Advertisement

Video of probation officer forcibly bending teen sparks outrage, allegations of excessive force

VIDEO | 02:40
L.A. County probation officer is accused of using excessive force against teen in 2020 video
Share

Beckham just wanted something to eat.

It was a Friday afternoon at Camp Kilpatrick — the Malibu juvenile facility where the 17-year-old had spent the previous five months — and his search for food led him to a common area. But all he found was a carton of milk.

This wasn’t the first time he’d been left hungry while in the custody of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, Beckham said. But it would soon become the most memorable.

Beckham said he confronted staff, grew frustrated and threw the milk carton. An argument erupted between the boy and several officers.

Within minutes, Beckham found himself trapped under the weight of five people, screaming in pain.

Advertisement

Video footage of the October 2020 incident, recently obtained by The Times, shows four officers grabbing the boy’s limbs, forcing him onto a bed by his neck and placing a knee in his back. Beckham’s body twitches as he is restrained.

Roughly one minute into the conflict, with Beckham appearing subdued by the other officers, supervisor Oscar Cross takes hold of the 120-pound teen’s legs and begins to bend his feet toward his head.

“Mamá, mamá,” Beckham screams.

Several officers who reviewed the footage described the incident as “child abuse.” Less than a year after the episode, a Probation Department “roundtable” determined that Cross should be fired, according to an email sent in 2021.

But Cross remains a supervisor in the facility after Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzales spared him from termination, according to department records reviewed by The Times and a statement from the agency.

Gonzales declined to share the video with oversight agencies that monitor the troubled Probation Department. Nor did he provide it to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for review, despite being urged to do so by other county officials, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation.

The Times obtained the footage from probation officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from Gonzales. Beckham agreed to an interview on the condition that only his first name be used, since he was a juvenile at the time of the incident.

Advertisement

Attempts to contact Cross were unsuccessful. In a statement, the Probation Department said Gonzales “made the decision to impose progressive discipline” rather than fire Cross. His decision, the department said, was based on “a review of the evidence, consideration of the officer’s service record and input from SEIU local 721” — the union that represents Probation Department supervisors.

“The case was handled according to the normal procedures for use of force incidents, a process in which the Chief is ultimately responsible for determining discipline,” the statement read.

Criminal justice experts who reviewed the footage said they were horrified.

“It was an unjustified use of force being used against a child, and there was no apparent risk to anyone that needed to be stopped in its tracks,” said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. “It was just very clearly excessive use of physical force on the part of the staff and a real lack of concern on the part of the staff who are observing the situation.”

The president of the association that represents probation department supervisors within SEIU local 721 declined to comment on the specifics of the incident but, in a statement, lashed out at county officials for failing to provide the understaffed Probation Department with resources for conflict resolution.

Jim Schoengarth, president of the supervisor’s association, said his members “are working in increasingly dangerous environments with little support from the [L.A. County] Board of Supervisors, which has failed to provide the policies, training and tools to keep officers safe in the face of 100+ youth-on-youth assaults each month.”

The videotaped incident is the latest controversy for the Probation Department.

A state oversight board in recent years has repeatedly deemed the department unsuitable to care for youth, and a Times investigation found that incidents of violence between officers and youth increased dramatically last year. The surge came as the agency deals with a continued staffing crisis.

Additionally, the L.A. County Office of the Inspector General found that the department carried out a rushed transfer of youth between facilities last year that led to fights and injuries — solely to avoid a negative review from an oversight agency.

But the Cross incident long predates the staffing shortage or the surge in assaults that Schoengarth referenced in his statement. At the time of the episode involving Cross and Beckham, the average number of juveniles in the custody of the Probation Department was significantly lower than usual, as youths were being released at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advertisement

The number of incidents of violence among youths at that time was nowhere near the 100 per month Schoengarth cites, records show.

After The Times began asking about the video that ended with Beckham screaming, L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman said he launched an investigation “into the decision making and actions of the probation department” in relation to the 2020 incident, including the way the chief meted out discipline to Cross.

Watching the footage for the first time, Beckham’s aunt, who declined to be named, said it looked like the officers were trying to suffocate her nephew.

“To try and calm a child like that isn’t going to work; it’s only going to make it worse,” she said. “And then to grab his feet like that, to treat him like that — they don’t even treat animals like that in this country.”

Sitting in his family’s home last month, Beckham watched the video for the first time. He was quiet as he saw himself struggle against the weight of the officers. By the time the clip finished, he was incensed.

“That makes me mad,” he said, his hand in a fist. “I don’t like what they do, but when you’re in there, they’re in charge. … It’s very ugly, isn’t it?”

Beckham, now 19, remembers fearing his leg would break.

When I’m screaming, it’s because I couldn’t breathe,” he said.

A staffing crisis in L.A. County’s juvenile halls has led to surges in fights, attacks on officers and the use of chemical spray against children. Teens are held in isolation and denied visits with family.

