Violence at times erupts with little warning inside Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention halls and camps. That’s what happened one February night two years ago as Edgar Arrondo — then a senior guard at a sprawling facility in Sylmar — walked a teenage detainee to a mental health evaluation.
A rival gang member charged at the teen, ignoring Arrondo’s verbal warnings. The youths collided. A fight ensued.
Without backup, Arrondo tried to break it up — without using pepper spray — because one juvenile might have been taking psychotropic medicine. He absorbed heavy punches. When a third youth joined the fracas, Arrondo’s head got slammed into a wall and then the floor, landing him in the emergency room with a concussion.
He ultimately retired early from Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.
“I loved going to work and working with the kids,” said Arrondo, who started with the county’s Probation Department in 1990. “But no job is worth me losing the ability to work — and being so injured.”
Such reports have become increasingly common among the roughly 1,800 detention officers working inside the nation’s largest juvenile probation operation. As use of pepper spray has spiked in recent years, prompting recent calls for reform, so too have youth-on-staff assaults, newly released records show.
Overall, the rate of assaults on guards more than doubled between 2015 and 2018, though slowed slightly in the past year, according to an analysis of data released by the Probation Department under the California Public Records Act. At both halls and camps, the assault rate per 100 juveniles rose by more than 120%.
The findings validate concerns frequently raised by detention officers and their union leaders, who say tense and violent situations with juveniles have become more common — one of the drivers, they say, of the rise in pepper-spray use that has prompted scrutiny from county leaders.
The increase in assaults on staff, which Probation Department officials haven’t acknowledged publicly with statistics until now, occurred across numerous detention facilities that hold roughly 900 youths facing court proceedings or serving time after sentencing.
This spike occurred even as the average population of detained youths declined significantly during that time — and as the number of detention officers remained relatively constant, records show.
The trend was driven by a large increase inside juvenile halls, the pre-adjudication facilities that house youths who have been recently arrested. The county’s three densely populated facilities resemble jails and can be volatile places, where rival gang members at times encounter one another in tight quarters.
Between 2015 and 2018, the raw number of assaults on officers in juvenile halls jumped from 98 to 296. Taking into account the declining population of detainees, that translates into a rate increase of 254%.
The rate of assaults inside the department’s longer-term housing units, known as juvenile camps, climbed 59% from 2015 to 2018, according to county records. The eight camps, which house youths serving three- to nine-month sentences, have more of a barracks-style setting with programming for education, treatment and rehabilitation.
The reason for the uptick in violence against detention officers isn’t immediately clear. But the trend corresponds with a similar spike in incidents in which guards have doused youths with pepper spray, which is supposed to be a last-resort solution to halt trouble.
Last week,the Board of Supervisors voted to phase in a ban of pepper spray, prompting public comments by several officers about the conditions inside the facilities, where access by outsiders is strictly controlled. The officers said they needed the spray — which advocacy groups say is inhumane for subduing unruly juvenile detainees.
“Over the past three years, I’ve noticed an increase in violence,” said Ricardo Garcia, a detention service officer with the county for a decade. “I’ve been assaulted six times in the last two years, including a few in the last four months. Two weeks ago, I actually got bit in the ear by one of our youth.”
The officers’ testimony was intended to convince the board that the department needed pepper spray to keep the facilities safe.
“We’re overwhelmed,” said Thomas Holland, another detention officer. “We need help, and pepper spray needs to stay.”
The pleas didn’t work.
After hearing from youth justice groups, the board asked Probation Department officials to craft a plan to phase out the spray — as numerous other states have done — by the end of the year, and to develop ideas for new disciplinary solutions.
A recent report by the county’s Office of Inspector General found that some officers have relied too heavily on the spray in recent years, using it as a primary option to restore order. The report also said that detainees who were sprayed weren’t allowed to properly or immediately decontaminate their eyes and skin, exacerbating their discomfort.
Use of the spray, as well as taunts and threats from guards, has contributed to an increase in tensions between officers and youths in county detention facilities, the report said.
Sheila Mitchell, the chief deputy probation officer who oversees the department’s juvenile division, said the department is writing a plan to stop relying on the spray with, she pledged, input from worried officers.
“In order to phase it out completely, we have to be very strategic in our approach,” she said. “It’s about training. It’s about having the staffing that we need.”
Mitchell noted that youth-on-staff assaults at halls and camps declined more than 9% from 2017 to 2018. Department officials also noted that most of those incidents didn’t result in injury, and some involved inadvertent contact with staff during fights between detainees.
But to explain the uptick in violence in general, Mitchell said the department’s efforts to divert more youths from detention facilities to supervision in outside residential settings has left a greater concentration of detainees with “complex” challenges, including a history of trauma and involvement in the child welfare system.
Comprehensive statistics about the demographics and criminal histories of the hundreds youths inside the county facilities aren’t readily available. But a 2015 study by USC and Cal State Los Angeles said that about a third of the detainees had been arrested for a “violent” crime — and many have had previous arrests.
Serious incidents involving guards and youths typically prompt an official report detailing the event. Such records, which can be placed in a detainee’s file, generally are confidential. But The Times obtained one such report, detailing an incident on the evening of Feb. 14 at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.
A minor who had refused to take his medication grabbed a chair. After the youth ignored a warning, the officer moved to spray him, leading to a struggle over the canister, which fell to the ground, according to the report, which the department declined to discuss.
In a separate report, another officer wrote that the youth choked the officer who had tried to use the spray. The incident ultimately involved the officers using physical force before tensions cooled.
“I provided my hand to [the juvenile] and helped him stand up. I informed [the juvenile] that everything was going to be OK and to remain calm,” a guard wrote. “No pepper spray was deployed. No handcuffs were applied.”
The detainee received medical treatment, but his condition was unclear. The report also doesn’t state whether the youth faced consequences for placing his hands on the officer’s neck, as alleged in the report.
The incident is similar to the one that led to the early end to Arrondo’s career.
The retired guard said the youth’s alleged defiance of authority on that night, as described in the incident report, exemplifies one of the biggest challenges faced by detention officers. That is especially true, he said, since the Board of Supervisors ended the ability to put unruly juveniles in “solitary confinement” three years ago.
“The minors would tell you, ‘There’s nothing you can do to me,’” Arrondo said. “They knew that there weren’t any negative repercussions for their behavior.”