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Juvenile hall fight videos raise question: Can L.A. County probation reports be trusted?

VIDEO | 05:06
Video shows staff allowing assault by youths at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall

Footage obtained by the L.A. Times shows a December 2023 incident in which staffers can be seen allowing at least six youths to hit and kick a 17-year-old.

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The report from L.A. County probation officer Tanesha Brooks described a series of fights during breakfast inside Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall last December. One teenager, she wrote, got into eight separate altercations in just seven minutes.

But key details were missing from the document. Brooks’ report said nothing about injuries, the presence of other officers, or how one youth could get into so many fights in such a short time span.

Video footage, published last month by The Times, revealed some of what Brooks failed to mention.

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The 17-year-old, who suffered a broken nose, defended himself as one attacker after another assaulted him with punches and kicks. Six other officers stood by while Brooks appeared to be checking her watch, as if timing how long each round of violence would be allowed to last. A seventh officer could be seen smiling and shaking hands with one of the aggressors.

The case is one of several publicized in recent years where a probation officer’s written description differed greatly from a recording of the scene, leaving defense attorneys, oversight personnel and even some prosecutors questioning if they can trust reports coming from inside the county’s beleaguered juvenile halls.

The reports can influence whether juveniles remain incarcerated and at what security level. They often go unchallenged in court unless an attorney seeks video footage, said Milinda Kakani, a member of the probation oversight committee. Without hard evidence to contradict the officers, she said, the D.A., judges, other officials tend to take them at their word.

“How many reports did these officers write?” Kakani asked. “How many times did we just accept?”

Video obtained by The Times shows L.A. County probation officers standing by as a group of at least six teens beat another youth in Los Padrinos juvenile hall.

April 12, 2024

Several probation supervisors said during an April court hearing that they don’t question officers or review footage before submitting their notes into court filings.

“I’m not looking for truth,” said Officer Jerrod Montgomery, a supervisor who reviewed Brooks’ case notes.

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Probation Department Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa declined to be interviewed for this story.

Asked how the probation department vets its officers reports, a spokesperson pointed to a 2013 “honesty directive” that requires reports contain “truthful, accurate, and complete” information. A juvenile’s chart must also contain accurate information about their “attitude and behavior during detention,” according to a recent policy update. The agency did not address questions about inaccurate or misleading reports filed by Brooks and other officers.

Brooks did not immediately respond to a request for comment through her union.

The probation department submits several different kinds of reports to juvenile courts, and judges weigh them when deciding the length of a teen’s sentence, if a youth should be tried as an adult or if they should be placed in a high-security facility.

“At a transfer hearing where the central question is whether or not a minor can be rehabilitated, the reports are extremely important,” said defense attorney Jerod Gunsberg. “That becomes the record of how they’re doing in the hall and the prosecution can certainly use anything negative.”

Similar to the Los Padrinos case, Gunsberg said, he’s had clients who were written up for fighting but later shown in video footage to have acted in self-defense.

For the record:

10:51 a.m. June 6, 2024This story misspells the name of Local 685’s president. His name is Stacy Ford.

Stacy Ford, president of Local 685, which represents rank-and-file probation officers, issued a statement this week pushing back on testimony in the Los Padrinos case, claiming supervisors are supposed to review officer reports before they are submitted in court.

“It is the responsibility of Supervisors and Directors to review such reports for accuracy, including directly interviewing minors and reviewing video that is only available for review by the supervisors and/or directors, ” his statement read.

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An L.A. County probation officer was arrested late last week after an investigation revealed she allegedly engaged in a sexual relationship with a minor, authorities said.

March 11, 2024

Sherrie Albin, the deputy public defender who represented the teen in the Los Padrinos video, said it would be impossible to subpoena footage to challenge every report. Juveniles in custody are also often hesitant to report mistreatment or inaccuracies, fearing they will be labeled a snitch or face retaliation from officers, she said.

Albin said she pursued the recent video after seeing a January Times report on officers allowing a youth to be beaten inside the Downey facility.

She said of her young clients: “A lot of them are like, ‘I don’t want to make a big deal about this,’ and we have to make sure they’re comfortable sharing things with us.”

The teen from Brooks’ report has since struck a plea deal for the attempted murder charge that landed him in Los Padrinos, Albin said. His family has filed a notice of claim against the probation department, which alleges officers “organized and encouraged” the fights that were captured on video. The California Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation.

Discrepancies between what probation officers allege in reports and what videos show have been laid bare in multiple use-of-force incidents.

In October 2020, department supervisor Oscar Cross submitted a one-paragraph physical intervention report about an incident in Malibu’s Camp Kilpatrick where he described “gaining control” of a teenager’s legs as he kicked at officers after a dispute.

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More than two years later, video showed the scrawny teen calling out for his mother as five officers piled onto him. Cross could be seen bending the boy’s legs over his head, nearly folding him in half. The footage was never shared with prosecutors or the oversight committee, but the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Cross with assault last year, after The Times published footage of the incident.

In July 2022, an L.A. County inspector general report found that officers breaking up a fight in Central Juvenile Hall fired an unnecessary burst of pepper spray into a youth’s face. One officer’s report said the youth was resisting and being violent, but video showed him “turning away from the officer without clenching his fists” when he was sprayed, according to the watchdog’s findings.

Los Padrinos, the county’s newest juvenile hall, is at risk of being shut down by state regulators after they found the Probation Department failed to comply with state regulations.

Feb. 8, 2024

Another inspector general’s report from 2023 said an officer fraudulently claimed two teens attacked him, leading him to deploy chemical spray. Video showed that not only was that description inaccurate, but the officer had failed to document the use of spray on a third youth, according to the report.

Samuel Leonard, the head deputy public defender overseeing juvenile cases in a number of L.A. County courthouses, said the department has yet to disclose the names of six of the officers involved in the Los Padrinos incident.

Leonard said he’s concerned over the continued use of officer notes against youths in court when there is no video corroboration.

“The probation officers know where there are cameras and where there are not, so many of these things happen where there are not cameras, intentionally,” he said.

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Larry Droeger, who oversees juvenile cases as director of specialized prosecutions for the district attorney’s office, said while the Los Padrinos and Cross incidents raised concerns about the accuracy of probation reports, such documents are considered “hearsay” and would never be the sole basis for a criminal filing.

“It’s an issue across the criminal justice system. The credibility of witnesses is subject to the frailties of [them] potentially not telling us the truth,” he said. “So the adversarial system itself is supposed to ferret that out.”

Droeger said the district attorney’s office places probation officers found to be dishonest on an internal list of witnesses with credibility issues. The D.A.’s office rejected a public records request for data showing how many probation officers are on that list.

The probation department announced it has suspended 66 officers for misconduct in the juvenile halls this year — including the eight involved in the Los Padrinos incident — but did not say if any of those officers face accusations of dishonesty.

Five months after Bryan Diaz fatally overdosed in his L.A. juvenile hall cell, his mother says she’s still waiting for answers as to how the 18-year-old could access fentanyl inside the facility.

Oct. 13, 2023

Leonard, the public defender, has accused probation officers of trying to intimidate youths who might speak out.

Earlier this month, Leonard said, officers approached a youth outside the presence of their attorney at Barry J. Nidorf Hall in Sylmar and asked them to sign an affidavit confirming the accuracy of a report. A probation department spokesperson said the matter is under investigation.

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“It’s circle the wagons and protection of the status quo rather than do something proactive to improve the situation and protect the children,” Leonard said.

Times staff writer Rebecca Ellis contributed to this report.

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