Nov. 28, 2022

Advertisement

After the incident, Beckham said, he was sent to a nurse who gave him medicine to calm him down. Records show he was not treated for serious injuries. He wanted to report the incident but changed his mind after his probation officer warned that he could be sent to a county juvenile hall. Knowing that the halls are more like jails than Kilpatrick — which the department describes as embodying a “culture of care rather than a culture of control” — Beckham chose to stay quiet, he said.

The teen had been arrested on suspicion of sexual battery prior to his stay at Kilpatrick, according to a law enforcement source with knowledge of the situation.

Tiffiny Blacknell, chief spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said she could not comment on charges against a minor, as such information is not in the public record. The Probation Department did not respond to questions about Beckham’s incarceration.

Beckham’s family members say they are unsure how his case was resolved. But he spent nine months in Kilpatrick; juveniles placed into the camp system, as opposed to one of the county’s two juvenile halls, have either been convicted of a crime or agreed to a plea deal, probation officials said. Minors awaiting trial on charges would be housed in either the Barry J. Nidorf or Central juvenile halls.

Blacknell said the office did not receive any information about Cross’ use of force from the Probation Department.

According to a copy of a “physical intervention report” reviewed by The Times, Cross said Beckham was “kicking his legs and violently out of control.” Cross said the teen pulled on his arm, initiating the conflict.

The video does not reflect Beckham kicking violently and shows Cross reaching for the teen first. When Beckham grabs Cross’ wrist in response, the supervisor shoves the boy into a wall.

Advertisement

Inside the Probation Department, Cross’ conduct became a point of concern, according to officials with knowledge of the situation. A high-ranking probation source said one department director described Cross’ conduct as a “problem” in a 2021 phone call to discuss the incident. An official with the L.A. County Counsel’s office suggested that criminal charges be filed during a meeting to discuss discipline against Cross, the source said.

A spokesperson for County Counsel referred all questions to the Probation Department.

In July 2021, Gonzales requested the results of an internal disciplinary “roundtable” on several use-of-force incidents, including the one involving Cross, according to department emails reviewed by The Times.

“Can someone please brief me on the disciplinary recommendations? I want to be involved in the final decision,” the chief wrote.

In response, another probation official told Gonzales that the roundtable had decided that two officers involved in the incident should face suspension, and a third should receive a letter of reprimand. The roundtable unanimously voted to fire Cross, according to the email.

Gonzales overrode the recommendation on Cross. It was not clear if he altered the outcomes for other officers involved in the incident with Beckham.

Roundtables typically comprise high-level probation personnel who make disciplinary recommendations, according to a law enforcement source. Representatives from the Office of the Inspector General, L.A. County Counsel and the Probation Department’s internal affairs unit may also be present, the source said. But in its statement, the Probation Department said the chief has final say on all disciplinary decisions.

Cross’ continued employment does not sit well with a number of veteran probation officers.

Advertisement

“It broke my heart seeing it. I’ve seen kids go through pain, but I’ve never in my career, in 20 years, seen a kid scream the way this kid screamed. It almost made me cry,” said one veteran officer who reviewed the footage. “Once [Cross] stepped in, everything went wrong. It was beyond excessive force. This was child abuse.”

The case highlights broader concerns about the way the Probation Department handles reports of abuse and violence in its juvenile facilities. The Office of the Inspector General in December raised concerns that the department was withholding details of controversial incidents from oversight agencies. The issues arose in a report about the department’s compliance with a California Department of Justice settlement stemming from prior allegations of violence in the facilities and improper use of force by officers.

“There appears to be a pattern of reluctance to engage with oversight in an attempt to avoid negative findings,” the report read, referencing a November 2022 incident in which several youth got into a fight, and one wielded a metal pipe. The department did not report that brawl to any oversight agency.

The report also referenced an incident — first reported by The Times in November — in which a youth alleged he was choked and beaten while being forced into his room by eight officers. According to the OIG report, the Probation Department’s internal affairs unit refused to investigate the youth’s claims of unnecessary force.

“[Internal Affairs] rejected this because ‘the youth was able to state he couldn’t breathe, this meant his airway was not constricted and that any claim by the youth that he was strangled would be contradicted by staff members,’” the report read. “It is unconscionable that presumptions such as these were made without conducting an investigation.”

Milinda Kakani, a member of the L.A. County Probation Oversight Committee and director of youth justice policy at the Children’s Defense Fund, said she was concerned by the use of force seen in the video and the fact that Cross was allowed to keep his job.

Advertisement

“That was really hard to watch,” she said. “Hearing that young person — it sounded like begging, those sounds of desperation — I cannot shake that.”

No one in Beckham’s family was aware of the incident before being contacted by The Times. The boy said he never told anyone.

When informed that Cross was still working at the camp, with power over teens, his aunt said she felt powerless.

“That person is an animal. He doesn’t know how to treat people right, and whatever child that goes to [Camp Kilpatrick] is in danger,” she said. “If he hasn’t killed a child yet, it’s because God is watching over those children.”

Advertisement