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‘Unreliable’ data threatening reforms at L.A. County’s juvenile detention centers

‘Unreliable’ data threatening reforms at L.A. County’s juvenile detention centers
The exterior of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The recent controversy over a spike in pepper spray use at Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention facilities has sent officials scrambling to compile and release a cache of internal use-of-force data to satisfy calls for transparency.

That finally happened last week. The nation’s largest juvenile detention operation posted to its website new statistical information that offers a clearer public picture of the treatment and demographic makeup of the roughly 800 youths in its facilities — and county officials held a public hearing Saturday afternoon in Carson to discuss the information.

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But some observers wonder: Can the county Probation Department’s data be trusted?

A report released this month by the county’s Office of Inspector General raises fundamental questions about the department’s record-keeping tools and practices.

That has prompted questions by the Board of Supervisors and other outside observers about efforts to transform the troubled department’s policies on numerous issues, including the type of force used on unruly juveniles and frequency of violence against detention officers and other staff.

“Any conclusions that can be reached are only as reliable as the data itself,” the county’s interim inspector general, Rod Castro-Silva, told an audience of local juvenile justice employees and observers Saturday.

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Do you work for a juvenile detention facility? Has your child been incarcerated at one? Please share your story. Contact reporter Matt Stiles at matt.stiles@latimes.com, 213-237-2307 or via direct message on Twitter (@stiles). You can also send documents, confidential pictures and messages privately using the Signal smartphone application. Stiles’ number is 202-670-8742.

The report and its recommendations are the latest development in a months-long spurt of controversy prompted by a surge in the use of oleoresin capsicum, commonly known as pepper spray, on detainees by officers. The Board of Supervisors decided last month to ban its use in juvenile detention facilities by the end of the year.

Although originally commissioned to be an update for the supervisors on the use of pepper spray, the report instead focuses considerably on how the Probation Department’s staff collects, maintains and assesses information about what happens in its juvenile halls and camps.

Noting inaccurate or incomplete reporting, and a system hampered by both process and technology, the report summarizes the concerns in one passage: “As a result, the data may be unreliable.”

That assessment has overshadowed some relatively positive news for the department. According to the use-of-force data released last week, there has been a statistical leveling off of incidents in which detention officers use pepper spray to maintain control of youths.

After cases more than doubled from 2015 to 2017, pepper spray use declined by 15% last year, according to the data the department released last week. Though when accounting for the declining population of juvenile detainees, the rate of pepper spray use statistically remained about the same from 2017 to 2018, the records show.

In response to the increase in pepper spray use, the Board of Supervisors voted for the phased elimination of the spray after 2019. Probation officials are, in the meantime, studying methods to eliminate the tool without threatening the safety of detention officers or the juveniles.

One of the first department changes since the ban was to make annual data about the use of force by officers available online.

In a letter last week, a group of juvenile justice reform groups — including the ACLU of Southern California, the Children’s Defense Fund and the Youth Justice Coalition — urged county officials to make weekly spray statistics available for the rest of the year so the public can track its use as the ban deadline approaches.

Leveling force

Pepper spray incidents per 100 juveniles

Location 2017 2018 Change
Location Juvenile halls 201776 201891 Change20%
Location Juvenile camps 201757 201830 Change-48%
Location All facilities 201768 201868 Change1%

Source: Los Angeles County Probation Department

Plenty of department observers remain skeptical, though.

“Even something as basic as looking at trends can be a challenge,” said Cyn Yamashiro, a lawyer and juvenile justice expert appointed to the county’s Probation Reform and Implementation Team, a committee studying ways to improve civilian oversight of the department. “They know there are underlying flaws in the reporting process itself.”

The team took testimony from the public about improving safety for juveniles and their detention officers.

The questions about the department’s data also follow a report in The Times in late February that highlighted violence by youths against detention staff. Citing department data released the same month under the California Public Records Act, the story reported an increase in assaults on staff during the last four years, in part validating complaints about tense working conditions prompting a rise of pepper spray use.

But in a letter to the Board of Supervisors in late February, Castro-Silva cast doubt about the reliability of that data.

He argues that detention staff who reported assaults received insufficient guidance on how to define and report the cases uniformly, leading to discrepancies from facility to facility. The investigators also found purported assaults in which the staff’s written narratives didn’t match video footage.

The Probation Department has said it believes the data on youth-on-officer assaults were accurately tabulated from its records.

Still, the department’s top officials have pledged to improve. Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald told the supervisors in February that some of her employees “really struggle” with data — and she welcomed outside help.

“I think we have a lot to do as a county family looking at data. And we’ve been working on it,” she said. “But it’s one in which I really think we would benefit from somebody working with us and looking independently.”

The inspector general’s report praised the department’s efforts to be more transparent. Still, the uncertainty about the department’s information makes tackling its problems more difficult, some supervisors say.

“This is unacceptable,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has spearheaded the scrutiny of pepper spray use. “We need credible baseline data to track the progress of reform."

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