, and Sacramento, which had already banned the use of OC spray on youth
The board’s June of 2019 decision was also not made solely in an elected-policy makers’ vacuum. In May of 2019, community members, youth advocates, probation staff, various county officials, and other experts, came together for a four-hour hearing in Carson, CA, in order to exchange information about what it would take to phase out pepper spray.
During the four hours in Carson, several people who had been locked up in their youth described what it felt like, physically and emotionally, to be OC Sprayed as a kid.
Yet, well-researched motion or no, 2020 came and went and no phase-out occurred.
After that, it seemed that everyone with the power to make a difference was ignoring the stalled phase-out while they dealt with—or failed to deal with— other youth probation catastrophes.
There was also Covid.
Whatever rationale that had allowed nearly four years of non-action on the pepper spray issue appeared to shatter last month when the POC sent the board its report.
Here’s some of what the report said:
From June 1, 2022-September 30, 2022, a total of 122 days, there was a combined total of 232 OC spray deployments at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall and Central Juvenile Hall.
Weirdly, in every month except July, Central had far more cases of the use of OC spray than Barry J did—despite the fact that Central consistently had—and still has—a lower population of youth in residence within its walls.
In fact, in two out of the four months examined, Central’s use was at least double that of the Sylmar-located facility.
For example, in September 2022, Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall had 14 OC spray deployments, while Central’s staff used the spray 72 times that same month.
Training and other staffing issues
Probation sources WitnessLA interviewed on the topic—both presently working detention service officers, and retired DSOs—said that much of the problem is that a significant percentage of those working in the two juvenile halls have not been successfully trained and adequately mentored in the use of de-escalation techniques, plus other skills that allow the detention officers to develop appropriate relationships with the kids in their care, which can in turn help a great deal when difficulties arise.
“They’re afraid of the kids. So when a fight jumps off, they don’t know what to do. So they grab what they see as their only tool,” said one recently retired staff member who worked for decades at Central Juvenile Hall.
In the course of the discussion of the Solis/Horvath motion, the board asked Probation Chief Adolfo Gonzales to address them about why the department appeared to have moved nothing forward in the phase out of OC Spray, but rather appeared to be moving the opposite direction when it came to the two youth halls, particularly Central Juvenile Hall. (Pepper spray has been discontinued in the youth camps.)
Gonzales who has a reputation as a reformer, has battled a great many problems since he became the department’s leader, nearly two years ago.
Among the difficulties Gonzales faced was the fact that, until recently, both juvenile halls were struggling with such a critical shortage of staff that detention officers were having to work exhausting double shifts.
As more and more Detention Service Officers “called out sick,” in many cases to avoid what they believed were untenable work conditions, the growing staff shortages created an environment that increasingly felt unsafe for both staff and for kids.
(See this WLA story about one awful and unsafe weekend at Barry J.)
Chief Gonzales and his command staff have recently managed to solve some of the staffing issues by offering detention officers bonuses, a strategy that has reportedly helped.
But still, according to Gonzales and others, the needed training to persuade officers that they can cut back on OC spray was stopped during the first months of COVID and not properly re-started.
Furthermore, as the POC report noted, even if some staff members are being trained, it may not be the right training.
In the end, on Tuesday, after Gonzales and each member of the board had expressed their distress at the present OC spray situation, and the urgent need for conditions to change, the Solis/Horvath motion was passed unanimously.
The motion directed the probation department, and its chief, “to create an implementation plan, in collaboration with the Probation Oversight Commission and the Office of Inspector General, to phase out the use of OC spray, within 45 days, at the housing units that incarcerate youth with developmental disabilities and girls and gender expansive (GGE) youth at Central Juvenile Hall.”
The motion also triggers the institution at Central Juvenile Hall of a smart idea that will provide aid to both kids and staff members, as the department moves toward full elimination of the use of OC Spray in both youth halls.
This smart idea is called the widely praised Credible Messenger Program, which was already slated to be introduced to a group of probation youth in pilot form.
(Basically the Credible Messenger Program connects incarcerated kids with mentors, many of whom have had their own experiences with being locked up.)
There’s still more to the motion, which also addresses the complete phase out of OC Spray in the county’s youth facilities. But these are the broad strokes.
So will it accomplish its goals? Let us hope so.
“These are vulnerable youth who should be on a path to healing, but instead are further traumatized by these actions,” said Supervisor Solis of her feelings about the issue. “It is inhumane that youth with developmental disabilities, girls, and gender-expansive adolescents are being met with OC spray. This must end, and it must end now.”
Supervisor Horvath was also emphatic. “This motion underscores the importance of ending the use of pepper spray in our juvenile halls quickly,” she said, “and authorizes contracting with an exemplary alternative, non-punitive program to help the Probation Department make this change without putting staff and youth in harm’s way.”
We’ll let you know how it goes.
PS: In case you missed it earlier, here’s the link to the POC report.
PPS: We misspelled the name of Chief Gonzales in several references above. The errors have since been corrected, thanks to smart readers who also acted as unpaid proofreaders. Our sincerest apologies, and also many thanks to those who flagged the spelling mistakes.